is April really the cruellest month?

Feb 11, 2021 poetry appreciation

Cos this month, though it’s short, does seem to go on rather. I do enjoy the early nightfalls of winter, and the pleasure of being cocooned in the heavier-weight duvet, rejoicing in warmth while all outside is cold. But there comes a point when I don’t want to get up in the dark; when I’m tired of wearing clothes that rustle and having my hood up, slithering in mud on my morning walk. So when I discovered this account of ‘February‘ by Bill Christopherson, it resonated. See what you think.

A very clever sonnet which doesn’t trumpet its sonnetiness, ‘February’ fleshes out Eliot’s claim that ‘there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it’. The first half of the octet evokes the dark and cold outside, while the second half, and the sestet, consider the impact of this time of year on the inner life.

But it’s really worth thinking about the poem’s sonnetiness, because part of its effectiveness lies in its unobtrusive subversion of “usual” sonnet form. In yer common or garden sonnet, the structure (pointed by the rhyme scheme) will be either 4/4/4/2 (rhyming perhaps abbacddceffegg) or 8/6 (abbaabbcdecde), and either the sestet or the final couplet will allow for the “turn”—the point where the poem as it were changes direction (see for instance ‘Shall I compare thee?‘, which pivots on the ‘But’ at the beginning of the sestet). In ‘February’, Christopherson observes the 8/6 structure; but his use of an unusual, palindromic rhyme scheme—abbccbba and then deffed—together with his division of the sentences—first quatrain=first sentence, second plus sestet=second—means that although in one way the poem splits 8/6, in another way it’s split 4/10. And this means (keep breathing, we’re nearly there!) that there’s a sort of tug of war going on inside it, a pull of structure against syntax. In other words, Christopherson embeds in the form itself a subtle sense of disturbance, of things not quite falling as they should, which mirrors the unease the poem describes. The form also allows for a sense of accumulation, the “build” of impact, which mirrors what the content explores; while the lack of neat, closing couplet reflects the lack of easy, satisfying resolution.

Nifty, eh?

Quite apart from this formal cleverness, the poem has some deliciously deft turns of phrase; I particularly like ‘when things in need of doing go undone/ and things that can’t be undone come to call’, which works in part because the strictly-observed iambs (the ti-DUM) mimic the inevitability of the surfacing of regrets. It also has some inspired imagery: ‘hope’s a reptile waiting for the sun’ is extraordinary, powerful, and much more resonant, for me, than the idea of hope as the ‘thing with feathers—/ That perches in the soul‘. I mean, I like the fleetingness which that evokes, but (as I’ve recently said elsewhere) I can’t go along with Emily’s assertion that hope ‘ask[s] [no] crumb’ of us. Whereas the idea of hope as a reptile—a being whose very body temperature is ‘greatly determined by what lies outside it’—really speaks to me. February, let alone February in a pandemic, finds my hope a dulled and sluggish creature. There’s a not a lot to be done except hang in there and wait for things to warm up.

Ah yes. We read to know we are not alone. I’m not the only lockdown lizard out there. Phew.

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