Wednesday, April 3, 2019
We have entered April, a month of poetic significances, but also of deceptions. “April is the cruelest month,” writes Eliot in that part of his poem called “The Burial of the Dead.” April comes “breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” It is in the mix of memory and desire, or at any rate in the imperfect ratio between them, that the danger of deception lies. The last two days of March here were warm and sunny. Some of the early daffodils were already out, but now they came on in a riot. And the forsythia, until now a mere golden-green haze, popped overnight into full gold. “The flowers have appeared in our land, the time of pruning has come” says the singer of the Song of Songs. “The voice of the turtle is heard in our land.” That’s the King James Version, of course, where the “turtle” is Tudor English for the turtle dove. At the Fleming homestead, however, it was real turtles, two of them, Hector and Chloë, who were suckered into thinking that spring was really here. They are not much for voice, actually, but they waddled out of their hibernation in our enclosed atrium to sniff the air and have a paddle in the pool. As I have done no serious yard work for months, the atrium is a real mess; but it was still a jolly scene, turtles strutting in the sunshine. Then, most cruelly indeed, at nightfall on Sunday, the temperature fell again to freezing; April Fool’s day broke bright but chill. The turtles had returned to the drawing board stage of spring under their hibernatory blankets of dead leaves.
The greatest of April poems in English—to which Eliot obviously alludes--is undoubtedly the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer with its famous first sentence: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/The droghte of March has perced to the roote…” As I used to make my living teaching this poem, its rhetorically gaudy opening has for me a special significance. It is the one bit of Middle English known to the general public; most educated people of sixty winters or more learned it in high school, back in the days when people used to learn things there, and many can still quote a large portion of it. Can and do. It’s quite an opening line: nine couplets and a hundred and twenty words long. Despite the fact that all it “says” is that people want to go on pilgrimage in April, a surprising amount happens in it, actually, and rather quickly. Some of my fellow Chaucerians want to deny that Chaucer is an allegorist. I am not quite sure what they make of “the drought of March.” Just what March drought is that? I ask. Chaucer is either an allegorist or a really lousy meteorologist. The latest statistics I have are from 2018. In February of that year 64.3 millimeters of rain fell on London, in April 86.3. In March there were 104.4 millimeters. Just saying.
There are other poetic months, especially May and June. The first poem I can remember being made to memorize in school was by the American poet James Russell Lowell. I don’t think it actually has a title, but our reader called it “June Day.” Lowell is pretty obscure these days, probably better known (if at all) as an abolitionist than as a bard. He was big in the mid-nineteenth century, but I’m not sure that even I own his works. To get the text I sought I had to turn to the Internet, where the subject of his poem is defined as “the weather”. Just like Chaucer, I guess. It begins by asking the question, “What is so rare as a day in June?” As our summer vacation began in that month, it was a question some of us could get behind. But our teacher had very interesting things to say about it. She told us that the words in poetry often need a little more thought than “ordinary” words may call for. For example, what about the word rare in the first line? she asked. What rare ordinarily meant was “seldom occurring” but it must mean something else here. Otherwise the answer to the question, “What is so rare as a day in June?” would be a day in April, September, or November—other months of thirty days. I’m still pondering the ingenuity of that one, meaning that she had achieved the teacher’s higher goal—getting a student to think, rather than simply telling him what to think. Then there was the cook-out at which the host asked his friend, Will Shakespeare, how he liked his steak. O rare Ben Jonson. I also had to think a little about the third line (Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune), since the meaning of try was not the ordinary one and there was this rather fancy if it be, a form of verbal contingency I could recognize and was happy now to be able to name as “subjunctive”.
One special function of the subjunctive becomes increasingly important with advancing age, and that is the “condition contrary to fact”. If I were you, blah blah blah. If all were as it should be, one swallow would a summer make. At the very least, two turtles would make a spring.