Spring Thoughts From Home

By Becky O’Malley
Wednesday February 25, 2009 - 07:54:00 PM

In the springtime the thoughts of the average aging English major are apt to turn to the poetry studied in youth. Often, this is poetry read in high school, not college, because it was the pleasure of reading in high school, where we had plenty of time to ponder, that deluded many of us into thinking that four more years of literature would be the best way to spend our ever more precious time. A great deal of the poetry about spring is actually about death, ever a popular topic for adolescents. 

Even though I’ve lived in California for most of my adult life, every year it seems odd to me that spring actually comes in February. Except for 13 years in St. Louis and 12 in Ann Arbor, I’ve usually seen the flowers that bloom in the spring (tra-la) in what the poetry universe thinks of as the dead of winter. So now come our daffodils, here today, gone tomorrow, as Robert Herrick noticed way back in 17th century England: 


Fair daffodils, we weep to see 

You haste away so soon; 

As yet the early-rising sun 

Has not attained his noon. 

Stay, stay, 

Until the hasting day 

Has run 

But to the evensong; 

And, having prayed together, we 

Will go with you along. 


We have short time to stay, as you, 

We have as short a spring; 

As quick a growth to meet decay, 

As you, or anything. 

We die 

As your hours do, and dry 


Like to the summer’s rain; 

Or as the pearls of morning’s dew, 

Ne’er to be found again. 


Sobering, right, when you think about it? Particularly in light of yesterday’s news, covered elsewhere in a more serious vein, that the poor old San Francisco Chronicle, already withered to a mere shadow of its former robust and rowdy daffodil self, is threatening to finally expire. There’s just a wee temptation to indulge in schadenfreude, which should be resisted, because really, who wants to live in or near a city without a big newspaper? (Aside to Berkeley’s amateur copy-sharks: nouns borrowed from German should not be capitalized when used in English.) 

Coupled irresistibly in my teenage memory bank with Herrick’s Daffodils is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Spring, though her New England April is the California March: 


To what purpose, April, do you return again? 

Beauty is not enough. 

You can no longer quiet me with the redness 

Of little leaves opening stickily. 

I know what I know. 

The sun is hot on my neck as I observe 

The spikes of the crocus. 

The smell of the earth is good. 

It is apparent that there is no death. 

But what does that signify? 

Not only under ground are the brains of men 

Eaten by maggots. 

Life in itself 

Is nothing, 

An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs. 

It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, 


Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers. 


I once saw those last three lines chalked on the sidewalk next to People’s Park, at a time when I myself was firmly situated in stodgy middle age, and it was somehow reassuring to know that undergraduates at least were still pondering the meaning of life. It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it.  

And finally, there’s the French connection. (I ended up majoring in comparative literature because I found Cal’s English department annoyingly pretentious). It’s spring, it rains (if we’re lucky) and along with the daffodils I remember the Verlaine poem I memorized in my high school French class: 


Il pleure dans mon coeur 

Comme il pleut sur la ville. 

Quelle est cette langueur 

Qui pénètre mon coeur? 


That’s to say, “it’s raining in my heart like it’s raining on the city. What’s this langor that penetrates my heart?” And there’s more in the same vein. It’s been set to music by both Debussy and Fauré, because it’s sure to resonate with anyone who has the least attraction to—what? sloppy sentimentality? No, not that bad. 

Most of the above is mostly about Love with a capital L, and/or the loss thereof. Love’s the center of the adolescent universe, Topic A, more important even than sex, which is related but different. How surprising it must be for some, then, later in life, to observe and even experience their worlds collapsing because of what’s happening with banks and the stock market! 

My own childhood reading prepared me for today’s landscape of disaster. I inherited a good number of beautifully printed and illustrated children’s books from the late 19th century, in which a major theme was that “Father” had experienced “reverses” so that the family was forced to find ingenious ways of coping with sudden poverty. Financial panics were a frequent experience of the time, right up through the period lumped together as the Great Depression, which encompassed a succession of collapse events. Regulations were supposed to have put an end to such panics, but presidents from Reagan through Clinton presided over the gradual unravelling of those rules, and now we’re engulfed in failures again.  

Which brings us back round to daffodils. Or at least to spring flowers. Herrick wrote another famous poem in the carpe diem vein:  


Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, 

Old Time is still a-flying; 

And this same flower that smiles today, 

To-morrow will be dying. 


It’s true not only of daffodils and rosebuds, but even of newspapers and banks and brokerage firms.  

But the happy ending which you might not glean from simply reading Herrick’s early poems is that the poet himself didn’t perish in his youth like a daffodil, but survived in good cheer for 83 years, his life much more than an empty cup. The good news is that there will probably be roses and daffodils again next spring (if perhaps a bit earlier because of climate change), and we might as well enjoy them, now and then.