April 21, 2012

Cranch: the sky is a vault of stone

Christopher Pearse Cranch recognized spring as a sort of battle ground between winter and spring. Though born near Washington, D.C., he spent most of his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On April 21, 1874, the poet, painter, and Transcendentalist wrote "A Battle of the Elements":

The warring hosts of Winter and of Spring
    Are hurtling o'er the plains.
All night I heard their battle-clarions ring,
    And jar the window-panes.

The arrowy sleet is rattling on the glass;
    The sky a vault of stone;
The untimely snows besiege the sprouting grass;
    The elm-trees toss and moan.

Their swelling buds curl backward as they swing;
    The crocus in its sheath
Listens, a watchful sentinel, till Spring
    Shall melt the snow's last wreath.

The saddened robins flit through leafless trees,
    And chirp with tuneless voice,
And wait the conquering sun, the unbinding breeze;
    They cannot yet rejoice.

Slowly the victor Spring her foe outflanks,
    And countermines his snows;
Then, unawares, along the grassy banks
    Her ambushed violets throws.

Soon she will mask with buds of fragrant white
    Her arsenals of thorns,
And lift her rose-bush banners to the light
    Of soul-entrancing morns.

Along the fields her fairy troops shall hide,
    And conquer by their grace,
And shake their flowery crests, and far and wide
    The surly frosts displace;

Till all the woods are ringing with the glee
    And prophecy of change
That melts the past and sets the present free
    Through Summer's perfect range.

O flagging spring of Honor and of Truth,
    Shalt thou not victor be,
And bring again the faith the nation's youth
    Made one with Liberty?

Shall the new birth America has known
    Amid her battle-throes
Prove a nipped blossom, blighted ere 't is blown,
    Or a perennial rose?

The final stanzas of the poem shift the theme, as so often happens with poetry. Here, Cranch applies his metaphor for Spring to the whole of the United States, still reeling after the Civil War amid the Reconstruction era. Cranch's acquaintance, U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, had died only the month prior to this poem,  and the politician had spent his final years pushing for civil rights reforms.

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