Today marks the start of National Poetry Month, four weeks dedicated to the celebration of poetry throughout the years. William Shakespeare’s exact birthdate is unknown, but we do have enough historical evidence on record to know that he was born in April. So, this week’s selection for Poem of the Week–“Spring,” by the Bard–serves as a small gesture to celebrate the birth of one of the most famous poets and playwrights of all time.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and began his professional life in the theater in 1594 as a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men players company. Over the course of his career, he penned 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Although there have been several conspiracy theories since his death that question the authorship of his works, it is widely believed that Shakespeare is the legitimate author of each play and poem that is credited him.
The poem “Spring” is actually a song, sung in the final scene of Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost. In the poem, we see several stylistic choices that are used very frequently throughout Shakespeare’s work. The first is the rhyming couplet. Shakespeare is known to use this device in many of his sonnets. As we can see in this poem/song, he repeats two separate rhyming couplets in each of the poem’s stanzas. This first couplet is: “The cuckoo then, on every tree / Mocks married men; for thus sings he.” The second is: “Cuckoo, cuckoo: Oh word of fear / Unpleasing to a married ear!”
From these couplets we can also note the humorous play-on-words that Shakespeare is using. Shakespeare is known for his wicked sense of humor, which can be seen in many of his comedies. In this poem, he plays on the sound that the cuckoo bird makes:
“…Cuckoo, cuckoo: Oh word of fear / Unpleasing to a married ear!”
Shakespeare is insinuating that this bird’s call sounds like the word “cuckold,” actually derived from the cuckoo bird, because female cuckoo birds have a habit of laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. A “cuckold” is a medieval term used to describe a husband whose wife has been unfaithful to him. It is a derogatory term, because it refers to a man who is usually unaware that he’s married to an adulterous. Thus this little song weds the conventional season of new birth and relief from winter with domestic dread. When nature emerges from its shelters and protective restraints, it brings the threat of unbounded passions. Perhaps Eliot echoed this aspect of spring when he wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” Of such tangled possibilities and ambiguities is the most memorable poetry conjured and constructed.
To read more of Shakespeare’s poetry and sonnets (including “Spring”), visit PoetryFoundation.org.
posted by Meaghan Latella