Poems for a spring in isolation

Some literary cheer-ups for my poetry pandemic pals


With all the doom and gloom we’ve been feeling in recent weeks coming on top of soaring heats in quarantine, this Spring being stuck inside can feel like a bit of a bummer. Although admittedly The Cambridge Tab isn’t quite a secluded villa outside Florence, and corona isn’t quite the Bubonic Plague, I’ll try my best to bang out a few of my favourite tales in verse and do my boy Giovanni proud. Apologies to all the Englings whose culture I am blatantly appropriating here.

So, to distract us all from the May Balls that could have been, here are a few poems about Cambridge, spring, isolation and hope.

Ezra Pound, And the days are not full enough

Despite being an all-around dodgy bloke (my man literally has “fascist sympathiser” in the first sentence of his Wiki), Pound hits the nail on the head of that “everything is slipping by and AaaaAAAaaa” feeling we are all having right now. Check it out:

And the days are not full enough

And the nights are not full enough

And life slips by like a field mouse

                Not shaking the grass. 

John Keats, To Solitude

As seen as we are all stuck here for a while, we might as well try and make isolation a happy thing. Johnny was just 19 when he wrote this and I feel it captures that ‘wasted youth energy’ well. Well, a wasted youth in some utopian countryside buuuuuuuuuut anyway:

O solitude! if I must with thee dwell,

Let it not be among the jumbled heap

Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—

Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,

Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,

May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep

’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap

Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.

But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,

Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,

Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,

Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be

Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,

When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

G.M. Hopkins, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo

This one is waaaay too long to put in this article, so you can check it out here. A journey from despair to hope through the beauty of words, it’s an all-around wholesome piece, and I even got given it in my Cambridge interview, so that’s pretty cool. If you too are a sucker for a Welsh accent, hear the ultimate hottie Richard Burton read it out here.

HOW to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep        

Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?    

Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep, 

Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?      

No there ’s none, there ’s none, O no there ’s none…

W.D. Snodgrass, April Inventory

Just a simple and unassuming poem about spring and the passage of time, and honestly I just find the name Snodgrass kinda peak. It’s pretty long, so the full version is here. Here’s the abridged goods:

The green catalpa tree has turned

All white; the cherry blooms once more.   
In one whole year I haven’t learned   
A blessed thing they pay you for.   
The blossoms snow down in my hair;   
The trees and I will soon be bare.
The trees have more than I to spare.   
The sleek, expensive girls I teach,   
Younger and pinker every year,   
Bloom gradually out of reach.
The pear tree lets its petals drop   
Like dandruff on a tabletop.
The girls have grown so young by now
I have to nudge myself to stare.
This year they smile and mind me how   
My teeth are falling with my hair.   
In thirty years I may not get
Younger, shrewder, or out of debt.
I taught my classes Whitehead’s notions;   
One lovely girl, a song of Mahler’s.   
Lacking a source-book or promotions,   
I showed one child the colors of   
A luna moth and how to love.
While scholars speak authority
And wear their ulcers on their sleeves,   
My eyes in spectacles shall see
These trees procure and spend their leaves.   
There is a value underneath
The gold and silver in my teeth.
Though trees turn bare and girls turn wives,   
We shall afford our costly seasons;
There is a gentleness survives
That will outspeak and has its reasons.   
There is a loveliness exists,
Preserves us, not for specialists.

Xu Zhi Mo, On Leaving Cambridge

This one hits a little too hard for some. On Leaving Cambridge was originally written in Chinese, (it is translated by Guohua Chen) and has a cute backstory and interesting cultural impact in China which you can read about here.  I am very sure you’ve seen excerpts in about 834 finalists’ insta stories, but here it is in its full glory:

Softly I am leaving,
Just as softly as I came;
I softly wave goodbye
To the clouds in the western sky.

The golden willows by the riverside
Are young brides in the setting sun;
Their glittering reflections on the shimmering river
Keep undulating in my heart.

The green tape grass rooted in the soft mud
Sways leisurely in the water;
I am willing to be such a waterweed
In the gentle flow of the River Cam.

That pool in the shade of elm trees
Holds not clear spring water, but a rainbow
Crumpled in the midst of duckweeds,
Where rainbow-like dreams settle.

To seek a dream? Go punting with a long pole,
Upstream to where green grass is greener,
With the punt laden with starlight,
And sing out loud in its radiance.

Yet now I cannot sing out loud,
Peace is my farewell music;
Even crickets are now silent for me,
For Cambridge this evening is silent.

Quietly I am leaving,
Just as quietly as I came;
Gently waving my sleeve,
I am not taking away a single cloud.

Wendy Cope, The Orange

A personal favourite to finish with, and by far the most hopeful of the lot, Cope lets us dwell in the pleasures of the little things and everyday loves in this piece. It takes on a new meaning now that we are missing The Big Normal in quarantine, but we’ll have it back quite soon. Here’s The Orange: 

At lunchtime I bought a huge orange
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.

The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all my jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.

I highly recommend signing up for the Poetry Foundation’s “Poem of the Day” email, the theme at the moment appears to be Spring and solitude – and we all know a little about that.