Today is the first of February — the beginning of spring by the old calendar.
I looked at the edge of my little garden and saw blooming snowdrops — one of the first signs of spring.
The old name for February 1st is Imbolc, though sometimes the name of the later “Church” commemoration that happens one day later (February 2nd) may be used as well. That is Candlemas, which makes us think of light and brightness.
The English poet William Wordsworth wrote this:
LINES WRITTEN IN EARLY SPRING
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
The poet is sitting leaning back in a grove of trees. Around him he hears all the “blended notes” — the mixed songs of spring birds. It is pleasant, but it also brings him sad thoughts.
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
The human soul or “spirit” if you will, is connected to Nature. We are a part of Nature, though the artificiality of modern life has tended to obscure that. But for Wordsworth, looking at all the natural life about him, it makes him wonder why humans have made such a mess of things — why our fellow humans are treated so poorly and heartlessly.
Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
The periwinkle (a creeping ground plant with blue flowers) trails its viny shoots among the primrose plants in the green grove. Looking at them, Wordsworth is moved to believe that every flower enjoys the air it breathes.
The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
He watches the birds hopping and fluttering around him, and though he does not know what goes on it their heads, it seems to him that every small hop and flutter and interaction among them reveals that they must be feeling thrills of pleasure.
The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
Wordsworth cannot help feeling that even the budding twigs of bushes and trees spreading out to catch the air must sense in that some kind of pleasure. So in all this, he sees Nature rejoicing in spring in it various ways.
If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?
Wordsworth feels a divine inspiration in his belief that Nature is rejoicing. He sees the pleasure inherent in natural things as “Nature’s holy plan” — the natural course Nature follows. He finishes by saying that if such pleasure is experienced by the flowers, the birds, even in the budding twigs, what is wrong with humans that they treat one another so miserably, instead of following Nature’s plan?
The poem has some memorable lines: And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes — and Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man? — but it is not perfect. Wordsworth, in this poem written in April of 1798, overlooks the more unpleasant and violent side of nature that was to be made more boldly evident in the 1800s, with Charles Darwin’s writings on evolution, and the “survival of the fittest” notion that grew out of his discoveries.
So that is the flaw in this poem. Wordsworth ignores the more violent side of Nature, choosing to see only the pleasant as a model from which humans have strayed in their cruelty to one another, and in that he is being very one-sided. It leaves us with the feeling that the poem, though pleasant, is rather immature and incomplete. Nonetheless, it does give a pleasant picture of the happiness spring brings, though Wordsworth may not have succeeded in the lesson he draws from it.
While writing this, I could not help seeing a similarity between Wordsworth’s cheerful picture of Nature and that of the Hobbits in J. R. R. Tolkien’s works. To them, their Shire home was a peaceful and benevolent place, and they were quite insulated in their thinking from the wilder and far more dangerous world outside it — until circumstances forced that unpleasant reality on them. We can easily see, however, how Wordsworth — who was very aware of human suffering and violence in his time — might turn to Nature for solace, finding in the rural English countryside a peace not found in the turbid politics and social issues of the last years of the 18th century.