16. Spring Inspiration

Absent for some time from these pages. Busy. Very. Sorry. Back now. For a moment (the semester’s not over!).

Spring at last! For us over here on the Western side of the Atlantic, hallowed days! It’s been a long, long, cold, blizzardy winter. The longest, coldest, and blizzardiest in at least a decade, likely more. But today, and–or so the weather mavens inform (they have been wrong before!)–for the next few precious diurnal revolutions, lovely and warm. Springing at last, we trust, those glorious but still hidden crocuses and daffodils!

Mr. Ruskin has taught me much. One such teaching has been his insistence that we take the time to assiduously search out the root meaning of words, even of words we commonly use, the essential meaning of which, you sometimes suddenly realize, you don’t know! Here is a bit of that directive, along with his accompanying promise of the fine consequences which follow in train if you follow his suggestion. It comes from his 1864 lecture on the enduring importance of reading (reading, that is, the right things): “Of Kings’ Treasuries” (of this magnificent lecture, more later). He says:

In order to deal with words rightly, this is the habit you must form. Nearly every word in your language has been first a word in some other language–of Saxon, German, French, Latin, or Greek…and many words have been all of these…undergoing a certain change of sense and use on the lips of each nation–but [throughout all this] retaining a deep, vital meaning…[So] whenever you are in doubt about a word, hunt it down patiently…It is severe work, but you will find it, even at first, interesting, and, at last, endlessly entertaining. And the general gain to your character, in power and precision, will be quite incalculable.

And so: “Spring”: In its essence, it means “to leap up, burst forth, fly up, spread,” and (I particularly like this one!) “glow.” Our English word, it appears, derives from the proto-Germanic, “sprengen,” and, prior to that (likely), from the Greek “sperkhesthai,” “to hurry”; compare, the site I consulted (worth bookmarking) (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=spring&allowed_in_frame=0), suggested, the Sanskrit, “sprhayati” (perfectly apt in this immediate context), “to desire eagerly”!

Much of Ruskin’s life was passed in Europe, traveling over what he called his “Old Road.” That road stretched from England through Northern France (primarily its great cathedral cities), ascended through the Jura Mountains, then descended into his beloved Switzerland and the French Alps; these destinations followed by another descent–through one of the great Alpine passes–into his equally beloved Italy. The majority of his books were written from life lessons learned on these Old Roadings.

These excursions also gave ample opportunity to observe nature with care, providing him with the incredible insights contained in his great passages on the living world we are privileged to inhabit, “The Wondrous Sky,” our second post in this series, being but one lovely example. That description is only the tip of a wondrous iceberg, however, for, as you peruse Ruskin’s writings, you find yourself coming upon–often with surprise–equally astonishing passages–on birds, rocks, becks, mountains, rivers, trees, sunsets, sunrises, dew, moss, fields, and, always and again, flowers. To a one, a reading of these passages is inspiring, their stunning prose and images allowing us to see things we never before saw, to delight where, before, no delight had been born, to begin glowing where, before, only dimness was ensconced.

Here is another passage of this marvelous sort. It leaps up, bursts forth, flies up (!), from the first paragraph of “The Lamp of Memory,” one of the chapters of The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). It chronicles–you aren’t surprised!–the arrival of Spring. Its internal French phrase, “Mois de Marie,” means, most prosaically, “Mary’s Month.” But, as always the case with Ruskin, he intends much more by his use of it, Mary’s Month being, in the Catholic Church’s  calendar, May, the month when, traditionally, the alters of churches are bedecked with new flowers and services are repleat with hymns welcoming spring. In addition, May (almost always) is the month following Easter, that time when the thought of life being reborn is paramount. Here is the passage.

Among the hours of his life to which the writer looks back with peculiar gratitude as having been marked by more than ordinary fullness of joy or clearness of teaching is one passed, now some years ago, near the time of sunset, among the broken masses of pine forest which skirt the course of the Ain above the village of Champagnole in the Jura [mountain region of eastern France]…No frost-ploughed, dust-encumbered paths of ancient glacier fret the soft Jura pastures, no splintered heaps of ruin break the fair ranks of her forest, no pale, defiled, or furious rivers send their rude and changeful ways among her rocks. Patiently, eddy by eddy, the clear green streams wind along their well-known beds–and, under the dark quietness of the undisturbed pines, there spring up, year by year, such company of joyful flowers as I know not the like of among all the blessings of the earth. It was Springtime, too, and all were coming forth in clusters crowded for very love. There was room enough for all, but they crushed their leaves into all manner of strange shapes only to be nearer each other. There was the wood anemone, star after star, closing every now and then into nebulæ; and there was the oxalis, troop by troop, like virginal processions of the Mois de Marie, the dark vertical clefts in the limestone choked up with them as with heavy snow, and touched with ivy on the edges—ivy as light and lovely as the vine; and, ever and anon, a blue gush of violets, and cowslip bells in sunny places. And in the more open ground, the vetch, and comfrey, and mezereon, and the… wild strawberry, just a blossom or two, all showered amidst the golden softness of deep, warm, amber-coloured moss.

Spring! Life beginning anew! (Ours!) Inspiring words! [Which word–“inspire,” by the way, I’ve discovered, derives from the Old (14th Century) French word, “enspiren,” “to fill the mind or heart (or both) with grace (!); that derived, in turn, from the Latin, “inspirare,” “to inflame; to blow the breath of life into”; in short, then–and literally!–to “in spirit,” “put the spirit of life into,” or reignite that spirit]

Happy Springing!



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2 Responses to 16. Spring Inspiration

  1. Ah! I entered into the inspired Ruskin poetry and traveled those paths where the “gush of violets” and other lush wildflowers graced the earth. I appreciated the etymology of spring. Did you see “Springtime” replaced “Lent”? A good choice. I wish the religious world could call these six weeks something more life giving.

    PS-One of my favorite trips was through Switzerland from Krueslingen to Geneva and then skiing the Alps. Breathtaking views at every stop.

  2. Christian says:

    Thanks for another great post. For anyone interested in a wonderful daily email which is quite good at covering the etymology of words: http://www.wordsmith.org/awad/

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