The Easter Flower

I could have chosen another poem for Easter, but besides this one’s song-setable qualities, “The Easter Flower”  is a poem about a Christian holiday written by a non-believer.

No, let me strike that casual term, “non-believer,” which doesn’t seem to fit McKay. He was a life-long radical, an unwavering believer in workers rights and social justice, always stalwart against colonialism and racism. As a radical, black, gay, immigrant man these beliefs were no simple balm to his soul, and by that I judge his beliefs to be strong and tested. McKay was also a confirmed skeptic, analyzing situations and sometimes changing his views on how these goals may be achieved, but that doesn’t alter those beliefs.

Now some of that may or may not resonate with you. Believers who do not share your beliefs can be rough companions to your reading or listening. Rest easy, this poem isn’t like that.

Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.

First off, like Wordsworth’s famous “Daffodils,”  this is a poem about a past-tense experience, something that exists for the poem’s singer only as a limerent memory as he sings of the flower. McKay who grew up in rural tropical Jamaica spent much of his life in more northern climes. The weather forecast for Minnesota calls for a few inches of wet snow for this Easter, and if non-tropical Minnesotans find this disappointing, all the more so for McKay.

So, the lily in the poem is likely a childhood Caribbean memory, and the plant the Trumpet Lily, the Easter Lily, is not native to these then English colonies. It was introduced there by a missionary who brought it from Japan in the 19th century. I don’t know if McKay knew that, but this flower he remembers at Easter time amidst thoughts of home is a colonial artifact as well as a Christian symbol.

Claude McKay and Easter Lily

Claude McKay and the flower of his complex memory

 

In the poem’s second stanza McKay modulates the flower memory, displacing the pale flowers in his mind by liking it to a formation of “rime,” the hoar-ice that forms along shapes when foggy water vapor freezes rapidly, uniting the poems present voice in a colder Easter with the warmer past. The end of this stanza and the beginning of the next form a vivid spring rebirth image, as devotional as any Christian mystic could have written.

And then the poem let’s us know that McKay isn’t a Christian. Indeed, at the time the poem was written he was an atheist.*  Therefore, the remembered image of the Easter flower is extraordinarily alienated from the singer. It’s in the past, in the ground of a country he no longer lives in, it’s a religious symbol not of his religion, it’s a non-native plant introduced by colonialists, growing in a climate of soft fragrant April nights, not a sleety cold northern city.

How easily we might skip through this poem, hearing but it’s lovely sounds and involuntarily resonating to the memories of a holiday with flashbacks of chocolate bunnies and jelly beans—or for devout Christians, one might hear only the inspiration of the image of the tomb earth giving way in resurrection. But that’s not this poem. McKay ends saying that he, “a pagan,” is overcome by this none-the-less, worshiping at another religion’s shrine. Why? From what? I think he chooses to make it undetermined. Homesickness even for a colonial homeland he felt he needed to leave is there. A certain ecumenical mystery too. The sensuousness of the flower is an undercurrent, the night smell of the flower has pheromonic power.

To hear my performance of Claude McKay’s “The Easter Flower”  use the player gadget below.

 

 

*In the last decade of his life, 20 years after this poem was written, McKay was attracted to the Catholic worker movement. After a period of self-searching he became a member of the Catholic Church.

In Memoriam Easter 1915

Here’s a story about a poem appropriate for this Memorial Day, though the story includes three Easter holidays.

First Easter: on Easter 1913 in March, a freelance writer, normally so pressed for a paycheck that he worked 15-hour days writing piece after piece, started off on a bike tour across Britain from his home near London to the south-western coast of England. Of course, there was a paycheck involved, a travel book was planned and resulted, which was called In Pursuit of Spring.

Edward Thomas Easter Bike Trip 1913 crop

Can’t tell the model, but from the front it’s clear that Thomas was riding a classic English “roadster” on his tour.

 

This trip started in overwork and near the ending of a glum winter, and finished in May with true spring; and this bicycle journey allowed the harried writer to expend a bit more focus on his writing. In the book, his trip ends in Somerset England, but a packet of photos he took during the trip indicates that he must have somehow crossed the Bristol Channel to Wales, the homeland of his ancestors. A tell-tale photo with his handwriting on the back was discovered recently, saying it was taken near Tinkiswood, the site of a Welsh Neolithic stone burial chamber. A year later the site was excavated, and 920 human bones were located. Welsh legend has it that staying the night in the chamber will cause any surviving visitor to go raving mad or become a poet. That wasn’t included in the book.

The overworked freelancer who took this journey was Edward Thomas. Shortly after the journey completed, he met a then little-known American poet who’s work Thomas had reviewed perceptively. The poet was Robert Frost. Frost read In Pursuit of Spring  and suggested that Thomas should write poetry.

“How so?” asked Thomas.

Frost told him that Thomas had already shown close readings of the book of nature and the rhythm of verse in passages in In Pursuit of Spring.

So, at this time Thomas began writing poetry, extraordinary poetry that is little known in the United States, but which is much loved by poets and readers in the U.K. Some of it so concise and so infused with deep attention to the natural world’s calligraphy that it rivals classical Chinese and Japanese forms.

And World War I breaks out.

I’ve already written about Thomas’ dilemma in deciding if he should enlist in the war, and Frost’s part in Thomas’ ambivalence, so here I’ll just say that Thomas did enlist. The records say it was in a company called “The Artists’ Rifles.”

Can Americans of our time imagine such a military organization? Of course, artists of all kinds have served in America’s military services, but I can’t envision that sort of name being used here in place of something like “The Screaming Eagles.”

Edward Thomas' company in training with Thomas in rectangle

Thomas’ company in training camp

 

The second Easter: the somber name today’s poem was published under was not his. Thomas in his manuscript simply wrote down the Eastertide date in 1915 when he apparently wrote the first draft of this, two years after he’d started the trip that had indirectly formed him into a poet. That summer he was even stationed for a while on military training in one of the towns he’d passed through on the bicycle journey.

But never mind the name, what a poem. It’s four lines, a single quatrain. Nearly every word is telling, even ones you slide over in the first line. Decades later Pete Seeger wrote a song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,”  condensing an episode from a WWI novel expressing a similar idea to Thomas’ poem. Seeger’s song is not long as songs go, but it’s a good length for a room to sing along with. Thomas’ poem has only started when it comes to its fourth line. The previous line breaks abruptly, enjambed, with “should,” and its final line reveals itself as it unwinds in heartbreaking fashion.

And Thomas? A third Easter: another spring, 1917. His diary entry in France wonders if the enemy is unseen in the fields ahead of him, which he still must view with the precision of a nature poet. He pauses to light his pipe. A bullet pierces straight through his beating heart that, will, do, never, again.

To hear my performance of the poem eventually published as “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)”  use the player below.

 

 

 

Additional notes:  There’s a new paperback edition published a couple of years back of In Pursuit of Spring,  which includes for the first time the photographs Thomas took during his journey, and it’s available from booksellers. Yes, English people do take up the idea of trying to duplicate Thomas’ bicycle trip today, for example Kimberly Rew, the  guitarist alongside Robyn Hitchcock in The Soft Boys and songwriter and guitarist of Katrina and the Waves, and also the Nick Drake estate manager and vintage bike enthusiast  Cally Callomon, whose plans included riding the trip on a period-correct English roadster bike.

I recognize that Memorial Day is an American Holiday, directly derived from the post American Civil War Decoration Day. I know this blog has a large segment of U.K. readers, so to explain: in the U..S. we have two holidays celebrating the armed forces, Memorial Day, which retains some of it focus on honoring the dead who served, and Veterans Day, which is the U. S. holiday that coincides with Remembrance Day. For readers on either side of the Atlantic who’d like to hear the LYL Band present a performance of an American poet for Memorial Day, here’s Carl Sandburg’s “Grass.”