THE COMING OF SPRING.
THE calendars mark out the seasons, and country people make proverbs about swallows and spring flowers, as if spring and summer came to everybody on the same day of the year. Spring begins on the twenty-first of March, with the vernal equinox ; that is the season of the astronomers. Spring is here when you can tread on nine daisies at once on the village green; so goes one of the country proverbs. But the truth is much fresher and more ungoverned than any proverb. The coming of spring is a personal and individual experience, and happens to different persons at different times. It does not belong necessarily to any particular month, or day, or to this or that condition of air and sky, or degree of warmth in the earth, or quarter from which the wind is blowing. It can be a matter of temperament, or of accident, or of change of surroundings ; it can come to one of two com- panions walking out of doors, and not to the other; it can be felt for a moment in the depth of winter, and return a week later, or not for six weeks. Everybody who lives in the country may know that spring has come long ago, and still the townsman may not know it. He may journey out one day from the smoke and noise of London streets and find himself walking on down grass with larks singing and lambs bleating, and the dog's-mercury new and green by the roadside, and young nettles and celandines in the ditches, and he may suddenly know that it is the first day of spring. A man who can come to that sudden, fall knowledge is in some ways very much to be envied. The countryman would not change places with him, and would think it almost the life of a prisoner if he were compelled to spend the first three months of the year in London.. But then nobody like the prisoner can feel the same overpowering sense of freedom and fresh air and new life. It is the countryman imprisoned, in that sense, in Italy who writes as Browning wrote, longing to see the sights he knew were everywhere in England in
"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 !"
"Unaware—that is the eumming-up of the knowledge of the first days of spring for the townsman and the country- man too. But to the countryman the change from winter
to spring cannot be so sudden as for others. To live in the country, to walk out every day over field paths and through green lanes, to feel every change in the wind, to watch the coming and the passing of rain, to note the growth of buds, the falling of leaves, the blossoming of the flowers in turn month after month through the year, is to find the coming of spring a very gradual process, a change which is a slope or a curve rather than a series of steps. For the countryman there is no period of the year when the growth of the fields and woods, the change from maturity to decay, or from decay to fresh life, checks and is still. The fall of the leaf in November is but the birth of the bud that is to break in April. So the coming of spring with him is rather a knowledge that certain stages of growth belong to yesterday than the sudden, surprised discovery that new things are about him. He notices in November that the first green spikes of the crocus are pricking up from the mould of the garden beds ; he finds the aconite shouldering through the soil before the new year, and the snowdrop blossom showing a
pale strip under its glaucous sheath ; he watches the celandine leaves grow from sixpences to half-crowns, and the hazel shake its catkins looser in rain and wind. The birches
turn from brown to plum-colour, and the top branches of the elms are heavier and thicker against the evening sky ; the elder sets a note of purple and olive on the undergrowth ; the blackthorn dots itself with pin-head buds like the "hundreds and thousands" of children's cakes. It is all the slowest and surest of processions, and if the visitor from town, arriving in a North-Easter and a shower of hail, asks where the spring may be, perhaps he will not think himself satisfactorily answered if he is told to look at the elms or the crocuses. But it is still true, for all the slowness of the procession, that there are days when the countryman can feel a distinct and sudden sense of change, a new breath in the wind, a new warmth in the sunlight, new knowledge of life and well-being. Those days come more than once in the early year ; in January first, with an altered angle of the sun and the wind gone suddenly round to the West ; in February, with the lengthened twilight and the blackbird singing at sundown ; in March, with the most generous vigour of all, with the daffodils on the hill, the white violets under the hedge, the lambs galloping in the fields. And it is the close observer of the slow procession, too, who finds his calendar marked with dates and stages of spring distinct, separate and certain, year after year. The dates of the first singing of the different birds fall every year into their well-known and expected places ; the migrant birds return year after year as true to time as the tides. The times of singing of some of the birds which are with us all the winter, of course, depend upon wind and weather; this year, for instance, there has hardly been a day since the end of December when you could not hear the great-tit's double call almost as loud and as confident as in April ; but there is always a separate, distinct day in February when the black- bird begins his evening carol, and after the blackbird the chaffinch in the morning, and the yellow-hammer and the pied wagtail, and the green woodpecker jubilant in the sun. Those sounds belong to the spring that comes before the frosts and snows are over, and the hearing of them one after another is part of the slower procession of spring in the earlier weeks of the year. But it is when the progress quickens in the last weeks of March and through all April that those who listen for the new notes of the migrants set the distinctest dates in the round of the year. They may mark with a white letter the day late in March when the chiffchaff first calls cheerily high among the naked beech- twigs ; the first week in April brings the swallow darting low over the river and sets the twitter of the martin in the blue air round the farm chimneys; mid-April will hear the wryneck and the cuckoo, and the third week perhaps the nightingale, and the song of the year is nearly complete. That, again, is an anthem which may be heard suddenly after the roar of London streets, and can bring with it the full persuasion that spring is a season suddenly lighted down from the blue. But it is better to hear the parts join the chorus one by one ; to catch the first note of each migrant bird in turn with that new and never-lessened pleasure which comes to the listener, as Sir Edward Grey has delightfully said, " happier than personal success." What experience in the year would one who has listened spring after spring exchange for the first notes of the wryneck, the willow-wren, or the cuckoo ?
When have the best poems of spring been written, before Os- after the coming of the full tide of it, or in the height of the new sense of its presence P The setting down of the dates on which the best were written would make an interesting calendar. Would they not most of them belong to the days of hope and expectation, rather than to the realisation of hope and the full knowledge P There are some queerly unexpected dates to be found in looking through the songs which seem directly inspired by the very presence of spring and summer. Who would doubt that Christina Rossetti's sudden out- pouring of joy in the promise of life belonged to the spring P- " My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered shoot:
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit." . . .
Yet it was written late in November. If there is one poem
which belongs of necessity, beyond argument, to April sun- shine, it is FitzGerald's "Meadows in Spring"; yet is the date of the writing of it certain For ten stanzas it is all of the greyness of winter, the remembrance of brighter days gone, the reading of old books by the fireside :—
"Thus, then, live I,
Till, 'mid all the gloom, By heaven ! the bold sun Is with me in the room Shining, shining !
Then the clouds part, Swallows soaring between ; The spring is alive, And the meadows are green!
I jump up, like mad, Break the old pipe in twain, And away to the meadows, The meadows again ! "