About a month ago, the clean, clear winter light of cold skies and January resolutions graciously withdrew, and in its place stole the soft, liquid gold that makes things grow. Green things now are pushing their way from ground and branch, the river’s blues overlay its grays, and bricks turn warm to the touch. In the afternoon, the light pulses through thick showers of leaves and pollen tossed from outstretched oaks; in the evening, it beams through their branches, turning the gray moss gold.
Springtime is coming to the South. It enters gently here, unexpected, like a good friend slipping through the back door—but no less welcome than the spring that comes to the North like family bursting through the front hall after a too-long stay away.
If the seasons play out the drama of the gospel year by year, then spring returns us to Eden, albeit briefly as the Genesis account itself. Fresh beauty, innocent love, celestial harmony, and divine benediction are felt through the light and sights and sounds around us, not just told in printed words. Felt, too, is the unstoppable plummet towards death, as days grow hot and green things wither. Springtime summons every sense to experience the drama’s first act.
Like Eden, spring brings the joy of naming. You’ll catch yourself in it on walks alone or with children: “Look at that green!” “See the butterfly!” “The azaleas are blooming!” Our joy in the body’s acts of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch is completed by the soul’s voicing of a name. Adam’s naming of the animals was a task as laborious as writing a dictionary—but did he do it in teeth-gritted duty, or open-mouthed wonder that could not help but speak?
This involuntary urge to give the things we love a name finds its fuller expression in poetry; indeed, the joy of naming is possibly the best defense of poetry. Poems put names to things—simple things like red wheelbarrows, complex things like times that are both endings and beginnings, eternal things like the marriage of true minds. Like introductions, which are also centered around names, poetic naming makes friends of the things we see. And friendship leads to deeper understanding and love: counterintuitively, rather than reducing the subject to a simple concept, poetic naming opens the subject up to increased layers of allusion, connotation, and communion. I can’t drive down the road in springtime without remembering Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring”:
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. —Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
With these lines in my mind, I perceive more depth in the things I see. Hopkins wakes me up to the exquisiteness of “weeds, in wheels, [shooting] long and lovely and lush” that I might otherwise hurry past. The query “What is all this juice and all this joy?” voices my constantly-rising doxology. And another theme running through the poem alerts me to a second echo of Eden in this season.
Like Eden, spring reveals beauty’s role of witness to goodness. The thrush’s song does not just delight, but “rinses” our ears in a sort of baptism. Springtime brings “A strain of earth’s sweet being in the beginning” before the Fall. Perhaps most poignant is the phrase “The descending blue”: like God coming to walk in the cool of the garden, Heaven brushes against the “leaves and blooms” of earth.
These references are clarified by another of Hopkins’ poems, “To What Serves Mortal Beauty?” Hopkins, one of the most vibrant of the Victorian nature poets, was not seeking out a utilitarian function for beauty in answer to this question. Rather, he answered that beauty’s purpose is to “[keep] warm / Men’s wits to the things that are; what good means.” In a culture where a warped definition of “beauty” is idolized—a beauty that is unnatural, photoshopped, spiced with seduction—we have trouble associating beauty with goodness. The idea of Heaven, let alone Eden, seems boring rather than beautiful. But the overwhelming beauty of spring, linked with an undeniable goodness, “warms our wits” or restores us to our right minds. Our imaginations can grasp an Eden of innocence, before the Fall, before even the temptation, in which beauty and goodness stood together. And we can then “meet” beauty, as Hopkins instructs: “own, / Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; then leave, let that alone. / Yea, wish that though, wish all, God’s better beauty, grace.” Yet, in thus meeting beauty, we catch another echo.
Like Eden, spring presses us against our finitude. On a recent evening walk down an oak-canopied road, a friend commented to me that the beauty surrounding us almost hurt. It seemed a disgrace, even an insult, to miss the nuances of light and shadow, hue and shade, pitch and scent that surrounded us; yet we lacked both the ability to catch them all and the capacity to fully appreciate them. The beauty on one small stretch of road surpassed our comprehension.
But this was difficult to accept. The temptation was to walk faster, scan more widely, take more in. And yet to do this would have been to forfeit even the small amount of beauty we could carry; it would have been striving to “be like God,” Who alone can contain the infinite beauties in and beyond His creation. We are not God; we are His creatures, and He who “hath made every thing beautiful in his time” has also decreed that “no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We meet beauty best when we meet it in our finitude, treasuring its moments and miniatures.
Like Eden, spring will end. But it will be restored: in next year’s spring, in the New Jerusalem. And for this we travel through summer, autumn, winter, and this world, in pilgrim hope.