April turns to May and the apple-blossom scatters the pavement. Along the riverbank, deserted two weeks ago, the pubs fill up and teenagers sit out late on the grass. Birdsong returns, the sun seeps into the bones, and the mind reaches for some lines of poetry … but what? The old poets, yes. But they can feel remote from us: They knew so much less of environmental devastation, the growth of mega-cities, how technology has eroded our awareness of the natural world and its rhythms. There was, though, at least one twentieth-century poet who sang as joyfully of the season as they did.
In this, as in much else, E.E. Cummings is a bridge between ancient and modern. His odes to spring err on the side of sentimentality. Unlike those poets who hide their talents behind irony and ambiguity, he dares the reader to call him naïve:
when more than was lost has been found has been found
and having is giving and giving is living—
but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing
—it’s spring(all our night becomes day)o, it’s spring!
But spring’s beauty is also a response to grim assaults on the created world. “O sweet spontaneous” imagines the earth being harassed by “prurient philosophers,” as well as by science and religions. They want to control the earth, to conduct experiments that will allow them to extract its fruits. The earth’s answer to this unwanted attention is simply “spring.”
Spring was also Cummings’s answer to mere reason and logic, the heart’s answer to the head:
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves …
The sentence is backwards: In prose it would be simpler to say, “While spring is in the world, my blood approves of being wholly a fool.” But it is meant to reverse prose logic. Maybe in summer, winter, or autumn you approve things, and explain them, before doing them; but in spring you are a fool first of all.
These formal effects present a problem for the critic. Is it worth pointing out how brilliant Cummings is at this, how much thought is contained in his apparently anarchic inventions? The danger is that you look like you are making a mountain of a molehill. Terry Eagleton once satirized the kind of reader who tries to find ingenuity in every expression. When someone shouts “Fire!” in a crowded building, Eagleton wrote, “those disadvantaged by an old-fashioned literary education” might ponder how the word itself symbolises a fire: “the F representing its abrupt beginnings, and the swooning vowel the rush and roll of its inexorable spreading…”
But Cummings’s choice of words—and his punctuation and spelling—often unfold a complex thought, which rewards close attention. Take the closing couplet of his exquisite sonnet on innocence:
but the proud power of himself death immense
is not so as a little innocence
The words have not been flung together carelessly, but skillfully placed to draw out their possibilities. Death himself, death so immense, is to be dreaded—and reversing the words makes them more portentous—but death is not so immense; to his claims of power, we can reply that it is not so; and we can make a comparison and say that death is not so powerful as a little innocence.
Meanings run together and away from each other, ideas open up, the secret energy of words is celebrated. Just as the spring reveals more potential in the bare branches than we thought possible, so a word like “April” turns out to signify more than a page of the calendar. It is a verb (“if a look should april me”), an adjective (“his april touch”), a place (“april’s where we’re”), something like a person: “the sweet small clumsy feet of April came / into the ragged meadow of my soul.”
The beauty of April is always surprising, always new—despite those who want to reduce the mystery to quantity and efficiency. The villain of Cummings’s springtime poems is the scientist so caught up in his measurements that he can’t see what he’s looking at. If this is perhaps unfair to the scientific community, it points to a more general truth: A heavily mechanized, technologized society is permanently at risk of forgetting those things which cannot be produced or consumed, only delighted in. So you can forgive Cummings his exaggerations:
While you and i have lips and voices which
are for kissing and to sing with
who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch
invents an instrument to measure Spring with?
A stronger objection, which comes to mind reading this stanza, is that Cummings is offering mere hedonism and unreason. A kiss is not always innocent, a song is not always called for. Another poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his own ode to spring that its sweetness could “sour with sinning.” He might have been talking to Cummings.
But Cummings’s springtime poems express not just wild abandon, but also humble reverence. In the same poem, Cummings writes:
what’s beyond logic happens beneath will;
nor can these moments be translated; i say
that even after April
by God there is no excuse for May
If this were flippant, a use of the Lord’s name in vain, it would ruin the poem. But given Cummings’s cleverness with language, his minute care, other readings are available. God gives “no excuse” for the spring. It is not something that can be excused or justified—it is so beautiful it must simply be accepted as a gift. And perhaps there is a flicker of another meaning, too. “April: by God.” This is one of the Artist’s early masterpieces; and here, just around the corner, is His next work.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.