Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Across Three Aprils

April is National Poetry Month, which is appropriate, considering how many poets and authors have been inspired to use April and spring to open their works. We'll take a look at three visions of April. (I'm only posting selections; you can read more at the links.)

We'll kick it off with one Geoffrey Chaucer, and a bit of his Prologue from The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunturbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for the seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

Everything is springing to life and full of energy. (The site above provides a modern translation if you want one, or you can go here for this section.)

Next up is T.S. Eliot, who opens his epic poem "The Waste Land" with a very different vision of April:

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free...
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

In some circumstances, stirring memory and desire might not be so pleasant.

Lastly, we'll take a look at the opening to George Orwell's 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, thought not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a colored poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide: the face of a man of about forty-fiver, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine, and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures that had something to do with the production of pig iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plate like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, thought the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. He moved over to the window: a smallish, frail figure, the meagerness of his body merely emphasized by the blue overalls which were the uniform of the Party. His hair was very fair, his face naturally sanguine, his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended.

Outside, even through the shut window pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddied of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no color in anything except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black mustachio'd facer gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston's own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the Police Patrol, snooping into people's windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered.

Something is rotten in the state of Oceania.

The Canterbury Tales-Waste Land connection is a pretty standard observation. But one of many great things about poetry, theater and literature is that authors borrow from and build on one another. Sometimes an author will try to refute another writer or start a quarrel. However, in the Arts, more often authors riff on one another, building a web of connections and continuing a dialogue that stretches back decades, centuries or even millennia. Chaucer picks April deliberately for evoking his opening images. But then Eliot plays on this. And surely Orwell plays on both in that meticulously crafted first sentence of 1984. Robert Frost riffs on William Blake. John Donne references Shakespeare, and both are referenced yet again by Eliot. Composers, musicians, painters, sculptors, playwrights and artists of all sorts do the same dance (and you may have your own favorite examples). On one level, it's all a very clever game. But on another, it's an expression of deep love.

1 comment:

Susan of Texas said...

On one level, it's all a very clever game. But on another, it's an expression of deep love.

Ahh--now I know exactly why I love to sneak in Joss Whedon quotes in my writing.