With Spring comes hope. After the gloom of Winter, the days lengthen; the daffodils bloom; the sun reappears. Yet for some, counter-intuitively, the arrival of Spring can be desolate.
It turns out that people attempt suicide and die more often by suicide far more often in the springtime. Things get tough just as the tulips begin to unfurl. T.S Eliot, it seems, got it right when he wrote "April is the cruellest month," in his poem The Waste Land.
Experts aren’t entirely sure why we can feel more vulnerable in Spring. One theory is that we become more active in this season after the lethargy that many of us feel in Winter. This in turn increases levels of manic behaviour in the springtime; in fact, there is evidence that bipolar disorder worsens this time of year. A second theory is that, as the weather warms up, there is more pressure to socially connect with others, which may be a source of significant stress, especially for those who feel lonely. A third is that Spring is a time when inflammation increases as plants release pollen, and there have long been associations between mood disorders and inflammation.
Whatever the reasons for the psychological challenges of Spring, we should be aware that it is a time when we may need extra emotional support. My own answer is to turn to three poems which inspire hope and courage at this time of year.
The first is by the Japanese poet, Bashō.
The temple bell stops –
But the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers
It is the combination of the two different, indeed seemingly unrelated, images of the temple bell and the flower that surprise us here in Bashō’s haiku.
Some small facet of the natural world explodes into new existence under the poet’s scrutiny. Here it is the striking image of flowers, which we imagine to be silent, harnessing and connecting to the previous ringing of a bell, presumably by a monk. The ‘sound’ emanates from the flowers even if we might expect the poet to say ‘scent’. The effect is of the flowers’ fragrance acquiring a new amplitude that takes it beyond the five senses or links them all synesthetically in a deepened appreciation of nature.
Human endeavours (like the ringing of a bell) and lives seem finite, but in fact, are connected to the infinity of the natural world. The dash at the end of the first line evokes the dying out of the sound of the bell, leaving a silence within the poem that is even deeper than that suggested by a line break. But that same sound is picked up in nature, through the agency of the flower. We too are part of nature and our human music never stops.
Next, I rely on Emily Dickinson in my own gloomy Spring moments. She argues that we all need strength and hope. These are weapons already in your arsenal, waiting only for you to deploy them.
"Hope" is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Dickinson gradually allows the analogy between hope and a little bird to unfold: the bird itself only appears directly at the end of the second stanza. She thereby avoids a commonplace simile that hope equals a singing bird, instead giving us time to think about both birds and hope in new ways.
Her strange "thing with feathers" lives inside us, as if our ribs were like a branch; and unlike every other bird, it never stops singing. Her idiosyncratic use of capital letters for certain words, personalising them, helps to draw our attention to them. Meanwhile, all the dashes force us to pause. They could represent the obstacles the little bird has to hop over: in the line about the gale, there are three dashes, suggesting this is a particularly large obstacle, as if the bird is being beaten back by the wind. The rhyme scheme, unpronounced at first, strengthens as it goes, culminating in a triple rhyme in the final three lines, affirming the poem’s message that hope can weather any storm. This certainty is confirmed by the poem’s final and only full stop.
In stages, we recognise the obstacles that "hope" steadily over-comes, with the last verse emerging as the most personal. Believing in this kind of hope — never-ending, inside us, asking nothing of us in return — is essential. I especially like the way that hope is part of us. It is not something we need to find or earn through our good behaviour. There is nothing transactional about it. It is there, inside us, anyway.
My final poem for Spring-time blues is by the seventeenth-century religious poet George Herbert. He shares a message of introspective healing: self-forgiveness, self-love, and self-restoration. Healing, reparation, and compassion are all possible, even when we feel "guilty of dust and sin". The kindly voice of love in response to the injured speaker in Herbert’s dialogue brings together the two halves of the self.
Love by George Herbert
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I, the unkind, ungrateful?
Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.
Here is a conversation between two states of mind, both of which can exist within one consciousness. The alternating indents are confirmation of a dialogue between the narrator, who feels unworthy, and Love, who is personified: Herbert is using Love rather than God.
The voice of Love is enthusiastic and eager in the first verse: witness the short and easy-to-voice syllables in "Love bade me welcome". By contrast, the narrator’s voice is slow and heavy, matched by the heavy syllables that take longer to pronounce in "my soul drew back" and "guilty of dust and sin" (I can’t imagine a better description of feeling depressed); similarly, with "quick-eyed Love" and "grow slack". Love is warm and friendly, someone who draws nearer, and questions sweetly — not someone who judges us, as we sometimes imagine God is doing.
In the second verse, the narrator still feels unworthy of being Love’s guest. Love asks: "Who made the eyes but I?" Throughout, Love is questioning our answers, rather than answering our questions. Yet the narrator is lovable: he was created by Love in the first place, witness the wordplay on "eyes", meaning both the eyes through which we see and I as in a person.
By the final verse, all doubt is gone. Herbert unites heart and soul and the self. Faith is restored to the narrator. Bread is accepted (the food is metaphorical, representing the Christian sacrament of Communion). The narrator has felt shame, rather than guilt. He hasn’t just done something wrong. He is something wrong. But through the gentle invitation of Love, he finally lets himself be loved for who he is. He accepts Love’s reasoning, that he is good enough to join in, eating the food set before him. He does so with ease and simplicity, suggested by the six single syllables of the last line. The master becomes the servant.
Love gets the last word in the poem. Love is not something we trade, or exchange. We cannot earn it, nor destroy it. It is something we are, in a similar way that Dickinson suggested that hope is also part of our fabric.
Good messages and good poems for anyone feeling vulnerable this Spring and in need of solace and sustenance. And ones that may mean that Eliot was wrong. With these poems to keep you company, April need not be the cruellest month after all.
~ Rachel Kelly is a writer and mental health advocate. Her latest book is ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs’.