May 7, 2009
It's been a cold, rainy spring in New York this year. Nature's annual flower show, so often spectacular, is muted in the chilly mists. Early May still feels like early April.
The successions of blooms have appeared later and lingered longer; rather than coming in short bursts that explode like fireworks in warm, sunny years, the colors this season blend into each other like an Impressionist painting.
The first wave of spring is already gone; the cherry and magnolia trees are leafing out, and most of the daffodils are withered and brown. Dogwoods and tulips and tree-peonies have taken their place, and the aliums and irises are sending up stalks that will open soon.
There is much more to look forward to: azaleas and rhododendrons and bush-peonies this month, and roses all into the fall.
For many people of a melancholic cast, the momentum of springtime joy stalls at the daffodils. This prodigious symbol of new life after months of winter barrenness only reminds them of winter barrenness to come. You see this mood broadly in Robert Frost's familiar poem:
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Filtered through a consciousness that sees the present only as future past, the cycles of nature are inverted: growth is decline, the sun sets at its rising.
The psychological paradox of the daffodil has preoccupied many poets, the darkest of whom is certainly the seventeenth- century clergyman Robert Herrick:
Fair daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attained his noon.
Until the hasting day
But to the evensong;
And, having prayed together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew,
Ne'er to be found again.
You wonder what his Easter sermons were like.
Or consider Ted Hughes, no stranger to the depressive disposition, who published his own "Daffodils" in 1998, a year before his death at age 68 and 35 years after the suicide of his wife Sylvia Plath:
Remember how we picked the daffodils?
Nobody else remembers, but I remember. . . .
We knew we'd live for ever. We had not learned
What a fleeting glance of the everlasting
Daffodils are. Never identified
The nuptial flight of the rarest ephemera -
Our own days! . . .
Every March since they have lifted again
Out of the same bulbs, the same
Baby-cries from the thaw,
Ballerinas too early for music, shiverers
In the draughty wings of the year.
On that same groundswell of memory, fluttering
They return to forget you stooping there
Behind the rainy curtains of a dark April,
Snipping their stems.
There are ways to stall while appearing to act. The carpe diem philosophy, usually thought of as a call to live lustily and existentially, is actually melancholia in disguise, as famously epitomized in another Herrick poem:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
Seize the day! — and watch it crumble in your hand.
The opposite of carpe diem, while appearing to be alike, is the way of Zen Buddhism, the training of the consciousness to live in the present moment, the only real tense. Doing so liberates the self from memory and expectation, the shackles of ever-unfulfilled desire. The cherry tree is cultivated as the centerpiece of the Zen garden precisely because its flowers fade so quickly; they are unspeaking teachers of mindfulness in the immediate.
Then there are ways of integrating time. People who don't stall at the daffodils are invigorated by change. They live their lives as nature does, at ease with time's passage, exulting in each unique beauty of the seasons, preserving the moment in their memories and drawing strength, not regret, from their recollection. This is the rather uncharacteristic sentiment of the usually wistful Romantic poet William Wordsworth's encounter with daffodils:
For oft, when on my couch I lie,
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils.
Avid gardeners must surely have the most holistic attitude toward life, enjoying the present while seeing the past as pathway to the future. As the tulips reach their height, they are busy clipping off the spent stalks of their daffodils and throwing them into the compost pile — to be turned by worms into new soil for next spring. "Deadheading," they call it.
That typographical poet, e. e. cummings, may have been a gardener:
in time of daffodils(who know
the goal of living is to grow)
forgetting why,remember how . . . .
and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me,remember me