Michael Bruce’s “Elegy—Written in Spring”


The Poem Stuck in My Head

Marianna Saska, Edinburgh Castlehill in Spring

Edinburgh Castlehill in spring. Photo: Marianna Saska, via Flickr

Michael Bruce has a purchase on the springtime. He was born on March 27, 1746, just as spring was coming to Scotland, and his most enduring poem is “Elegy—Written in Spring.” The guy knows greenery.

Bruce—a Scotsman, as you may have guessed—was the son of a weaver; growing up, “his attendance at school was often interrupted because he had to herd cattle on the Lomond Hills in summer, and this early companionship with nature greatly influenced his poetry.”

And so it did: “Elegy” is a plain-and-simple celebration of companionship with nature; it’s unadorned and all the more beautiful for it. Bruce wrote the poem toward the end of his life, and its last stanza, which turns to gaze at death, is quietly devastating, especially since it comes after so many words devoted to the bliss and beauty of pastoral Scotland. The images here are classically, achingly bucolic: flowers, plains, furze. Verdant ground, ample leaves, and dewy lawns. On a day like today, when, in New York, the new season struggles to shuck off the dreariness of the last, “Elegy” is an ideal balm. If only it could bring the balmy weather with it.

‘Tis past: the iron North has spent his rage;
Stern Winter now resigns the length’ning day;
The stormy howlings of the winds assuage,
And warm o’er ether western breezes play.

Of genial heat and cheerful light the source,
From southern climes, beneath another sky,
The sun, returning, wheels his golden course:
Before his beams all noxious vapours fly.

Far to the north grim Winter draws his train,
To his own clime, to Zembla’s frozen shore;
Where, throned on ice, he holds eternal reign;
Where whirlwinds madden, and where tempests roar.

Loosed from the bands of frost, the verdant ground
Again puts on her robe of cheerful green—
Again puts forth her flowers; and all around,
Smiling, the cheerful face of spring is seen.

Behold! the trees new deck their wither’d boughs;
Their ample leaves, the hospitable plane,
The taper elm, and lofty ash disclose;
The blooming hawthorn variegates the scene.

The lily of the vale, of flowers the queen,
Puts on the robe she neither sew’d nor spun;
The birds on ground, or on the branches green,
Hop to and fro, and glitter in the sun.

Soon as o’er eastern hills the morning peers,
From her low nest the tufted lark upsprings,
And, cheerful singing, up the air she steers;
Still high she mounts, still loud and sweet she sings.

On the green furze, clothed o’er with golden blooms,
That fill the air with fragrance all around,
The linnet sits, and tricks his glossy plumes,
While o’er the wild his broken notes resound.

While the sun journeys down the western sky,
Along the green sward, mark’d with Roman mound,
Beneath the blithesome shepherd’s watchful eye,
The cheerful lambkins dance and frisk around.

Now is the time for those who wisdom love,
Who love to walk in virtue’s flowery road,
Along the lovely paths of spring to rove,
And follow nature up to nature’s God.

Thus Zoroaster studied nature’s laws;
Thus Socrates, the wisest of mankind;
Thus Heaven-taught Plato traced th’ Almighty cause,
And left the wond’ring multitude behind.

Thus Ashley gather’d academic bays;
Thus gentle Thomson, as the seasons roll,
Thought them to sing the great Creator’s praise,
And bear their poet’s name from pole to pole.

Thus have I walk’d along the dewy lawn;
My frequent foot the blooming wild hath worn;
Before the lark I’ve sung the beauteous dawn,
And gather’d health from all the gales of morn.

And, even when winter chill’d the aged year
I wander’d lonely o’er the hoary plain:
Though frosty Boreas warn’d me to forbear,
Boreas, with all his tempests, warn’d in vain.

Then, sleep my nights, and quiet bless’d my days;
I fear’d no loss, my mind was all my store;
No anxious wishes e’er disturb’d my ease;
Heaven gave content and health—I ask’d no more.

Now, spring returns: but not to me returns
The vernal joy my better years have known;
Dim in my breast life’s dying taper burns,
And all the joys of life with health are flown.