“…when streams are ripe and swelled with rain.”

Each April, references to two poems burst forth like emerald weeds. The month begins with allusions to the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales, and I never mind reminders of Chaucer; but by mid-month, by tax day, even half-literate news anchors will have made eye-rolling references to The Waste Land. Yes, April is “the cruelest month.” As April-themed allusions go, are these really the best we can do?

This April, consider Dame Edith Sitwell, the largely forgotten writer of the heaviest light verse in the world. You may have read (or heard) “Waltz,” her evocative ditty about fashion-fickle nymphs and other denizens of pseudo-pastorale:

The Amazons wear balzarine of jonquille
Beside the blond lace of a deep-falling rill;
Through glades like a nun
They run from and shun
The enormous and gold-rayed rustling sun;
And the nymphs of the fountains
Descend from the mountains
Like elegant willows
On their deep barouche pillows
In cashmere Alvandar, barège Isabelle,
Like bells of bright water from clearest wood-well.

You may be looking at those lines and thinking “What?”—but take a minute, read the poem aloud, or listen to it echo in your head, before you decide you don’t like it. Good poets are highly conscious of diction, but Sitwell was the rare poet who focused on sound, rhythm, and onomatopoeia almost entirely at the expense of concreteness and clarity. With the typical Sitwell poem, how it sounds is often what it’s about.

That’s why it’s a pleasure to discover, among Sitwell’s late works, a poem called “The April Rain,” in which she uses her distinctive style and abstruse allusions not simply to please the ear, but also to evoke springtime and the innocence of young love.

“Such is our world, my love,” declares a boy to a girl, “[a] bright swift raindrop falling”:

The sapphire dews sing like a star; bird-breasted dew
Lies like a bird and flies

In the singing wood and is blown by the bright air
Upon your wood-wild April-soft long hair
That seems the rising of spring constellations—
Aldebaran, Procyon, Sirius,
And Cygnus who gave you all his bright swan-plumage…

As she develops the raindrops as symbols, Sitwell falls back on wistfulness:

Such are the wisdoms of the world—Heraclitus
Who fell a-weeping, and Democritus
Who fell a-laughing, Pyrrho, who arose
From Nothing and ended in believing Nothing—fools,
And falling soon:
Only the April rain, my dear,
Only the April rain!

That fool-begotten wise despair
Dies like the raindrop on the leaf—
Fading like young joy, old grief,
And soon is gone—

Forgot by the brightness of the air;
But still are your lips the warm heart of all springs,
And all the lost Aprils of the world shine in your hair.

I doubt Sitwell’s closing lines will join the ranks of quotable April verses, but “The April Rain” is a charming reminder that when we discuss the month in poems, it ought to be known as much for its sounds as for its more obvious scents.

3 thoughts on ““…when streams are ripe and swelled with rain.”

  1. I learned this from one of my daughter’s Raffi tapes when she was little:

    Robin in the rain
    What a soggy fellow
    Robin in the rain
    Mind your socks of yellow
    Running through the garden on your nimble feet
    Digging for your dinner with your long, strong beak
    Robin in the rain
    You don’t mind the weather
    Showers always make you gay
    But the worms are wishing you would stay at home
    Robin on a rainy day
    (You’ll get your feet wet)
    Robin on a rainy day.

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  2. I’m lobbying to replace T.S. Eliot with Kurt Vonnegut’s take on the need for six seasons in his book Palm Sunday:

    “One sort of optional thing you might do is to realize that there are six seasons instead of four. The poetry of four seasons is all wrong for this part of the planet, and this may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time. I mean, spring doesn’t feel like spring a lot of the time, and November is all wrong for autumn, and so on.

    Here is the truth about the seasons: Spring is May and June. What could be springier than May and June? Summer is July and August. Really hot, right? Autumn is September and October. See the pumpkins? Smell those burning leaves? Next comes the season called Locking. November and December aren’t winter. They’re Locking. Next comes winter, January and February. Boy! Are they ever cold!

    What comes next? Not spring. ‘Unlocking’ comes next. What else could cruel March and only slightly less cruel April be? March and April are not spring. They’re Unlocking.”

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  3. Here’s a list of the seasons as they are in Fairbanks, Alaska based on your six seasons.

    Spring is May and sometimes early June, summer is June and July, fall is August and September, locking is late September and October, winter is November, December, January, February, March, and early April, while unlocking is mid and late April and also early May. Actually in Alaska, using the four season reference, “springtime” means when the snow melts and the ice breaks. So in late April and early May when the snow melts (and sometimes revisits), that’s called spring, even though that’s late winter to most people. Fall as is commonly thought of lasts from late August through early October, then around mid-October you start getting serious winter snow that sticks for the winter. Average temps on Halloween are high of 20 and low of 4.

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