‘Spring’ by Philip Larkin is a three stanza poem that is separated into uneven numbers of lines. The first stanza contains eight lines, and the second and third are tercets. This means they have three lines each. The number of total lines, fourteen, places this poem in the realm of a sonnet. Larkin’s choice in rhyme scheme also supports this conclusion. The lines follow a pattern of ABABCDCD EFF GEG.
Patterns of Rhyme and Rhythm
While this pattern does not conform to either of the most common, Shakespearean or Petrarchan, it has elements of both. The first eight lines, known in Petrarchan sonnets as an octet, follow the exact pattern of a Shakespearean sonnet. The last six, known as a sestet, do not. But, the separation between the octet and sestet is a feature of the Petrarchan sonnet and the pattern of rhyme used in the sestet could easily appear in this form as well.
In regards to the meter, the lines are also interesting to analyze. As is common within sonnets, the first eight lines contain five sets of two beats, or a total of ten syllables. The stress of the beats, or metrical feet, alternates between iambic and trochaic. When one gets to the second stanza though, in particular the tenth and eleventh lines, extra syllables appear. The meter reverts to pentameter in the last tercet.
The main theme of this piece initially seems very simple: spring. As the poem progresses it becomes more complex though. The text focuses on what the change in season does to those who embrace it. Unlike most poems written with the season in mind, this one is not up lifting. It does not focus on rebirth, new life, a fresh start, or general natural beauty. It is instead concerned with the negative aspects of spring and their impact on the human mind. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Spring
‘Spring’ by Philip Larkin describes the spring season as a time in which people stop being productive and focus entirely on their craven, immodest needs.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the type of people who are outside during spring. They have green shadows and let their children play in the grass. These people get nothing done. They wander from place to place, caring for nothing other than their own immediate pleasure.
The speaker places himself in the narrative in the next lines. He too moves through this green landscape. His movements are not calm though, he is like a pursed pair of lips, feeling disgust and disapproval over what he sees.
‘Spring’ ends with the speaker condemning those who focus entirely on themselves and their immediate needs. They are “immodest” and “excitable,” a clear reference to a sense of sexual liberation that comes with the season.
Analysis of Spring
In the first lines of ‘Spring’ the speaker begins by referring to people who are “Green-shadowed.” The color comes from the setting. It is spring, and all those Larkin mentions in this first stanza are enjoying, what seems to be, a perfect spring day. These first lines are quite different from those which follow in the sestet. Before the turn that happens at line eight/nine, the speaker seems to be using a wistful, perhaps even jealous tone as he observes his surroundings.
He notices the people who sit, or “walk in rings.” While they wander aimlessly from place to place outdoors as their children “finger the awakened grass.” No one is doing much of anything of great physical importance to the world. They are simply living in this moment.
The speaker also takes note of the “Calm” way that the “cloud stands” and the “calm” singing of a bird. The repetition the word “calm” in this single line is not noteworthy on a first reading, but when one comes back to this line later, it is clear the speaker dislikes the whole setting. He sees no point in relishing these features or taking a peaceful mindset.
In the next set of lines the speaker picks up where he left off in the fourth line. He was speaking on a “flashing light.” In the fifth line it is revealed that that light, unsurprisingly, is the “Sun.” It comes down and reflects off of the “balls that bounce.” These are likely the playthings of the children mentioned in the second line, or even toys belonging to the dogs referred to directly after this phrase.
The sixth line is when things really start to change. The speaker uses first person and tells the reader that he is walking, or “Threading” his way through the park. He is unhappy, depicting himself as “pursed-up.” This is a very investing way to describe how he feels, as if he detests everything he sees. The speaker finds the frivolous actions brought on by the height of spring to be distasteful.
He also tells the reader that he is lit by the sun as well. Just like the ball and the leaves and branches. All of it, to the speaker, is “An indigestible sterility.” This phrase is not entirely clear. Perhaps the speaker sees the world in its current state as ignorant and void of the real troubles of life. When people frolic in the joys of spring they neglect the truth of their lives.
The second stanza of ‘Spring’ begins with a very different tone than the first. By the end of the first stanza one has come to realize that the speaker has a negative opinion of spring and the emotions it brings forth in the general public. He makes this even clearer in the next lines. There is a clear separation between this part of the text and the previous eight lines.
This is known as the “turn” or “volta.” It is a technique commonly used in both Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets. The fact that is occurs between the octet and sestet places it in the realm of the Petrarchan.
In line one of the second stanza the speaker refers to “Spring” as the “most gratuitous” of “all seasons.” He sees it as being useless and purposeless. There is, in his mind, no benefit to it existing. The next lines list out the reasons behind this opinion. First, he states that it is like the “fold” of an “untaught flower” and “race of water.” These things are done without precision or forward thought. He also refers to spring as,
[…] earth’s most multiple, excited daughter;
The speaker is comparing the seasons to earth’s children, and spring to the one that is the most wonton. She is excitable and “multiple,” with many always moving parts that accomplish nothing.
In the final lines of ‘Spring’ the speaker describes spring on earth as having “least use for [those who] see her best.” These are the wandering, peacefully listless people mentioned at the beginning of the poem. The speaker has a very negative view of the way they live their lives in the season. As spring progresses,
Their paths [grow] craven and circuitous,
Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.
Spring benefits no one. It corrupts society’s ability to work hard and makes one focus on things that do not serve them or the greater good. The needs that one has during spring are “immodest” or inappropriate, perhaps bordering on sexual. Considering that spring is the natural time or birth, growth and reproduction, this is likely one of the elements the speaker is considering.