Sunday, April 4, 2010
Poetry in flower
My Plymouth Library friends are reminding everyone that April is poetry month. They’ve got the right month – the poets have put April in the language. One of the few passages I was ever asked to memorize, the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, puts April in the first line: “Whan that Aprill with its shoures soute/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote/ And bathed every veyne in swich licour/ of which vertu engendred is the flour…”
I remember how to say the Middle English, but not how to spell it, so I looked up the spellings. The modern English goes something like: When April with its sweet showers, the drought of March has pierced to the root, and bathed every leaf in the liquid whose goodness makes the flowers…
I also remember our professor calling our attention to Chaucer’s evocation of the “droghte”of March, an ironical notion in view of recent circumstances. But ironical to Chaucer, too. There is no meteorological drought in March, then or now. Chaucer was talking about the spiritual dryness that comes from too much winter – April puts an end to that, on its better days at least.
“So,” Chaucer concludes that first passage, “piketh hem Nature in hir corages/ Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages…”
When nature awakens our hearts, that’s when we go on pilgrimages.
April brings a new season, spring – time for us to go on our pilgrimages.
People change their wardrobe and get outdoors any way possible, walking the dog, shooting hoops, flooding Boston Common. Anne and I spend all Saturday clearing dead leaves and last year’s growth off the back garden, revealing a whole lot of green, some purple vinca flowers, a few hidden bulbs, and the first green shoots of scores of other plants that will unfold their nature over time.
After Chaucer, April shows up all over the map. Eliot famously called it “the cruelest month.” Cummings (“April is a perhaps hand”) and Frost approach the month’s changeability: “You know how it is on an April day/ When the sun is out and the wind is still/ You’re one month on in the middle of May./But if you so much as dare to speak,/ A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,/A wind comes off a frozen peak/, And you’re two months back in the middle of March.”
But in April even raw, rainy spells make us think of flowers. And flowers make us think of the mixed blessings of our own nature.
In the “Immortality Ode,” which is really about reconciling ourselves to mortality, Wordsworth saves his finest bloom for the great nature-loving poem’s last lines:
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears.
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.