by Sidney S. Stark
Whanne that April with his shoures sote (Sweet Rain)
The droughte (dryness) of March hath perced (pierced) to the rote (root)…
Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 1.
The prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (above) is familiar to most of us who remember it from our struggles in eighth grade English class. As it goes on from those first two lines, the fourteenth century Middle English gets harder and harder to translate. Once the meaning of the next two lines came into view I remember a friend leaning over me in class and grumbling that it would have accomplished the same thing if Chaucer’d just said, ‘April showers bring May flowers’; and it would have been a lot less trouble for us. I had no trouble figuring out for myself that Chaucer’s poetry was worth a lot more than that adage.
But I was amazed that even in the fourteenth century the seasons were making the same transitions they do today and that Chaucer’s medieval world was as hungry for spring as our contemporary one is. I was recently reminded of Chaucer in a lecture given by the wonderful poet Mark Doty. As April is national poetry month and Mark is certainly a national treasure of a poet, it seemed very fitting to have him referring us back to Chaucer and the impact of spring. But rather than emphasizing Chaucer’s description of sweet rain and perfumed flowers, Mark drew attention to the following three lines:
And smale foules maken melodie,
That slepen alle night with open eye,
So priketh hem nature in hir corages (spirits, feelings);
Mark pointed out that the important word here is ‘nature’. Chaucer was telling us that even the song birds got so excited about spring coming that they couldn’t sleep because the stirring of Nature had pricked them in their hearts. Mark reminded us that everyone wants to know where they fit into the natural pattern of life and how they’re connected. Spring seems to offer the hope of an answer to the question. He went on to discuss the importance of a garden and the promise of continuation and new beginnings; and reminded us that it takes courage to look forward as one does in Spring but also how that is what renews vitality and energy.
I certainly couldn’t listen without appreciating that all Mark Doty was saying was so. But that then set me to thinking about what particular image of spring overwhelms all the others. There are so many and they’re all so real I thought it might be impossible to isolate one. I can even recreate what it felt like to try on my new spring coat and straw hat with the ribbons down the back each year when I was little. The excitement associated with new clothes and realization that the outfit was so different from my winter ones heralded change and new beginnings in a very tangible way; just as the shoots of bulbs coming up and buds exploding on the trees did.
But there is one vision that overpowers all the others for me. It’s openness. I envision buds, leaves and flowers opening, birds’ eggs opening, windows opening, and hearts opening. It’s only natural. Winter’s hibernation helps nature store energy and somehow refines the essence of who we are. That’s the work we do when we close down and in on ourselves for protection in the winter. But spring changes all that. The energy that went into protecting ourselves can now go into opening us up. The turning in finally has to turn out. And just like a brilliant explosion of forsythia reaching gloriously for fresh air we find that openness is the most natural thing in the world. But sometimes we forget it until nature pricks us in our hearts in spring. Chaucer’s English may be hard for us to understand without a translator but spring’s message isn’t.
Question@You-What’s your favorite image of spring? Can you pick one?