Spring has arrived, at last, and I am witnessing the shift of season in the southern French Alps. As the snow has melted, I have gone for a few hikes in this changing landscape. But finding the right words to capture the essence of spring is difficult, partly because it is such a sensory experience. I have been reminded of my teenage self walking up Helvellyn in the mid-80s, desperate to write a poem about the feeling of ascent, achievement, and the power of nature. I kept trying but all I could conjure was raw emotion, abstract nouns which held no consistent meaning even for me at the time.
So on these walks, I have found myself turning instead to those writers who have articulated a truth about my understanding of spring. The line ‘Where are the songs of Spring, ay where are they?’ from Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn’ kept echoing in my mind on Friday as an accompaniment to the excited sounds of alpine birds waking up from a winter whiteness. Although this is clearly not a poem explicitly about spring, it is about an acceptance of human mortality and a celebration of the return of new life, even if it is not our own. Autumn comes, winter comes, but so too does spring. I have found it an enormously comforting poem to read when things seem bleak, a reminder of our own place in the world set against the world of nature.
And then Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ came to me. What is peculiar when walking at altitude at this time of year is that one moment you are amongst a bank of bright yellow crocuses and the next you are carefully stepping through deep snow, marked only by the prints of deer. The giant finds that his garden can also host both winter and spring at once, and that it is only by finally accepting that love brings pain as well as promise, that winter recedes. Spring comes, but at a cost. It is a sentimental story, as all his fairy tales are, but none the less evocative.
Today, I tried to find a more straightforward expression of the joys of spring. And, alas, no joy. In my half hour search of ‘spring poems’, I found not a single good poem which gave me an uncomplicated celebration; nearly all urge us to enjoy the moment while it lasts, or as Gerald Manley Hopkins says, ‘Have, get, before it cloy,/Before it cloud’.
So, I offer these two. One by Philip Larkin, who is never ever going to be uncomplicated or cheerful; and the other by Billy Collins, who despite suggesting we seize the day in a single lungful of breath, does offer us a hammer as part of our means of doing so. I also offer these four pictures, all of which were taken within the last 10 days.
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
and unlatch the door to the canary's cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,
a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies
seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking
a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,
releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage
so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting
into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.