Jean Bleakney

Spring by Jean Bleakney

‘Spring’ is an unsettling poem that explores the dangers of devotion and deferring happiness instead of living in the present.

Jean Bleakney’s ‘Spring‘ depicts a woman and her dedication to her garden throughout the months of Spring. Ultimately, the poem is a broader exploration of people’s willingness to defer their hopes and dreams and, as a result, lose out on the joy of the present moment.

Spring by Jean Bleakney


Summary

Spring‘ is both an account of dedication and a mediation on the nature of living life in the present, as we often fail to do.

The poem begins by outlining the care taken by the gardener when tending to her garden in early Spring when the weather is still cold enough to kill off plants unless they are well looked after. As the stanzas progress, the poem moves through the months of April and May, but as the plants grow stronger, the gardener herself appears increasingly fatigued. Ultimately the poem ends with the acknowledgment that, although she succeeded in getting her plants to summer alive, she failed to enjoy the season that has passed as she was so fixated on the future.

Context

Jean Bleakney was born in Northern Ireland in 1956, and she attended Queen’s University in Belfast to study biochemistry in her youth. Bleakney decided to stop working after the birth of her second child but found the reality of life at home to be mundane and took up gardening as a hobby. Through her newfound hobby, Bleakney developed an interest in the language of nature and began attending writing classes. 

She published her first collection, The Ripple Tank Experiment, from which ‘Spring‘ is taken, in 1999. She has since published two more full-length collections, and her work is regularly anthologized. Bleakney grew up during the period of violence known as The Troubles, and while she has said that she did not want to explicitly address it in her poetry, she decided she could no longer ignore its impact on her surroundings. Her passion for gardening and nature clearly influenced this poem, and its cyclical patterns could also evoke The Troubles, as the violence seemed without end at times.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

It spills from sun-shocked evenings in March
and slit seed-packets, buckled into spouts.
She palms and strokes and shunts them, via heart-line;
index-fingers them to rows of labelled pots.

The poet’s use of sibilance in the first lines evokes the sound of the wind and running water, which immediately grounds the reader in the outdoor setting of the poem. It could also serve to create an unsettling atmosphere to foreshadow the poet’s eventual realization that time has passed by. The use of the verbs “palms” and “strokes” emphasize the gardener’s tenderness towards her task and showcases the care and attention necessary to garden successfully. Finally, the listing nature of lines three and four mirrors the blinkered approach taken by the figure, which will ultimately be realized when summer arrives.

Stanza Two

They germinate too soon, of course, too soon
(…)
and freezing hands that reek of paraffin.

The repetition of “too soon” in the opening line suggests the woman is an experienced gardener and also mirrors the cyclical pattern of the hobby, dictated as it is by the seasons. There is also a degree of bitterness in this line, possibly foreshadowing the final stanza, in which the woman appears to realize they have lost track of the passage of time.

The metaphor in line two indicates how easy it is to become fixated on the growth of the plants by exaggerating their growth so the reader can see them as the gardener did. Finally, the reference to the figure’s “freezing hands” illustrates the devotion they have for their garden and the lengths they were willing to go to tend to it.

Stanza Three

When light allows, she separates each seedling
(…)
their tresses of translucent brittle silks.

The opening of this stanza implies the woman regards her garden as her priority, as demonstrated by the fact she tends it whenever there is light available. The verb “teases” suggests a personal connection between the woman and her garden, which goes some way to explaining how it is that she allows the season to pass her by while tending to it. The alliteration in the third line evokes the sound of grunts to imbue the line with the physical realities of gardening, which is an often demanding hobby. This is somewhat juxtaposed by the final line’s description of the “translucent brittle silks” which creates an eerie, ethereal tone and emphasizes the vulnerability of the plants. This could be intended to reflect the woman’s viewpoint and justify her obsessive attention to it.

Stanza Four

The longest month of all is fickle April:
(…)
How old, she thinks, her hands become, clay-crazed.

The poet personifies the month of April to evoke the gardener’s growing sense of irritation and paranoia, as though the longer they tend the plants, the more convinced they become that the natural world is working against her. This sinister reading is supported by the final line, in which the gardener acknowledges her hands appear to have visibly aged over the course of Spring. This creates an almost vampiric relationship between the woman and her plants, in which they grow stronger by drawing her energy and vitality from her. The stanza ends with the harsh alliterative “clay-crazed” to further showcase how the joy of the beginning of her endeavor has given way to bitterness and exhaustion.

Stanza Five

Some afternoon in May, the planting over,
(…)
as if awakening to some old grief…

The sinister nature of the previous stanza continues as the woman struggles to even walk through the garden without feeling “dazed.” This emphasizes the toll that her hobby has taken on her over just a few months. The poet uses a simile when likening the experience of looking at the horizon to “awakening to some old grief.” On the one hand, this reminds the reader that this is unlikely to be the first year in which the gardener has grown fatigued due to her efforts. However, it also reaffirms the dark undertones of the poem by insinuating the woman had been in some kind of trance during the period of Spring.

Stanza Six

Don’t ask her about daffodils or tulips,
(…)
nor the tentative new growth on evergreens.

The use of the imperative “don’t ask” creates a sense of urgency that is juxtaposed by the seemingly benign details that the reader is forbidden to inquire about. The use of caesura in line two adds a degree of emphasis to this demand, implying that any mention of the flowers in question could upset or injure the woman, such is her state of mind at the end of the season. The reference to her neighbors and their gardens implies her paranoia may have given way to jealousy.

Stanza Seven

Have pity on her. Now that June’s arrived,
(…)
the better part of spring divining summer.

The poet again uses an imperative verb in the opening line to create a sense of urgency which emphasizes the gardener’s exhaustion. Bleakney subverts the readers’ expectations as, ordinarily, the arrival of June evokes happiness and joy, but here it only serves to confirm that the gardener’s time has slipped inexorably away from them. The description of the woman as a “weather-beaten dreamer” evokes both the physical toll her task has taken on her as well as the sadness of the fact she has dwelt too long on dreams of the future that she forgot to enjoy the reality of the everyday.

The poem ends with the realization, on the narrator’s part at least, that the woman has been so fixated on her future happiness that she has forsaken it in the present. One imagines that this is hardly a unique experience for the woman and that this pattern of behavior will likely repeat itself just as the seasons come and go.

FAQs

What is the tone of ‘Spring‘?

Bleakney ensures the poem has a foreboding and, at times, melancholic tone to showcase how the figure allows life to pass her by in exchange for deferred happiness. Bleakney seems to imply this is an unwise way to live because you never know whether you will be able to reap what you sowed, so it is better to live fully in the present.

Who is the speaker in ‘Spring‘?

The narrator may well represent the poet, but given her penchant for gardening, Bleakney may well be represented by the gardener too. It is possible that the narrator embodies an older, wiser Bleakney who looks back upon her younger self in retrospect.

What is the structure of ‘Spring‘?

The poem is written across seven quatrains with the occasional use of half-rhymes. These half-rhymes serve to create an uncanny sense of recognition, perhaps echoing the seasons of years been and gone. They could also reflect the gardener’s fading strength as the season progresses.

Is Jean Bleakney a gardener?

After the birth of her second child, Bleakney decided not to return to work but found life at home to be dull and repetitive. She took up gardening as a hobby around this time and found it helped ease her boredom. She also discovered she was fascinated by the language of her new hobby, and it is this that inspired her to begin writing poetry.


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘Spring‘ might want to explore other Jean Bleakney poems. For example:

  • Breaking the Surface‘ – A thoughtful poem which compares skimming stones to artistic creation.
  • Out to Tender‘ – Another poem that uses natural imagery, this time to reflect Bleakney’s cynicism after the 1994 IRA ceasefire.

Some other poems that may be of interest include:

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About
Joe has a degree in English and Related Literature from the University of York and a masters in Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin. He is an English tutor and counts W.B Yeats, Emily Brontë and Federico Garcia Lorca among his favourite poets.
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