“They were but sweet, but figures of delight”: Shakespeare in the Spring

Sonnet 98


“Nothing is so beautiful as spring,” wrote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. He didn’t live in Boston, where spring brings with it almost any weather; this week it’s wall-to-wall rain and gray. So here’s a little dose of Shakespeare in the hope of sunshine and optimal flower-viewing.


Sonnet 98

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
    Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,

    As with your shadow I with these did play.

And as a bonus, here are a few of my favorite lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in

[It gets fairly nasty at this point, alas.]

Have you read any spring poems lately?

“we can say at least the lettuce loved the rain”: Lisa Olstein’s “Dear One Absent This Long While”

Lisa Olstein_Dear One Absent This Long WhileLisa Olstein’s “Dear One Absent This Long While” is a lovely poem, and especially appropriate for the rainy early spring we’re having here, when “everything blooms coldly.”

In what I thought of as an unsent letter, the speaker addresses the absent person—though the poem leaves open the identity of the missing loved one—revealing how she’s been so anxious to see him or her that she’s mistaken “leaves in the wind,” “the retreating shadow of a fox, daybreak” for the return of the absent loved one.

In the meantime, the speaker (solitary, we understand, since the other who wait are the cat and the stove—stoves in poems always remind me of Bishop’s “Sestina,” by the way) takes to planting to pass the time:

June efforts quietly.
I’ve planted vegetables along each garden wall


so even if spring continues to disappoint
we can say at least the lettuce loved the rain.
Initially stopped short by the unusual verb choice in that first line (“June efforts quietly”), I’ve since come to like it; it suggests the whole month is gathering its forces with the speaker, to try to wait out this rainy, lonely period.
What do you make of the last three stanzas? There’s the contrast of the new gardening tools with the practice of eulogies (eulogies that either describe animals or describe people using animals as metaphors) and the suggestion of death and decay (the “unrabbited” woods instead of the fecundity associated with rabbits). The beloved’s name is spoken by leaves that somehow chatter (like books?)–but are the leaves on the trees, or lying dead on the forest floor? Lots to think about.