“When streams are ripe and swelled with rain…”

Every April, lines from two poems burst forth like emerald weeds. Rain might prompt someone to cite the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, but by the mid-month tax deadline, some doofy news anchor inevitably hits us with the opening of The Waste Land. “April is the cruelest month”? Again? Are you sure?

This year, consider Dame Edith Sitwell, the largely forgotten shaper of the heaviest light verse in the world. Perhaps you’ve read (or heard) “Waltz,” her 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 full poem aloud, and swish it around in your mouth like strange new wine before you decide you don’t like it. Good writers get diction, but Sitwell was the rare poet who focused on sound, rhythm, and onomatopoeia almost entirely at the expense of concreteness and clarity. With a Sitwell poem, how it sounds is largely what it’s about.

That’s why it’s a treat 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 raindrops pool into symbolism, 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 if we’re spending the month digging through poetry, we ought to praise it as much for its sounds as for its far more obvious scents.

4 thoughts on ““When streams are ripe and swelled with rain…”

  1. I love coming here, you never know what you’ll find!

    I like your exhortation to swish it around in the mouth – that last one is sweet, isn’t it, like Sauternes. I tried Edith Sitwell many years ago, when I first took to Robert Graves, he described her in ‘Goodbye to all that’, I seem to remember, coming to stay and sitting hemming handkerchiefs all the time.

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  2. Thanks, Lucy! A couple years ago, I picked up Sitwell’s book about English eccentrics and found it unreadable, but I love her poetry. She really was her own species.

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  3. In that one, you can really see why Yeats was a supporter of hers. You can easily detect why he gave her so many pages in the “Oxford Book of Modern Verse.” I see lots of little threads connecting them–the love of fading, the ancient names invoked, the laughing and weeping, “fool-begotten wise despair,” the lovely girls, the brightness on the air.

    And certainly a good number of our writers of flat free verse could benefit from rolling around in her singing lines…

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