Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Emmeline B. Wells on the Poet’s Season

Emmeline_B._Wells
Emmeline B. Wells

I probably should have posted this article in March, at the beginning of Spring–or the ‘Poet’s Season,’ as Wells calls it. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to focus on her argument that spring is most inspiring to poets. Instead, some of the assumptions that she makes are quite interesting.

First is the, I believe, common assumption that inspiration comes from something outside of us, instead of just our own reactions to the world around us. She says that the poet tries “catch the inspiration” and use it to “embellish life.” Thinking about this, I have to wonder if literary inspiration is qualitatively different from spiritual inspiration. Do we, Mormons, who believe by doctrine that spiritual inspiration comes from God, or are we simply applying a different definition of “inspiration” when something we see or experience “inspires” us? Is the poet’s muse God? or is at least some poetry inspired by God the same way that scripture is?

The second item that caught my attention in this article, a statement in this case, is Wells’ characterization of the distinction between poets and scientists:

“¦the poet is an interpreter of the beautiful in nature, but the scientist covers the entirety, for he analyzes nature; and instead of giving us, as the poet does, its music and beauty inspirationally, he gives quality and utility, and styles himself the true interpreter of nature’s forces.

Perhaps it is just me, but I read a hint that Wells believes the poet’s contribution is just as valuable as science. Regardless, I’m not sure this is an argument that we bother with any more–perhaps because poetry isn’t valued as it once was or perhaps because we no longer try to examine the relative utility of human endeavors, assuming perhaps that we all are free to do as we choose, that all endeavors have their value and that the “market” will sort out what is worthwhile in the end.

Of course, poetry and science aren’t mutually exclusive, but I do believe the viewpoints that come from science today have influenced poetry, making poets perhaps less likely to see nature the same way. Perhaps we have lost something in the process. On the other hand, we do have scientists who are also poets (even at least one among current Mormon poets), so perhaps the scientific viewpoint is also adding what we didn’t have before.

Here are Emmeline’s thoughts on how spring inspires the poet:

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The Poet’s Season

by Amethyst

It has been said, and truly, that Spring is the poet’s season. There is a peculiar freshness in the earth, and in the air, which penetrates, as it were, to the very centre of all inanimate things, and causes the blades of grass to shoot upward, the leaf and the floweret to burst forth. The soul, which is higher than any of these forms of beauty, must in conformity with creative forces be in sympathy with all these, especially the soul of the poet, that is ever more or less en rapport with nature. The poet feels this beauty without, this overflowing of nature’s fountains, and the same impulse is intensified in him, because the higher order of his creation demands expression. In the Spring the birds carol their sweetest music, warble forth their most charming melodies; they sing for joy that new life has sprung up. The poet Thomson, in his ” Seasons,” beseeches the birds for melody:

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“Lend me your song, ye nightingales! Oh, pour
The mazy running soul of melody
Into my varied verse, while I deduce
From the first note the hollow cuckoo sings
The symphony of Spring.”

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There is so much music in Springtime that it is little wonder one tries to catch the inspiration, and utilize some of the rich material to embellish life in its sober work-a-day phases. How beautiful the power of the keenly sensitive, gifted soul who can gather up the sunbeams, the dewdrops, the music of wood and glen, in flowing fountain or in song of birds, and apply its essence and its sweetness to rhyme and rhythm, and thus carry the pleasures of Spring into the homes of the people, who, while they are employed in the various occupations of life, can nevertheless enjoy the sentiments others have expressed, and in unison with the poet exclaim, ” These are my own thoughts and aspirations.” As the chemist extracts and condenses the strength of the elements of substances, and uses them for the various purposes to which they are necessary for man, in food and medicine, so the poet adds to the richness of the inner life, the metaphysical, elevating its tone and giving grace and beauty to the mind and heart.

It is not alone the birds who feel the influence of Spring, but the young lambs skip and gambol, the calves frolic as though conscious of the delights of nature everywhere apparent to man. Indeed, all the greatest efforts of nature seem to have culminated through innate forces and assumed tangible forms, or to have wakened after the long rest of Winter into newness of life. The affections are stronger, too, or at least we so comprehend it, at this season of bud and bloom, and Tennyson tells us, in that oft-quoted stanza from Locksley Hall:

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“In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”

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All the pulses of nature are quickened, and the corresponding human pulses likewise, when the body is in good condition. Lowell says:

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“What we call nature, all outside ourselves,
Is but our own conceit of what we see,
Our own reaction upon what we feel–
I find my own complexion everywhere.”

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Coleridge has said, too:

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“We receive but what we give,
And in our life alone doth nature live;
Ours is the wedding garment, ours the shroud.”

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We might go on quoting the opinions of the poets on this inexhaustible subject, which has been so much talked of and still remains more or less of a mystery, but suffice it to say, the poet is an interpreter of the beautiful in nature, but the scientist covers the entirety, for he analyzes nature; and instead of giving us, as the poet does, its music and beauty inspirationally, he gives quality and utility, and styles himself the true interpreter of nature’s forces.

Having skimmed over a little of the ground, and dwelt upon birdnotes and melody, we next consider the flowers in this connection.

The flowers of Spring are as necessary to inspire the poet as are the songs of birds, or the babble of brooks; and flowers are not only one of the elements of poetry, but also symbols of love. Music, flowers, poetry and love are very nearly related. Who can faithfully delineate the effect of flowers upon the senses. They speak to us forcibly in a silent language none fully understand, but all interpret in a measure. They feast the eye gratefully, and their fragrance is exhilarating to every sense we possess. To enumerate the varieties and delights of the flowers would be impossible; we all have some favorites, and we all comprehend what a wilderness this earth would be without them. Mary Howitt expresses our own thoughts, as true poets ever do, when she says:

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“God might have made the earth bring forth
Enough for great and small,
The oak tree and the cedar tree,
Without a flower at all;
He might have made enough–enough
For every want of ours.
For luxury, medicine and toil,
And yet have made no flowers.”

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From time immemorial flowers have been associated with love and tenderness, indeed, tenderness is a part of love, for whatever we love most we are most tender of. Whatever appeals to the heart fosters and strengthens the affections. It is perhaps because the Spring is the season when flowers are freshest, and birds sing sweetest, and skies are bluest, that love is strongest. And one’s own heart is so full of the tender passion that one wonders what the birds say to each other, and what the flowers think, and the poet sings of their secrets in strains like these:

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“I wonder what the Clover thinks,
Intimate friend of Bob-o-links,
Lover of Daisies slim and white,
Waltzer with Buttercups at night,
* * * * *
Oh, who knows what the Clover thinks?
No one unless the Bob-o-links!”

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Who would sing such a song except one in love, yes, in love with nature? And who that has felt the divine sentiment in its purity and intensity does not know that to be in love glorifies all beauty? In Eastern lands, where love is said to be most intense, there flowers abound and fruits are most luxuriant. Flowers in the fields and meadows feast the eye of the traveler and inspire the pen of the poet, but flowers in and about the home are indications of beauty in life and character. Their influence is always good and brightening. The lowliest cottage is handsomely adorned when flowers are blooming round it, and graceful vines trail o’er its doorways or its portico. Even those who pass by respect its inmates more, and to the indwellers these simple adornments are often of more value in adding to their happiness and enjoyment than the elegancies and splendor of the rich.

Nature herself is rich in embellishment, if we will but dispose her varied gifts becomingly. At all seasons of the year the poet may find himself in harmony with nature, but the Spring has many advantages, many charms to beguile the poet into musical, mazy rhythm. Therefore we should be lenient with even the humblest aspirant who sips at the perennial fount of poesy, remembering that all are weak compared to the great Author of that nature to which we are indebted for our subjects. Undoubtedly Spring is the poet’s season, for it is then God’s goodness strikes us most forcibly, and the poet must drink freely from the pure fount of knowledge, and all intelligence comes from Him, and He is love.

The Contributor 3 (May 1882), p. 232.

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3 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Emmeline B. Wells on the Poet’s Season”

  1. Well, she’s got a narrow definition of poet if she thinks poets can be pegged to seasons—and concomitant moods.

    Thank goodness Tennyson didn’t stop at praising Spring—or writing stuff like Amethyst quotes above. Yuck.

    I was just explaining to a student how Einstein worked as a poet when discovering and formulating Relativity. He accessed the chaos from which, I believe, all truly original invention derives (including this universe), and developed an analogy (flashlight on train).

  2. I read this and half-chuckle at all the 19th century flowery-ness and such. It reminds me of Hans Christian Andersen’s poetry and poetic commentary. It makes me wonder, too, what people in a hundred years will have to say about our writing now… perhaps we’ve gotten too dry, to pragmatic in our writing. I don’t know.

    About poetry and where it comes from: I always feel like poetry stems from some profound feeling, some salient moment where I suddenly feel either lost or lifted up, and I need to explain it so that I can have companionship 🙂 Often, epiphanies come to me while I’m doing nature-centric stuff. I believe that the natural world really is God’s most sacred and beautiful temple. So yes… the muse is God, the Spirit, but I’d say the poem is really a vehicle to explain our own interface with the spirit, nature, and our own troubles or inspirations. The poem might be the explanation of the “dark glass’ that we see ourselves and God through. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

  3. It makes a dark, glassy kind of sense.

    It’s funny how so many philosophies of men tend to externalize our abilities and responsibilities. Let’s not forget why we’re here: to become like God: gods, not sheep, not puppets. That’s why we can’t “take no thought save to ask”, but must “study it out in [our] minds” (conscious and subconscious, stable and chaotic) and “THEN ask [Him] if it be right.” We “ought to do many things of [our] own free will” and wit.

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