Wednesday, April 10, 2013

`The Year's Pleasant King'

The day was windy and warm, and, as usual, I thought of the late Doc Watson, the hours I spent with him in a club in Troy, N.Y., almost twenty-five years ago, and his version of John D. Loudermilk’s “Windy and Warm” (listen long enough to hear him whisper, after the final note, “Isn’t that pretty?”). Without the wind, the air would have felt close and clammy on the skin, as when you walk into a steamy locker room fully dressed. Despite the unrelieved drought, last week’s brief rain has turned the oaks and their new leaves the color of fresh lettuce, the pale green of spring, and a line came to me: “Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king.” Now where did that come from? The internal rhyme made it stick, I’m sure, but so did the season personified as “the year’s pleasant king,” an image that conjures a benign monarch in green, part Falstaff, part Green Knight. 

Elizabethan, I thought, perhaps Shakespeare in one of the lesser comedies. I had to look it up: The song is from A Pleasant Comedy Called Summer’s Last Will and Testament by Thomas Nashe, first performed in 1592, published in 1600. The fourth line of each stanza repeats the calls of the cuckoo, the nightingale, the lapwing and the owl, respectively. “May” in the third stanza refers to the hawthorn blossom, about which the Oxford English Dictionary, which cites Nashe’s usage, offers an interesting note: 

“The common hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, now typically comes into flower around the middle of May in Britain, but before the revision of the calendar in 1752 its blooming probably coincided with the beginning of the month. Hawthorn is notably venerated in British folklore: for an extensive discussion of the superstitions attaching to the plant see R[ichard] Mabey Flora Britannica (1996).” 

I’m sure I never read Nashe’s play, so I must have come across his poem in an anthology. All this lovely spring greenness and all it represents brought to mind another, more chastening poem: 

“I left the green bark and the shade,
Where growth was rapid, thick, and still;
I found a road that men had made
And rested on a drying hill.”

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