Cruelty and Falsity of Spring

“In those days spring always came finally but it was frightening because it almost failed.”
Ernest Hemingway

The crocus springs into its new world with fertile cheer, and daffodils beam spherical radiance seducing muscles to smiles.

Spring has come in joy and sadness. I can’t help but think of sadness. Is that true?

Ernest Hemingway captured it, as Hemingway does. Writing in his 20s from Paris, he notes, “In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.” There is failed promise, immediate hope dashed by reality.

He continues in his essay “The False Spring”1:

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

Full of youthful step, a spongy head, and brooding shoulders, Hemingway passes a day of false spring by going through routine. Shortly, despite effort to avoid engagements, he is slowed by obligations, limitations, and dependencies—the likes of which proclaim our adult status.

Hemingway feels it too, a loss, an ache: “Life had seemed so simple that morning when I had wakened and found the false spring.”

For Hemingway, spring was something promised and unfulfilled.

Falsity of Spring
Blue hyacinths. One of the first flowers of spring, One hundred years ago they were used as a Christmas flower, brought indoors to bloom next to evergreens and holly. Blue variety means “Constancy.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a writer with deep love for nature, paints spring in similar strokes. Like Hemingway, he enjoyed meaningful company but preferred solitude.

In 1909, Rilke writes of solitude’s greatness, our fear of it, our need for it, and our quickened temptation to forgo it if only to be in any company, be it “ever trivial or banal.”2

Perhaps those are precisely the hours when solitude grows, for its growth is painful like the growth of boys and sad like the beginning of spring. But that must not put you off. What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness.

The painful growth of spring?

Surely the warmth, the light, the presence of flowers, the joy and comfort of these wonderful, faithful human companions would render us happy, joyful.

Maybe it’s not their presence but their fickleness that stings.

The metaphor expands in the hands of British novelist and essayist Laurie Lee. In his essay “The English Spring,” Lee reflects on a slow, easing spring, early to appear and quick to fade. He is more open about his bitterness, his sword at the ready, facing spring like a foe3:

Almost overnight comes gusty March and the first real rousing of spring—a time of blustering alarms and nudging elbows, of frantic and scrambling awakenings. It is a bare world still, but a world of preparation and display against the naked face of the countryside. The cold east wind puts an edge to activity.

Although March is the first of “hot certainties,” it continues to claw and rage, furious and wild.

But spring’s cruelest trick, Lee continues, is yet to come: “[April] is the month of the spring’s sweetest pain—the pain of awakening and having to live once more after the anesthetic of winter, the agony of sap returning to the limbs, of numb hands held to the fire.”

Falsity of Spring
Daffodils, early to rise, early to fade. Their name means “New Beginnings” and is the beloved flower of Wales used to celebrate St. George’s Day on March 1. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

No wonder T. S. Eliot called it the cruelest month in his monumental poem, “The Waste Land”.4

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Rimbaud wrote something similar 50 years earlier. He called winter his worst season. “I dread winter because it is the season of comfort.” As we are settled in our warmth and our layers and comfort, spring comes and shakes it up. Stirring memory and desire.

There is life and birth and death in spring. There are lambs and rains and feasts and withdrawals, resurrections and divination. Time is compressed and expanded. It contains all of our joy and slows down so we notice minutia.

Like falling in love. Heartbreak. Falling in love. Heartbreak. The seasons of which we all know only too well.

I’m forced (happily) to turn to David Whyte, a masterful American poet and chef of words who has written a miscellany of common terms and their complex meanings. Of “heartbreak,” he writes this5:

Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control, of holding in our affections those who inevitably move beyond our line of sight.

Is spring as a cruel temptress luring us out of our winterized selves?

One would think so, reading all these individuals I mentioned.

Falsity of Spring
Purple hyacinths. In Classical legend, Hyacinthus was a beautiful youth whom Apollo adored and accidentally killed. Purple variety means “Please Forgive Me.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

After I left home for college, my parents introduced each early March phone call with news on the fruit crop of Western Michigan.

If there was a late frost, I knew immediately: pain and sadness from Mom, anger and disbelief from Dad. For the vulnerable blossoms, for the vulnerable trees, for the vulnerable farmers.

They all ran towards spring, helpless and hopeful, and spring let them down.

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot. […] Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is just as much an essence and emblem of care as the spiritual athlete’s quick but abstract ability to let go.

Who doesn’t run towards spring with open arms and wide, receptive hearts? The longer days, the broken ground, the flow of life. Gathered flowers in our arms.

The guilt lies in us, too. Not just spring. We are numbed from winter, anxious for warmth and light, we run towards spring expecting it to be summer and it’s not. It’s spring.

Spring isn’t cruel or heartless. It’s spring.

Will we never understand that nature seeks less of us as a partner than we do of her?

I’ve taken many early spring walks in forests, marveling at plants and blooms only to get nasty sunburns on the tips of my ears because the leafs had yet to form. My need for love has always outpaced nature’s readiness to give.

Spring keeps us young. Youthful hope and love. Run towards the forces that open the soil and expand the afternoon. Gleam in spherical daffodil splendor. Run towards spring and embrace it fully.

Though, it may hurt. All the best lovers do.