A poem, truth, and the month of May
Under the Willows
by James Russell Lowell, 1819 – 1891
May is a pious fraud of the almanac,
A ghastly parody of real Spring
Shaped out of snow and breathed with eastern wind;
Or if, o’er-confident, she trust the date,
And, with her handful of anemones,
Herself as shivery, steal into the sun,
The season need but turn his hourglass round,
And Winter suddenly, like crazy Lear,
Reels back, and brings the dead May in his arms,
Her budding breasts and wan dislustred front
With frosty streaks and drifts of his white beard
All overblown. Then, warmly walled with books,
While my wood-fire supplies the sun’s defect,
Whispering old forest-sagas in its dreams,
I take my May down from the happy shelf
Where perch the world’s rare song-birds in a row,
Waiting my choice to open with full breast,
And beg an alms of springtime, ne’er denied
Indoors by vernal Chaucer, whose fresh woods
Throb thick with merle and mavis all the year.
The consolation of a good book (and exactly the right poem)
Facing yet another dreary, chilly day in the merry month of May, I had to agree with Lowell — May is indeed the “pious fraud of the almanac, / A ghastly parody of real Spring.” In the absence of lovely weather, a good book — Lowell chose Chaucer — is consolation for the spirit. Better still, the right poem at the right time is a gift. It can speak of a fleeting moment in a way that reveals a universal truth and often, reveals it as a thing of beauty.
At its best, poetry helps you see beyond. Practically speaking, it can allow you to speak truth, beauty, and goodness in a way that can be heard. “Tell the truth but tell it slant” Emily Dickinson admonished, because “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind”.
You don’t have to have a memory stocked with poetry (though it’s a good idea) in order to experience the power of the right poem at the right time. All you need is a good anthology or even an internet search to find a poem that vividly captures something worth remembering. Next time you experience something you find hard to put into words, try browsing a poetry anthology or searching online for a “poem about . . . “.
It may take a few tries to find the search phrase that locates the perfect poem, but when you come up with a list of likely-looking poems, read or skim until you find the one that elicits a little thrill of recognition. Once you’ve found it, copy it to your commonplace book or otherwise save it for future enjoyment. In this way, you will develop a mental library of ideas, beautifully expressed.
Lowell’s reminder that an afternoon with a good book can redeem even the dreariest day inspired me to be thankful for the warm walls of books that surround my desk. As Lowell himself said, “Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind.” Despite the chilly gloom outside, it will always bright inside my library.
P. S. One final thought
In keeping with the idea of poetry as the language of truth, beauty, and goodness, consider this:
A man with a scant vocabulary will almost certainly be a weak thinker. The richer and more copious one’s vocabulary and the greater one’s awareness of fine distinctions and subtle nuances of meaning, the more fertile and precise is likely to be one’s thinking.
Knowledge of things and knowledge of the words for them grows together.
If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing.
Henry Hazlitt, Thinking as a Science