The Day – Book Notes: A tapestry of poetry, with threads both dark and light

The first thread, a tribute to Ukraine in its agony. It was in a passion of outrage that John Milton wrote his sonnet about the massacre of Protestants by Catholics in Piedmont on April 24, 1655. Oliver Cromwell was so moved by the power of Milton’s language that he made a diplomatic protest as well as raising a large sum to aid the survivors. Here is the opening with its many unstoppable, run-on lines:

‘Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones

Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;

Even those who kept Thy truth so pure of old

When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones

Forget not: in thy book record their groans

Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold

Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled

Mother and infant down the rocks. Their moans

The vales redoubled to the hills, and they

To Heaven. ”

But there are other, lighter, threads to weave for April, Poetry Month, the month of Chaucer, ever April’s poet, and the birthday of Shakespeare and George Herbert.

Threads of Love – Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98

Shakespeare sets out the whole springtime story in the first line – the beloved, the lover, the you and the I, and the absence. April has ‘put the spirit of youth in everything’ – even melancholy Saturn. And, as only Shakespeare can, the beloved, ‘you the pattern of all those,’ is given a painterly brilliance by the focus on the flowers’ color – ‘the lily’s white,’ ‘the deep vermilion in the rose.’

‘From you have I been absent in the spring,

When proud-pied April (dressed in all his trim)

Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,

That heavy Saturn laughed and leapt with him.

Yet, nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell

Of different flowers in odor and in hue,

Could make me any summer’s story tell,

Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.

Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,

Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;

They were but sweet, but figures of delight

Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.

Yet it seemed winter still, and, you away,

As with your shadow, I with these did play ‘.

Threads of Flowers

This time Perdita’s speech from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” recalling the sad fate of Proserpina (Ovid tells the story in Bk. V of “The Metamorphoses”).

‘O Proserpina,

For the flowers now, that frightened thou let’st fall

From Dis’s wagon! daffodils,

That come before the swallow dares, and take

The winds of March with beauty; dim violets,

But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes

Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses… ..

bold oxlips and

The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds, ”(Act IV. sc.4)

Threads of hope, rebirth

The 17th Century poet, George Herbert’s “The Flower”:

‘How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean

Are thy returns! Ev’n as the flowers in spring;

……

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart

Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone

quite under ground; as flowers depart

To see their mother-root

Dead to the world, keep house unknown. ‘

And, more soberly, his exquisite lyric ‘Virtue’:

‘Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,

A box where sweets compacted lie;

My music shows ye have your closes,

And all must die.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,

Like seasoned timber never gives,

But though the whole world turn to coal,

Then chiefly lives. ‘

Moving forward to 1921, William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All,” the first line seems a sad ritornello for 2021, but the poem digs down to find a sturdy seasonal wakening

‘By the road to the contagious hospital

….… ..Muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

Small .. small trees

With dead, brown leaves under them

leafless vines –

They enter the new world naked,

cold… .All about them

the cold, familiar wind –

– Still, the profound change

has come upon them: rooted, they

grip down and begin to awaken. ‘

Threads of elegy, flowers that speak of grief

Milton’s “Lycidas” – for his beloved friend Edward King:

‘Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies, /

The musk rose, and the well-attired woodbine,

With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,

And every flower that sad embroidery wears;

Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,

And daffadillies fill their cups with tears. ” (ll. 142-150)

And repeated in a different key by Elizabeth Bishop in her pastoral elegy for Robert Lowell, “North Haven”:

‘The islands have not shifted since last summer,

even if I like to pretend they have

– drifting in a dreamy sort of way,

……

This month, our favorite one is full of flowers:

‘Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch,

Hawkweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright,

the Fragrant Bedstraw’s incandescent stars,

and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight. ‘

Threads of Joy

In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring”:

‘Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush

Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring

The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

What is all this juice and all this joy?

A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning

In Eden garden. ‘

And “Here Is Eden,” from Milton, again:

‘Flowers of all hue, and without thorn the rose.’

while universal Pan,

Knit with the Graces and the Hours in dance,

Led on the eternal Spring. ‘ (Paradise Lost ll 256 & 266-268)

Lines which lead us, through Ovid, again, to

Threads of Spring in Painting

In Botticelli’s famous painting of Spring, La Primavera, with flowery Spring coming into being on the right, we see Venus, blind Cupid and the three Graces, together with Mercury, in a tapestry of color and myth woven in paint. After more than 600 years, it remains, still, the ultimate image of Spring. You can view the painting and its history by clicking on the link below:

http://www.italianrenaissance.org

The final thread in this tapestry of words must be April’s beloved poet

‘When that April with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veine in swish licor

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

…… and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halve course yronne,

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages ”. (Chaucer, The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales)

(Note for your calendar: Professor Kenneth Bleeth will present a lecture on Chaucer at Stonington Public Library at 5 pm on Sunday April 24).

Belinda de Kay is the emeritus director of Stonington Free Library.

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