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An essay by John Burroughs

Spring Poems

Title:     Spring Poems
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]

There is no month oftener on the tongues of the poets than April. It is the initiative month; it opens the door of the seasons; the interest and expectations of the untried, the untasted, lurk in it,

"From you have I been absent in the spring,"

says Shakespeare in one of his sonnets,--

"When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him."

The following poem, from Tennyson's "In Memoriam," might be headed "April," and serve as descriptive of parts of our season:--

"Now fades the last long streak of snow,
Now bourgeons every maze of quick
About the flowering squares, and thick
By ashen roots the violets blow.

"Now rings the woodland loud and long,
The distance takes a lovelier hue,
And drowned in yonder living blue
The lark becomes a sightless song.

"Now dance the lights on lawn and lea,
The flocks are whiter down the vale,
And milkier every milky sail
On winding stream or distant sea;

"Where now the sea-mew pipes, or dives
In yonder greening gleam, and fly
The happy birds, that change their sky
To build and brood; that live their lives

"From land to land; and in my breast
Spring wakens too; and my regret
Becomes an April violet,
And buds and blossoms like the rest."

In the same poem the poet asks:--

"Can trouble live with April days?"

Yet they are not all jubilant chords that this season awakens. Occasionally there is an undertone of vague longing and sadness, akin to that which one experiences in autumn. Hope for a moment assumes the attitude of memory and stands with reverted look. The haze, that in spring as well as in fall sometimes descends and envelops all things, has in it in some way the sentiment of music, of melody, and awakens pensive thoughts. Elizabeth Akers, in her "April," has recognized and fully expressed this feeling. I give the first and last stanzas:--

"The strange, sweet days are here again,
The happy-mournful days;
The songs which trembled on our lips
Are half complaint, half praise.

"Swing, robin, on the budded sprays,
And sing your blithest tune;--
Help us across these homesick days
Into the joy of June!"

This poet has also given a touch of spring in her "March," which, however, should be written "April" in the New England climate:--

"The brown buds thicken on the trees,
Unbound, the free streams sing,
As March leads forth across the leas
The wild and windy spring.

"Where in the fields the melted snow
Leaves hollows warm and wet,
Ere many days will sweetly blow
The first blue violet."

But on the whole the poets have not been eminently successful in depicting spring. The humid season, with its tender, melting blue sky, its fresh, earthy smells, its new furrow, its few simple signs and awakenings here and there, and its strange feeling of unrest,-- how difficult to put its charms into words! None of the so-called pastoral poets have succeeded in doing it. That is the best part of spring which escapes a direct and matter-of-fact description of her. There is more of spring in a line or two of Chaucer and Spenser than in the elaborate portraits of her by Thomson or Pope, because the former had spring in their hearts, and the latter only in their inkhorns. Nearly all Shakespeare's songs are spring songs,--full of the banter, the frolic, and the love-making of the early season. What an unloosed current, too, of joy and fresh new life and appetite in Burns!

In spring everything has such a margin! there are such spaces of silence! The influences are at work underground. Our delight is in a few things. The drying road is enough; a single wild flower, the note of the first bird, the partridge drumming in the April woods, the restless herds, the sheep steering for the uplands, the cow lowing in the highway or hiding her calf in the bushes, the first fires, the smoke going up through the shining atmosphere, from the burning of rubbish in gardens and old fields,--each of these simple things fills the breast with yearning and delight, for they are tokens of the spring. The best spring poems have this singleness and sparseness. Listen to Solomon: "For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land." In Wordsworth are some things that breathe the air of spring. These lines, written in early spring, afford a good specimen:--

"I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind."

"To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

"Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And 't is my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

"The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure."

Or these from another poem, written in his usual study, "Out-of- Doors," and addressed to his sister:--

"It is the first mild day of March,
Each minute sweeter than before;
The redbreast sings from the tall larch
That stands beside the door.

"There is a blessing in the air,
Which seems a sense of joy to yield
To the bare trees, and mountains bare,
And grass in the green field.

. . . . . . . . .

"Love, now a universal birth,
From heart to heart is stealing,
From earth to man, from man to earth;
It is the hour of feeling.

"One moment now may give us more
Than years of toiling reason:
Our minds shall drink at every pore
The spirit of the season."

It is the simplicity of such lines, like the naked branches of the trees or the unclothed fields, and the spring-like depth of feeling and suggestion they hold, that make them so appropriate to this season.

At this season I often find myself repeating these lines of his also:--

"My heart leaps up, when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
So was it, when my life began;
So is it, now I am a man;
So be it, when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!"

Though there are so few good poems especially commemorative of the spring, there have no doubt been spring poets,--poets with such newness and fullness of life, and such quickening power, that the world is re-created, as it were, beneath their touch. Of course this is in a measure so with all real poets. But the difference I would indicate may exist between poets of the same or nearly the same magnitude. Thus, in this light Tennyson is an autumnal poet, mellow and dead-ripe, and was so from the first; while Wordsworth has much more of the spring in him, is nearer the bone of things and to primitive conditions.

Among the old poems, one which seems to me to have much of the charm of springtime upon it is the story of Cupid and Psyche in Apuleius. The songs, gambols, and wooings of the early birds are not more welcome and suggestive. How graceful and airy, and yet what a tender, profound, human significance it contains! But the great vernal poem, doubly so in that it is the expression of the springtime of the race, the boyhood of man as well, is the Iliad of Homer. What faith, what simple wonder, what unconscious strength, what beautiful savagery, what magnanimous enmity,--a very paradise of war!

Though so young a people, there is not much of the feeling of spring in any of our books. The muse of our poets is wise rather than joyous. There is no excess or extravagance or unruliness in her. There are spring sounds and tokens in Emerson's "May-Day:"--

"April cold with dropping rain
Willows and lilacs brings again,
The whistle of returning birds,
And trumpet-lowing of the herds.
The scarlet maple-keys betray
What potent blood hath modest May,
What fiery force the earth renews,
The wealth of forms, the flush of hues;
What joy in rosy waves outpoured
Flows from the heart of Love, the Lord."

But this is not spring in the blood. Among the works of our young and rising poets, I am not certain but that Mr. Gilder's "New Day" is entitled to rank as a spring poem in the sense in which I am speaking. It is full of gayety and daring, and full of the reckless abandon of the male bird when he is winning his mate. It is full also of the tantalizing suggestiveness, the half-lights and shades, of April and May.

Of prose poets who have the charm of the springtime upon them, the best recent example I know of is Bjornson, the Norwegian romancist. What especially makes his books spring-like is their freshness and sweet good faith. There is also a reticence and an unwrought suggestiveness about them that is like the promise of buds and early flowers. Of Turgenieff, the Russian, much the same thing might be said. His stories are simple and elementary, and have none of the elaborate hair-splitting and forced hot-house character of the current English or American novel. They spring from stronger, more healthful and manly conditions, and have a force in them that is like a rising, incoming tide.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Spring Poems