By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
This is the fourth entry in our poetry calendar: you can read our poetry recommendations for January, our pick of the best February poems, and our poems for March in previous posts. Now, it’s the turn of April, which is a time of spring rain (those famous showers), longer evenings, and, usually, warmer weather. What are the best April poems in the English language? Here are five of our favourites.
1. Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The General Prologue’.
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye …
Okay, well here we haven’t got in mind the whole prologue – joyous and masterly as it is. But Geoffrey Chaucer’s majestic description of April (complete with its famous showers sweet) is among the most celebrated descriptions of springtime in all English poetry, and it rings as true now as it did over 600 years ago when he wrote it.
As the gloriously exultant opening lines have it, when April with its sweet showers pierce to the root the drought of March … only there’s no adequate paraphrase for Chaucer’s original Middle English spelling and syntax, which acts as a time-machine to take us back to his own time.
2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 98: ‘From you have I been absent in the spring’.
‘From you have I been absent in the spring, / When proud pied April dress’d in all his trim / Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing, / That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him’: so begins this lesser-known sonnet by William Shakespeare.
This poem sees Shakespeare bemoaning the fact that he could not appreciate all the beauty of spring around him because he was absent from the young man he loves. As a consequence, spring seemed like a winter to him. April may have ‘put a spirit of youth in every thing’, but for the Bard, it might as well be winter because he cannot take delight in the flowers or the birdsong (‘lays of birds’).
3. Robert Browning, ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’.
‘Oh, to be in England’: the opening line of Robert Browning’s poem praising England while abroad has become more famous than the poem’s actual title, ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’.
But it’s worth bearing in mind that April is the time of year in Browning’s poem: ‘Oh, to be in England / Now that April’s there, / And whoever wakes in England / Sees, some morning, unaware, / That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf / Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf, / While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough/ In England—now!’
4. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
Although April appears here only in the famous opening line to Eliot’s poem, any poem which begins with the iconoclastic declaration that ‘April is the cruellest month’ needs to be on a list of the best poems about April.
And this opening statement colours the poem that follows, setting up, like Millay’s poem below, a post-WWI context in which the coming of spring is to be lamented rather than celebrated.
5. Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘Spring’.
This poem opens with the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay taking issue with the coming of the month of April: ‘To what purpose, April, do you return again? / Beauty is not enough.’ As with Eliot’s poem above, the reason for this may be partly to do with the poem’s context: like The Waste Land, ‘Spring’ was written just a few years after the end of the First World War, which had seen millions of men die.
Whatever her reasons for being sceptical about the coming of April, Millay’s poem is a nice corrective to the romanticised evocations of the month of April we find in much earlier poetry…