12 May 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/20

Written at the close of spring

The garlands fade that Spring so lately wove,
   Each simple flower which she had nursed in dew,
Anemonies, that spangled every grove,
   The primrose wan, and hare-bell mildly blue.
No more shall violets linger in the dell,
   Or purple orchis variegate the plain,
Till Spring again shall call forth every bell,
   And dress with humid hands her wreaths again. –
Ah! poor Humanity! so frail, so fair,
   Are the fond visions of thy early day,
Till tyrant Passion, and corrosive Care,
   Bid all thy fairy colours fade away!
Another May new buds and flowers shall bring;
Ah! why has happiness – no second Spring?

Charlotte Smith

For some historical and cultural background on Charlotte Smith, please see my entry on another sonnet of hers, On Being Cautioned against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, because it was Frequented by a Lunatic.

Smith's use of the sonnet form helped revive its popularity in English poetry, after its early flowering during the Elizabethan age. (If you already know what a "sonnet" is, feel free to skip this paragraph.) The form had been taken from Italian poetry. Here is a very broad description of the sonnet (poetic forms are fluid and adaptable, and there are minor variations and exceptions to everything I'm about to say): a sonnet is a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter (that is, a five-beat line consisting of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one, repeated five times). There are two main types, defined by their rhyme schemes: the Italian or Petrarchean sonnet, consisting of an octave (that is, an eight-line stanza) rhyming abbaabba and a sestet (a six-line stanza) rhyming cdecde in varying combinations; and the English or Shakespearean sonnet, consisting of three quatrains (that is, four-line stanzas) rhyming abab cdcd efef and a concluding couplet, rhyming gg. There is a certain emotional and rhetorical logic that tends to follow from these arrangements: Italian-style sonnets usually fall into two parts, whereas the English-style sonnets usually fall into three followed by a concluding zinger.

Here Smith uses the English form, but interestingly divides her subject into an opening of eight lines and a conclusion of six: the ghost of an Italian-style sonnet lurks in this English structure. Her first two quatrains are devoted to a description of Spring, though these quickly passing beauties are already seen in retrospect, and with the first words ("The garlands fade. . . ") the spring flowers are immediately put in an elegiac frame. (She will reinforce this view by starting the second quatrain with a similar acknowledgement of loss: "No more shall violets linger in the dell. . . "). For her, Spring is all about its flowers, which she details with loving precision. Nature here is not threatening or strange or magnificent (as it is in her sonnet about walking on the headlands); instead, she gives her description a gentle, restorative air: the "simple flowers" (it might be relevant to note that simple means not just "not complicated" but can also mean a medicinal herb) are "nursed in dew"; the anemonies, that delicate plant also known as windflower (as passing as a breeze), "spangled every grove"; the primroses are wan, the blue of the harebells is mild. She also mentions violets, usually seen as a half-hidden, and even anthropomorphically shy, bloom; these are not forceful flowers. Perhaps the only suggestion of the sexual energy usually associated with the return of Spring comes with the purple orchis (that is, orchids, along the lines of our forest-land lady-slippers, not the tropical orchids of extravagant appearance we tend to think of nowadays), but perhaps they only have this association if you already know that the name of the plant comes from the Greek word for testicle.

This is random, but I have to say I love the phrase "humid hands" to describe the actions of personified Spring.

Perhaps she chooses to present the spring scene this way – mild, calm, nurturing – to heighten the contrast that follows with "poor Humanity" and its inescapable troubles. When we reach the final six lines, Smith's rhetoric changes radically: the smoothness of the first half gives way to more broken, eruptive, phrasing, interrupted with interjections (twice she sighs "Ah!"), with exclamation points, with dashes. It is also more general; in place of the named plants, each described and located, she offers a sweeping, almost impersonal description of the human lot: "tyrant Passion and corrosive Care" (this is one of those phrases in her work that strikes my ear as having a definite eighteenth-century ring). The passions and the cares are unspecified, as are the "fond visions of early days": this isn't about her particular life, but about the human condition. She is positing a general rule, and though like all general rules it grows from her personal experience (which was not easy), she believes it is true of all human life: and the almost generic description of the troubles of life allows the reader to fill in the blanks with his or her own individual experience of controlling passions and destructive worries. Our hopes are seen as inherently illusory, and restricted to our early days (which is to say, before experience teaches us to know better): they are "fond visions" (we should note that fond still carried the overtone of foolish), that is, trances, dreams, delusions, and Smith reinforces the point by referring to these frail and fair illusions as "fairy colours": pretty apparitions belonging to an unearthly, impossible, and (ask any adult) non-existent realm. In the final couplet, the emotional summation of a sonnet, she sees humanity as alienated from the cycles of Nature, contrasting the fleeting but ever-renewing delights of Spring with the early and irrevocable loss of human happiness. In Smith's view, our childish hopes are as frail and fair as spring flowers, but though the flowers disappear, they will also come back; we die, but without return.

I took this from The Poems of Charlotte Smith, edited by Stuart Curran, in the Oxford series Women Writers in English 1350 - 1850.

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