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Page last updated at 18:03 GMT, Friday, 19 March 2010

Singing in the rain

Rain on a window


Whether it comes in like a lion and out like a lamb - or vice versa - the joy of spring beginning is hard to resist, says Simon Schama as he joins the Point of View team.

In any competition for the most depressing phrase in the English language, this one's got to be the winner: "It's raining." Rain stops play. Rain, rain go away. Don't rain on my parade. Feste's sardonic voice, in Twelfth Night, the song as vocal shoulder shrug: "Hey ho the rain and the wind.. for the rain it raineth every day." Yeah, too right, jester man.

Spring in New York
Spring has sprung... or is springing

But how you feel about the downpour depends on when it falls. It's raining as I write this. From inside my London study it looks as though it might be a soft spring shower. But I should have paid attention to the crow cackling from the bald roost on top of the plane tree. Dream on sunshine, he caws.

On the street the wet wind scours people's faces like sandpaper. A hoodied young man passes me, grimacing and blowing out his cheeks. The face language says it all: "Bloody hell, I've had enough of this, mister."

This brutal disappointment, this delay of delight hurts because we ache for the fresh beginning that is spring. The quickening of life in our bodies (even if they're not in mint condition), in our politics, in our sport (bring on the bat and ball), in our history, our poetry. Well, I do know one poet back in New York who told me, with the snow falling yet again on the city, and in all seriousness that she actually hated the spring, feared its arrival, because it was the herald of summer and the rich clammy heat - the sweat that makes your linen cling.

Not me. I feel about autumn the way she feels about the spring. That first chill September evening breeze, is a splinter under my fingernail, the beginning of the end of the medium in which I thrive, the inexorable, perishing fade of sumptuous heat.

TS Eliot
TS Eliot was not a fan of spring

For I belong to humango-kind. I ripen and swell with the summer sun. I am a cheerful chappie as long as there's baseball - or - OK, cricket and the sound of 11-year-olds shouting in the playground. The wistfulness of autumn I can do without. I'm also Jewish. I get a year's supply of wistfulness from the Chief Rabbi without even filling in the order form.

The pretty leaves (does anyone really like the word "russet", even for potatoes?) the shiny conkers, the "exciting opening nights" are no help. For me it's always back to school. The American word does the weighty pack of that season true justice. It's always "The Fall".

But in spring we rise earlier, as the morning freshens us with a generosity of light. This is why the two greatest long poems in English, both open with spring's promise of the good rain, the rain of renewal. But what they make of it in their respective verses couldn't be more different. Geoffrey Chaucer begins the Canterbury Tales this way:

"When that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour.."

Simon Schama
A Point of View, with Simon Schama, is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 GMT and repeated Sundays, 0850 GMT
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Here's the Schama free translation:

"When April with his showers sweet
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed every vein in such liquor (isn't that beautiful - the rain as sweet wine, or if you're Chaucer I suppose, honey mead)
And bathed every vein in such liquor
That potently can generate the flower..."

What more could you possibly want? Sex, gardening, drinking, flower arrangement. Oh yes, and pilgrimage, mustn't forget that. But off to Canterbury, never mind the traffic on the M2, I'm singing in the rain.

But yes, I did say the two greatest poems in English, didn't I? And half millennium later, in 1922, along comes TS Eliot to deliver the ultimate vernal downer. Regiments of the slaughtered in the trenches of the First World War, poets included, are still much on everyone's mind - especially his.

Lambs snuggling
Bless... 'tis lambing season

No Man's Land cues up The Wasteland and lilac time in the Kentish garden of Eden turns into a mockery. The title of the opening section of his poem is, lest we are in any doubt, The Burial of the Dead. So wipe that bloody smile off your face Chaucer, Eliot the accounts manager at Lloyds snarls, as he looks up from the grey accounting of his mortal ledger-books.

April ain't hunky-dory. "April is the cruellest month." No, you protest as you load your shopping basket with chocolate eggs. Say it isn't so, Uncle Tom. What about the tweetie chicks, the little rabbits all cute and cotton-tailed, what about the Easter parade on which it won't rain except maybe for a light, passing and refreshing spray? Sorry, he says.

Feeling a bit frisky are we? Like the gambolling lambs? Or something more adult? Well, April is busy "breeding lilacs out of the dead land". Which somehow doesn't make you want to inhale their scent, does it? Much less stick them in a cut glass vase.

It's russet - got a problem with that?

Spring for Eliot won't leave well enough alone, "stirring dull roots with spring rain", mixing it up, "mixing memory and desire". Spring's a bad boy. A joker of the Batman variety, murder under the manic grin. Winter? Eliot's with my New York poet friend there.

Honest severity that's what we need. Winter's no snake-oil salesman of joy, all advertising and no delivery. Winter won't do you wrong, turning on the switch of memory and desire. No sir, winter is a nice snooze for the passions, our emotions snug under the eiderdown. Snow blankets us. "Winter kept us warm in forgetful snow."

So, how many of you vote for Geoff and how many vote for Tom? Quick tally, the miracle of modern media and... yes. I thought so. Massive majority for our friend from the 14th Century. Quite right too.

Voting season

Even politicians, whether in government or opposition, want spring action. The opposition wants an election, because the season and their politics are in synch - calling for a spring cleaning in which mustiness can be swept away. Winter of discontent be gone. Vote for us, bluebells will carpet the woods and all will be well.

The government wants a spring election (even if it has no choice) because it's busy sprucing up its image, greening its record, putting on its Easter bonnet. Remember that old cabinet you couldn't wait to put out on the street along with Sunday's papers? That was them. This basket of Easter goodies, this spring chick, its fluffy little breast beating with chirping joy and tidings of sunshine ahead, that's us.

You just can't beat it - the music of spring. The bit that gets me every time in Die Walkure - and believe me, Wagner's not usually my idea of a good time - is not the ride of the wailing horse girls. No it's that moment in act one when after recognising that they're brother and sister and oh-oh, helplessly in love, Siegmund and Sieglinde, fling open the door of their Teutonic log cabin and wow, (or the German equivalent), winter's gone, old man Mondschein is smiling down. The air is sweet, the breeze is balmy and the music just goes berserk with joy. It's Fruhlingsnacht, at last, the spring night time and at last they, you, us, feel alive.

But with apologies to Wagner's string section, the music that says spring to me most passionately, is sung by millions of minute amphibians right outside my back door in the Hudson Valley, 20 miles north of New York. You think spring will never come. Snowstorm after snowstorm crushes the hopes of March, the buds of April, the nervous stalks of the daffodils. It will never end you think. Eliot wins.

And then, one night, usually around the third week of March, you hear it. From afar down in the wetland woodland stretching to the river. A vast chorus of tiny warbling. Frogs. Multitudes of them. They are so minute, even when you try to creep up on them you can't see them.

They are a massed choir of miniature Gene Kellys, singing their hearts out, greeting the universe as though it had just been created. Up where I live we call them "peepers". And as long as they sing their frog song, I know, if only for the duration of the "peeping", all will be right with the world.

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