As an encouragement to weather and flowers, many people like to consider Memorial Day as the beginning of summer. But officially, today is the first day of summer, and that provides encouragement to poetry columnists to celebrate poems about the seasons.
The title of today’s column is a modernization of one of the most celebrated English poems about summer, a song written in the 13th century in what we call Middle English. It may also be the oldest manuscript of what in music is known as a Rota or Round (Think “Three Blind Mice.”) requiring six voice parts.
Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
and bloweth med
and springth the wde nu
Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
The seed grows
And the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew.
The manuscript, which was discovered in Reading Abbey, Berkshire County, England, is now in the British Library, but a copy in stone relief has been attached to what’s left of the beautiful Abbey, demolished by the king in 1538. (Thank you, Henry VIII)
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Any discussion of seasonal poetry must include a little-known Scottish poet named James Thomson (1700-1748). He wrote a lengthy poem called “The Seasons,” which had considerable following in the 18th century but is best-known today because it provided the basis for Haydn’s glorious oratorio, also called “The Seasons.”
Here’s an exuberant passage from Thomson’s original:
Nature! great parent! whose unceasing hand
Rolls round the seasons of the changeful year,
How mighty, how majestic are thy works!
With what a pleasing dread they swell the soul,
That sees astonish’d, and astonish’d sings!
Ye too, ye winds! that now begin to blow
With boisterous sweep, I raise my voice to you.
Although Thomson’s seasonal epic is rarely encountered these days, one of his other verses is heard constantly. He wrote the great Brit patriotic anthem, forever being performed:
Britannia rule the waves.
Britons never, (never, never)
Will be slaves.
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Springtime has always been associated with love. Alfred, Lord Tennyson said “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” And e.e.cummings wrote that “springtime is lovetime and viva sweet love.”
But spring is also the awakening of nature, and nowhere is this more eloquently expressed than in the Bible (KJV), The Song of Solomon ii. 10:
Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. (turtledove)
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Autumn and winter are very much the territory of Robert Frost (See video), but one of Frost’s closest friends was the English poet, Edward Thomas (1878-1917), who inspired Frost to write “The Road Not Taken.” Before his life was cut short on the battlefield in World War I, Thomas wrote a number of descriptive pieces including these autumnal stanzas:
The green elm with the one great bough of gold
Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one, –
The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,
Harebell and scabious and tormentil,
That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,
Bow down to; and the wind travels too light
To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;
The gossamers wander at their own will,
At heavier steps than bird’s the Squirrels scold.
The rich scene has grown fresh again and new
As Spring and to the touch is not more cool
Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might
As happy be as earth is beautiful,
Were I some other or with earth could turn
In alteration of violet and rose,
Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,
And gorse that has no time not to be gay.
But if this be not happiness, – who knows?
Some day I shall think this is a happy day,
And this mood by the name of melancholy
Shall no more blackened and obscured be.
* * *
A fine winter poem comes from the pen of Mary Oliver (1935-2019) who died just two years ago.
A Pulitzer Prize-winner, Mary lived for a time at Steepletop, just outside West Stockbridge in Austerlitz, N.Y. where she helped organize the literary papers of her idol, Edna St. Vincent Millay. She called this poem “White-Eyes.”
all the singing is in
the tops of the trees
where the wind-bird
with its white eyes
shoves and pushes
among the branches.
Like any of us
he wants to go to sleep,
but he’s restless—
he has an idea,
and slowly it unfolds
from under his beating wings
as long as he stays awake.
But his big, round music, after all,
is too breathy to last.
So, it’s over.
In the pine-crown
he makes his nest,
he’s done all he can.
I don’t know the name of this bird,
I only imagine his glittering beak
tucked in a white wing
while the clouds—
which he has summoned
from the north—
which he has taught
to be mild, and silent—
thicken, and begin to fall
into the world below
like stars, or the feathers
of some unimaginable bird
that loves us,
that is asleep now, and silent—
that has turned itself
* * *
VIDEO. Here’s a trip through the seasons starting with Claire Bloom as Emily Dickinson in “Dear March, Come In.” Then, for summer, a young LeVar Burton presents “Scrapbook for a Summer Evening” written by 14-year-old Stephanie Simpson.
Autumn and winter bring us to Robert Frost. Cynthia Herman does “Tree at My Window” against a background of New England foliage and James Whitmore offers “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Then a special finale. A performance of “Sumer is icumen in” with illustrations from the French Royal Chronicles.
CLICK ON THIS LINK FOR VIDEO: SUMMER IS A COMIN IN