Many years ago, Robert Frost, a wise man and one of America’s best poets who saw deeply into the heart of man and nature, once told a group of undergraduates that “a song was better for having been held in check a while.” At least that’s how I remember his words, and they come to mind when something I and others wish for is long overdue.
Take this winter, for instance. I hear Henny Youngman in my mind, “Yes, please, anyone, take it!” And I’m tempted to agree with him. After all, this has been a Buffalo winter without a respite, even though it hasn’t been a harsh one by Buffalonian standards.
There was no warm spell and momentary thaw in February to remind us that spring hasn’t forgotten us, and there were few bright days to assure us that our companion in the solar system was making its daily rounds. It’s true that I’ve heard the honking of a few Canada geese who seem to have returned from their winter vacation, but I haven’t heard anything that sounds like a triumphal chorus. And I’ve yet to see those thrilling V-shaped formations that seem, Churchill-style, to be giving us the victory sign as they trumpet the imminent curtain call of Old Man Winter.
And I haven’t seen the lone yellow crocus in my ivy bed who presents himself, usually by mid-March at the latest, as a testament to nature’s and our ability to survive and even to flourish for another season. My crocus, if I can be so possessive, who knows that I need a little encouragement just at the moment when I’m about to lose faith in the redemptive powers of nature, seems to be shirking his job.
I may sometimes think that I’m “Waiting for Godot,” but my crocus’s annual rebirth (I guess that makes it a perennial), even if tardy this year, will remind me that the life force is at work even when we’re unaware of it.
Forget T.S. Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month” and remember, I tell myself, Dylan Thomas’ “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” And, remembering this line of the great (and somewhat forgotten) great Welsh poet’s line, I realize that I have not been fully attentive to some other signs of spring’s imminent return: a finch snagging a twig from the inner branches of my protective arbor vitae to begin building a nest; some brave high school students wearing baggy shorts as soon as the temperature is above freezing; the Van Gogh vivid crimson of the dogwood bush. The long winter has dulled, but not deadened, my synaptic roots. I have been in a dormant state, but waking up has a special pleasure.
As Frost says, there’s something to be said for holding back even being held back, in all aspects of life, so long as one can spring forward after one has fallen back. Finding the right word for a poem after a sleepless night, hitting a shot at the buzzer to win a game, falling in love in the twilight of life, visiting Paris for the first time when you’ve earned your retirement and can afford it – all these “late” experiences tell us, as will the eventual appearance of the crocus, that we never should give up on life.
After all, the universe, according to the most recent cosmological observation, is 13.8 billion years old, and we’re still orbiting around our galaxy. Surely, it’s not overly optimistic to think that spring will make an appearance in Buffalo and Erie County this year – late, but better because it’s late.
Howard R. Wolf is emeritus professor of English at UB and a life member of Wolfson College, Cambridge University.