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Sumer is icumen in - or not

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour ...

What does this tell us? That March is a dry month and April is rainy, though its showers are sweet and benevolent (Eliot, however, found them cruel, and for just the same reason that Chaucer found them pleasant, that they wake nature into life again; TS, it seems, could see the downside of every good thing and the upside of what most people hated – Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow).

And what about May? Well May is a fine month, or at least it was in the fourteenth century when Chaucer’s contemporary William Langland went out one day along the Malvern hills – in a somer seson whan soft was the sonne –and slombred in a slepying along the side of a stream where he was vouchsafed his dream vision of a tower on a hill, a deep dale with a dungeon beneath and in between a faire felde ful of folke going about the business of this world.

All this is prompted by a fine review by Ronald Blythe (author of the classic study of the English village Akenfield) in the Times Literary Supplement (May 23rd) of a new book by Nick Groom entitled The Seasons. “Our seasons,” Blythe warns, “cannot remain those of earlier writers. Neither the climate nor our activities will allow it.” Indeed. And is there really any justification for thinking – in Ireland at any rate – that we have four of them? This is a country where we, or some of us, fondly imagine that Spring starts on February 1st (lá ’le Bríde) and yet one finds oneself still wearing a coat on some days in May, summer consists for the most part of day after day of sullen, overcast skies, autumn – and in particular October – gives us our most pleasant weather and it doesn’t get cold until late November or warm again (this is where we came in) until May. There is something missing here. I think it may be Spring – at the very least.

Of course it is not just in Ireland but in the prosperous West as a whole that we have pretty much lost touch with the rhythms of the calendar – when to expect the first cherry blossom, the flowering of the hawthorn, the arrival of raspberries, hazelnuts, damsons – the answers to which questions are still pretty generally known in rural central Europe, but for how much longer before they follow us in measuring out the year with our efforts to ignore for as long as possible the noisy coming in the shops of Easter, Hallowe’en and Christmas buying opportunities?

But nature is still out there. Go out in all weathers, Blythe advises. “touch the earth, pray in an old parish church, step back a bit from what you think you possess. Tread in footsteps. An English year both clears and batters your head. The Seasons is a list of losses and gains. Saints, poets, artists and ploughmen mark it out. As do meals and games. It is full of timetables that still go somewhere.”

Blyth’s review appears under the heading “Icumen in”, a reference to the thirteenth century lyric “Summer is icumen in”:

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing, cuccu;
Groweth sed
and bloweth med,
And springth the wode nu;
Sing, cuccu!

Nick Groom’s The Seasons is published by Atlantic at £22.

3/6/2014