A Declaration of Flowers: Thoughts on Byron Herbert Reece’s “Easter”
The farm and now heritage center of Byron Herbert Reece, who lived and wrote in the Choestoe area of Union County, Georgia. (photo: UGArdener/Flickr, CC by-NC 2.0).
It’s about as simple as poems come:
Easter is on the field:
With bloom their tomb unsealed
To April air.
New as the dew shake cold,
Beside their anxious dams:
Easter is on the fold.
Its simplicity shouldn’t be confused with sentimentality, though. Today, little lambs, blossoming flowers, and the like are stock symbols of the season, largely taken for granted, appropriated by salesmen to be consumed by us. We buy stuffed toy lambs, chocolate lambs, Hallmark cards with pictures of lambs. It’s not my point to say whether this is right or wrong, but it is clearly sentimental.
Because Easter is a sentimental and therefore commercialized holiday, it’s all too easy to read Reece’s poem through pastel lenses, to imagine chicks and bunnies at the feet of the lambs, to imagine the lambs frolicking and stopping to sniff the blossoming flowers. But I don’t think it’s a sentimental poem at all.
Byron Herbert Reece wrote “Easter” in a setting far removed from the commercialized holiday we know today — sometime around the middle of the last century in a north Georgia valley bounded by mountains and crossed by the Nottely River, in a farming community called Choestoe. Reece himself was a small-scale farmer who worked a piece of bottomland alongside rhododendron-veiled Wolf Creek. As such, the flowers and lambs in his verses are not abstract ones. They weren’t conceived in the mind of an entrepreneur to be born in a Chinese factory; they are flowers and lambs from nowhere but the dew-wet hills of Georgia. The poet saw the blossoming of peach trees, service trees, and laurel. He watched the shivering newborn lambs owned by a Choestoe neighbor for reasons far beyond sentiment.
If “Easter” is not a sentimental poem, then, what is it? The next temptation, I think, is to read it as a symbolic poem, to see the blossoming flowers and the lambs as signs of new life with the obvious correlation to Christ’s resurrection. But I don’t think that’s quite right, either.
Reece was a practicing Christian, to be sure — even filling in for his preacher from time to time — but he was also too good of a poet to build a poem upon cliché, and the great cliché of Easter is that the vitality of spring represents the vitality of the risen Christ. To see the cycling of nature as nothing more than a religious symbol is to live on another plane. I think Reece understood, with Thoreau, that “heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” And so Reece does something lovely with this poem: He turns the usual metaphor around.
“Flowers declare / With bloom their tomb unsealed / To April air,” he writes. The “tomb unsealed” is an allusion to Christ’s death and resurrection, of course, but it is the tomb, rather than the blossoming flowers, that serves as symbol here. In the same way, it is Easter itself that blesses the sheepfold, and not the other way around.
Flowers and lambs, then — and by extension all created things — have worth independent of doctrine. Doctrine, at its best — and in this case the doctrine of the resurrection — sheds light on the holiness of this world. Reece would’ve known that Mary Magdalene, the first to see the risen Christ, mistook him for a gardener. Resurrection abounds if we would but look.
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