Chapter 6: The Landscape Laughs in Spring
Spring is an important time in the rural calendar. There is much work to be done in preparing fields and planting crops. The season is full of joy because the weather has improved and life is easier, after the privations of winter, but there is also a ‘hungry gap’ because no new crops are ready to eat and only the crops which have overwintered are available for food. However, children can play out of doors again, thus relieving the feeling of overcrowding in the cramped cottages.
In the Everyman selection, there are two poems in particular which celebrate the exuberance of the season. ‘Sport in the Meadows’, a happy account of how children pass their time in innocent pleasure, is strongly reminiscent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence[i], in particular ‘The Ecchoing Green’ where the children are playing and older people watch them indulgently. ‘The Landscape laughs in Spring’ is remarkably congruent with Blake’s poem ‘Laughing Song’ from Songs of Innocence, with the same pathetic fallacy[ii] of a joyous landscape:
When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;
compared to Clare’s lines:
The landscape laughs in Spring and stretches on
Its growing distance of refreshing dyes.
Both poets have used personification to good effect here, and see the landscape as actively rejoicing. However, Blake is illustrating the concept of innocence in his poems, but Clare is displaying the pleasure he feels in the reawakening of nature. Both are firmly rooted in the Romantic tradition of freedom and a love of the natural world. Blake draws on very similar things to Clare, but uses them to different ends.
Both ‘Sport in the Meadows’ and ‘The Landscape laughs in Spring’ are accomplished poems. ‘Sport in the Meadows’ is a headlong rush of alternately rhymed iambic pentameter in one long stanza, a form well suited to the expression of the children’s energy and delight as they rush about collecting cowslips. Each quatrain is in alternate rhyme, providing harmony and variety. The poem is full of action and high spirits. The run on lines[iii] help to express the movement of the children as they play. They play with things which nature provides, such as a ball made from flowers (a cuckaball) and rush about looking for birds’ nests and cowslips to pick. Even the animals seem to join in the fun as they too want the cowslips:
The sheep and cows are crowding for a share
And snatch the blossoms in such eager haste
That basket-bearing children running there
Do think within their hearts they’ll get them all
And hoot and drive them from their graceless waste.
This creates a comical scene as the children and animals are in competition for these golden flowers of early spring. The children feel that the animals ‘waste’ the flowers by eating them, but they want them to make a ball with to throw to each other, which is much more wasteful. The children are also gathering them for sustenance:
For they want some for tea and some for wine
Tea made from cowslip flowers by infusing them in boiling water was used for medicinal purposes. It is a good diuretic and is useful for headaches. Country people will make wine from many wild flowers and berries, another activity which was curtailed somewhat by The Enclosures. In ‘The Landscape Laughs in Spring’, Clare also refers to cowslip tea and cowslip wine, using a beautiful metaphor:
To make praise-worthy wine and savoury tea
And drink a Winter memory of May
When all the season’s joys have ceased to be
And flowers and sunny hours have passed away.
The wine therefore is something of a comfort in winter, as it preserves the warmth of spring in its flavour and sweetness. Cowslip wine is usually sweet and rich, like a dessert wine.
‘Sport in the Meadows’ begins with a picturesque description of a meadow in May, when the cowslip ‘peeps’ (or first buds) have grown into large golden flowers, and the fields are full of other spring plants such as: ‘water-blobs’, the local name for marsh marigolds; lady-smocks, which are white or pale blue; daisies and buttercups. Clare describes all these wildflowers as ‘shining here and there’, a lovely visual metaphor which suggests they appear in the fields like stars against the night sky, bright and glowing. He says the marsh marigolds, which grow in damp conditions, are ‘crowding’ by the bridge (‘brig’ is a dialect word for bridge), and compares the spread of plants to ‘morts of folken flocking at a fair’ with delicate alliteration, assonance and consonance. A fair would be a merry occasion, something country folk would look forward to, so this metaphor suits the atmosphere and allows readers to identify with the spring flowers.
The poem is full of action verbs: ‘snatch’, ‘hoot’, ‘drive’, ‘shout’ and so on, and the middle section in particular is full of noise and hubbub. By constructing long loose-limbed sentences tagged together with dashes, Clare creates a sense of rush and joy. There’s a tale of a girl who drops her basket and spills all her blossoms, and another who loses her bonnet to the wind. The children help each other, adding to the happy impression. Clare refers to a child standing on a molehill to reach for a ‘bunch of May’. May is the blossom of the hawthorn tree; it has a strong musky smell and small white flowers with pink centres. Some think it unlucky to bring it into the house. It is what is referred to in the old rhyme that advises the listener ‘ne’er cast a clout/till May be out’[iv]. The thorns scratch the child, but plantain leaves are used to soothe it. This is not the plantain used in Caribbean cookery but a common British weed, Plantago major, whose broad leaves were used to soothe inflamed skin, or rubbed fresh onto stings to bring pain relief. These children are fully versed in country remedies. The poem concludes with the animals running away from the noisy children, ‘marauders’ who return every day. The ‘noising childern’ also feature in ‘The Landscape Laughs in Spring’ but they make more of a cameo appearance for a few lines.
‘The Landscape Laughs in Spring’ is also in iambic pentameter but this time is a sonnet in the Petrachan style, with an alternate rhyme scheme but no division of octet and sestet. Rather than concentrating mostly on one aspect, it gives a taut panorama of all the activities that are going on in nature, like an aerial view of the country. ‘Pewit-haunted flats’ suggests the darker notes of winter, in the word ‘haunted’, but now the floods have dispersed and the meadows are full of flowers. The lines:
The tricking brook veins sparkling to the sun
Like to young may-flies dancing wi’ the hours
are not only beautifully observed but contain a hint that this pleasure is short-lived, as may flies only live for a very short time, from a few hours to a few days only. Clare’s feelings towards the spring are full of pleasure made the more intense because it cannot last. This idea is emphasised by the concluding three lines quoted above, which lament the passing of the ‘flowers and sunny hours’ with an internal rhyme.
These two spring poems are delightful. They are full of the precise observations that Clare is admired for. He follows through with his poems about summer, which are also rich with detail, but perhaps lack the exuberance of these spring poems.
[ii] A literary device in which an inanimate object is given human feelings.
[iv] Many people today think this refers to the month of May. The hawthorn does not bloom until the weather is sufficiently clement, so that wearing extra clothing is not necessary.