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In the final poem of Four Quartets, “Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot begins with the observation that “Midwinter spring is its own season.” Whenever I teach that poem, I always joke to my students that Eliot had clearly been to Michigan in March. Our weather in this last month has been bitterly cold, sometimes snowy, with the very occasional 60 degree “false spring” day that lures one into momentary hopefulness and short sleeves.

“Midwinter spring” is a wonderful description of Lent as well, that paradoxical time of despair and hope, lament and longing. And, though I’m sure this is often true, even as I’m beginning to see new life coming through the ground, it also seems like the difficult, the tragic, is dominating the news. Hostility and aggression on big stages and small. Democracy and institutional norms under attack. Effects and after-effects of a global illness. And on and on.

It put me in mind of William Wordsworth’s poem, “Lines Written in Early Spring.” As a Romantic poet, Wordsworth often looked to nature as a place of restoration, a place to nourish his soul. As a Christian, he also noted the ways that creation gives witness to glimpses of harmony (in the poem below, the literal harmony of birdsong, for example). More than that, in this poem, he moves beyond a simple celebration of nature to instead contrast the natural world with human nature. We do not come out well in the comparison.

And yet, even as the poem’s speaker is saddened by “what man has made of man,” the vision of a creation fully in order–where every flower and twig delights in its place and surroundings, where every bird seems filled with joy–is one full of hope. Yes, the speaker’s time in the grove shows just how out of whack we humans are, especially with each other. But by the final stanza, the speaker realizes that this is God’s intention in “Nature’s holy plan”: to remind us of the ways we fall short. In other words, lament is not the opposite of hope, lament is fueled from the hope of something better, the vision of something less broken.

Note that the poem doesn’t end in resolution or justice. Instead, it concludes “Have I not reason to lament/what man has done to man.” The perfect Lenten poem, if you ask me. We spend these days acutely aware of the ways, in the words of another famous Wordsworth poem, we are “out of tune,” discordant, with the natural world and with each other. That’s worth naming and mourning, even as we mourn as those with the hope of the coming new creation.

“Lines Written In Early Spring”

I heard a thousand blended notes, 
While in a grove I sate reclined, 
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts 
Bring sad thoughts to the mind. 

To her fair works did Nature link 
The human soul that through me ran; 
And much it grieved my heart to think 
What man has made of man. 

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, 
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; 
And ’tis my faith that every flower 
Enjoys the air it breathes. 

The birds around me hopped and played, 
Their thoughts I cannot measure:— 
But the least motion which they made 
It seemed a thrill of pleasure. 

The budding twigs spread out their fan, 
To catch the breezy air; 
And I must think, do all I can, 
That there was pleasure there. 

If this belief from heaven be sent, 
If such be Nature’s holy plan, 
Have I not reason to lament 
What man has made of man?

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? I also now chair the department. And along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

2 Comments

  • donna says:

    Thank you! “Lament …fueled from hope of something better” is so helpful to me. Bless you for sharing your gift.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jennifer, for your thoughts (and W. Wordsworth’s) on the lament of human kind. You have spoken, as has Wordsworth, about the lamentable state of human kind as seen by comparing creation to the sinful state of humankind. Both you and he speak as true deists who recognizes the creation as the truest revealer of God, rather than some special revelation, whether the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Talmud, or whatever special revelation a religion comes up with. Of course the creation, although God’s own revelation, is subject to interpretation. So whereas you may see a harmonious creation, such a view doesn’t take into account the multitude of animals that kill each other for food and sport or the rivalries between different species of animals, or the viruses that kill off untold millions of people, or the irregularities of weather that can kill thousands in a matter of minutes. So while I may marvel at the birdsong of two mating birds, I also marvel at the love of two young lovers who live in complete commitment to each other. I guess that simply suggests that we can see God or the absence of God wherever we want. Thanks, Jennifer, for your take on the human condition.

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