“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring,” declared a poet looking about him at this time of year more than 120 springs ago. He wasn’t a Japanese poet; he was an English one. Still, he seems to have grasped the essence of the season pretty well, even though in this particular sonnet he was recommending the viewing of “peartree blooms” — a concept sure to strike cherry-blossom-loving Japan as positively deviant.
The point is that as the spring-tide peaked across Japan this past week, the literatures of many different cultures were there to remind us that it was simultaneously peaking right around the Northern Hemisphere. Poets of every language have always found the “juice and joy” of spring irresistible: English, certainly, is extraordinarily rich in literary tributes to the season of renewal. Watching pale cherry petals flutter to the ground (or into upraised sake cups) around Tokyo lately, observers steeped in the English-language tradition will inevitably have been reminded, not of Basho or Issa or Buson, but of A.E. Housman:
. . . And since to look at things in bloom Fifty springs are little room, About the woodlands I will go To see the cherry hung with snow.
Spring-watchers who prefer their English lyrics a little more colloquial may have remembered instead the immortal words of an anonymous New Yorker:
De spring is sprung, de grass is riz, I wonder where dem boidies is. De little boids is on de wing. Ain’t dat absoid! De little wings is on de boid!
Japanese will recognize instantly the double note sounded by Housman: intense pleasure shadowed by understated regret at the fleetingness of all things — blossoms, time, life. That echoing word “snow,” especially, should strike a chord with devotees of haiku. There is a special gratification to be had in pairing poems from different cultures and watching the correspondences blossom. Many a silly debate over who is more sensitive to the passage of the seasons — East or West — could be silenced by a comparison of Housman’s lyric and Rippo’s equally delicate, equally chilling death-poem, “The Three Loveliest Things” (as rendered in rhyme by Harold Stewart): “I have seen moon and blossoms; now I go/ To view the last and loveliest: the snow.”
The altogether less complicated pleasure of the “boid”-watcher also has its counterpart in Japan — whether in the tipsy revelry carried on under the trees at Ueno or in haiku like Onitsura’s “Discovery,” which itself might have been written at some long-ago “hanami” party: “Again the cherry-buds are bursting through:/ Horses have four legs! Birds have only two!”
Here, too, what jumps out at us is not the distinctiveness of the responses, but the likeness. Spring is spring around the globe, and whether people in this place or that choose to see it embodied in cherry blossoms, tulips, azaleas, the start of the baseball season or the first spring fashion show is less important than the common experience, everywhere, of sudden, indefinable gladness, hay fever and editorial cliches.
All this said, spring in Japan does offer some unique satisfactions. More than most places — perhaps because its urban areas are grayer and bleaker than most, perhaps merely because it has planted a colossal number of cherry trees — it is transformed by the emblematic cherries’ brief flowering. More than most countries, too, it has organized its affairs to dovetail nicely with the seasonal mood. Thus, just as spring marks nature’s recurrent new beginnings — leaves budding, lambs being born and all the rest of it — it also marks social beginnings here: The school year starts, the fiscal year begins, companies welcome new employees, politicians turn their minds to the annual budget. All things, it seems, are temporarily in harmony.
Meanwhile, as you sense spring fever in your blood and a new spring in your step this month, think of this verse by the 16th-century Englishman Thomas Nashe and see if it doesn’t capture that crazy feeling exactly:
Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king; Then blooms each thing; then maids dance in a ring, Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing: Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.