Mind your language

Mind your language: The springs before the Arab Spring

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

Two hundred and forty-years ago next Tuesday, Thomas Gray was buried in his mother’s grave in Stoke Poges churchyard. In his ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’ (published 1747), he had written of gales (presumably lesser ones, scarcely registering 8 on the Beaufort scale) that seemed ‘redolent of joy and youth’ and able ‘to breathe a second spring’.

The phrase second spring was picked up by John Henry Newman, in 1852, to describe the re-establishment of the English Catholic hierarchy under Cardinal Wiseman. This was ‘a national commotion, almost without parallel, more violent than has happened here for centuries’, he declared. ‘It is the coming in of a Second Spring; it is a restoration in the moral world, such as that which yearly takes place in the physical.’ Although Newman took his text from the Song of Songs (2:10-12), Gray was surely his source for the phrase.

A little earlier had come the revolutions of 1848, sometimes called in German Völkerfrühling, the Springtime of Peoples or the Spring of Nations. Much good it did them.

So in 2011, a series of revolutions attracted the name Arab Spring. The phrase had already been used of hoped-for developments, but perhaps Marc Lynch was the first to use it after the fact, in Foreign Policy for 6 January 2011, less than three weeks after Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia.

At the end of 2011, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) felt able to say: ‘It was an enormous joy to discover once again that it’s possible for people to get down in the streets, to demonstrate, to overthrow governments.’ He might too have half remembered Gray’s ‘joy and youth’. ‘It reminds me of 1848,’ he said, as if he had been there.

No doubt there were also conscious references to the Prague Spring of 1968, before Russia crushed it. Spring had decades earlier been used of a liberal turn in Russian attitudes in 1904 (in the autumn, for spring was solely metaphorical). In 1956, it was autumn too when the Poles broke into a brief ‘spring’ before Communist winter returned. The Arab Spring seems now to have turned into a harsh winter of discontent. We’d better watch the weather signs.        

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