Yet, as I have noted before, the turning of the seasons is a matter of emotion, not of equinoxes and solstices, or of dates on the calendar. For me, autumn begins sometime in late August or early September. And spring begins sometime in late February or early March. As I have suggested in the past, these seasonal transitions have something to do with the cast of the light, the wind, bird-song, and the scent of the earth (the list is not exhaustive). Not to mention internal weather.
In any event, I am delighted by these confident harbingers. Which makes me wonder why the following poems by Robert Herrick come to mind. Yes, the poems concern daffodils and tree blossoms, but Herrick's focus is elsewhere.
Divination by a Daffodil
When a daffodil I see,
Hanging down his head t'wards me,
Guess I may, what I must be:
First, I shall decline my head;
Secondly, I shall be dead;
Lastly, safely buryed.
Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).
With one exception, I have modernized the spelling. I hesitated to do so, since the spelling in the original 1648 edition is "daffadill," which I think is lovely. However, I have retained "buryed" in the final line, since it is necessary for the metre (i.e., "bury-ed" rather than our modern "buried").
Stanley Spencer, "Hoe Garden Nursery" (1955)
Here again, Herrick considers daffodils as portents.
Fair daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon:
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain'd his noon.
Until the hasting day
But to the even-song;
And, having pray'd together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or any thing.
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew
Ne'r to be found again.
Robert Herrick, Ibid.
I fear that placing these two poems beside one another may misrepresent Herrick, for it perhaps gives the impression that he could not look at spring flowers without thinking of our mortality. In fact, one of the charms of Hesperides is that poems such as these alternate, in nearly equal measure, with poems that are joyous, humorous, satirical, or ribald.
Herrick's subject matter is the world entire, which he makes clear in "The Argument of His Book" (which I have posted previously): "I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers . . . I write of youth, of love, and have access/By these, to sing of cleanly-wantonness . . . I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)/Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all."
Stanley Spencer, "View from Cookham Bridge" (1936)
I also noticed a plum tree blossoming this week. It, like the daffodils and the mowers, seems overly optimistic. But who am I to second-guess a tree?
Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
Why do ye fall so fast?
Your date is not so past;
But you may stay yet here a while,
To blush and gently smile;
And go at last.
What, were ye born to be
An hour or half's delight;
And so to bid goodnight?
'Twas pity Nature brought ye forth
Merely to show your worth,
And lose you quite.
But you are lovely leaves, where we
May read how soon things have
Their end, though ne'r so brave:
And after they have shown their pride,
Like you a while: They glide
Into the grave.
Robert Herrick, Ibid.
What makes Herrick so attractive, even in poems confronting our ultimate fate, is his unquenchable good nature. This presiding spirit accounts for the empathy and loveliness with which he documents our lives from birth to death, highlighting the minute particulars, both good and ill, that we all share.
The final stanza of "To Blossoms" is a fine example of Herrick at his best: clear-sighted, not mincing words, but withal tender and beautiful. "Lovely leaves" indeed. And, yes: "They glide into the grave."
Stanley Spencer, "Garden at Whitehouse, Northern Ireland" (1952)