The arrival of the summer months signals joy for many, and their departure is a reminder of another year gone by. Pastoral poetry, however, is special because it allows us to contemplate our “ripening of age” and to view it along the course of nature as a process filled with beauty—both in its blossoming and its withering.

The start of the warm summer months needs a good literary company. In the spirit of leisure, moreover, pastoral poetry contrasts and thus best suits our hectic lives for its pleasant verses, painting passages that we can easily visualize. Consider the following poem, simply entitled “June” by the Irish poet, Francis Ledwidge:

Broom out the floor now, lay the fender by,
And plant this bee-sucked bough of woodbine there,
And let the window down. The butterfly
Floats in upon the sunbeam, and the fair
Tanned face of June, the nomad gipsy, laughs
Above her widespread wares, the while she tells
The farmers’ fortunes in the fields, and quaffs
The water from the spider-peopled wells.
The hedges are all drowned in green grass seas,
And bobbing poppies flare like Elmo’s light,
While siren-like the pollen-staind bees
Drone in the clover depths. And up the height
The cuckoo’s voice is hoarse and broke with joy.
And on the lowland crops the crows make raid,
Nor fear the clappers of the farmer’s boy,
Who sleeps, like drunken Noah, in the shad
And loop this red rose in that hazel ring
That snares your little ear, for June is short
And we must joy in it and dance and sing,
And from her bounty draw her rosy worth.
Ay! soon the swallows will be flying south,
The wind wheel north to gather in the snow,
Even the roses spilt on youth’s red mouth
Will soon blow down the road all roses go.

The image comes naturally, and we can bask in it. The poet tells someone to broom out the floor and lay down a fender—it could be a bucolic scene of a quaint home in a large field, or perhaps a forest, unraveling on a front porch or inside the home. We don’t know if the poet is speaking to one figure or two in the scene. Presuming two, we immediately know that one is sweeping the floor, another tending to the fireplace fender. Something is coming, and he asks one of the people in the scene to finish sweeping the floor. He asks the other to put down the fender and to put a “bee-sucked bough of woodbine” (beautiful alliteration) where the fire logs used to be, a symbolic end to the cold months. Instead, they must ceremoniously welcome the start of the summer. Close the window, the poet asks, and outside we can see a butterfly dancing in the sun. He describes June as a nomadic gypsy, passing if for a moment as a sign of fortune for the farmer’s crops in the coming season.

The wells that were frozen are now inhabited by spiders, and the grass is abundant and overgrown, with “bobbing poppies” bright as St. Elmo’s fire. The poem continues in this soothing narrative tone. The poet then turns back to his audience—now a singular person, a young girl, it seems—telling her to put a red rose through her earring. This command is also symbolic, for the poet then begins to warn her that “June is short” and we must enjoy “her bounty.” The poem ends bittersweetly, with the poet exclaiming that the winter months will soon be back in a series of wonderfully crafted assonance and alliteration:

Ay! soon the swallows will be flying south,
The wind wheel north to gather in the snow,
Even the roses spilt on youth’s red mouth
Will soon blow down the road all roses go.

The poem concludes as a reminder of youth and death, as seasons tend to do. Ledwidge is known for personifying months, which adds a whimsical element to his poems. He found inspiration in the meaning of months for their weather and effects on nature’s landscapes. A personal favorite is his short but unforgettable “August”:

She’ll come at dusky first of day,
White over yellow harvest’s song.
Upon her dewy rainbow way
She shall be beautiful and strong.
The lidless eye of noon shall spray
Tan on her ankles in the hay,
Shall kiss her brown the whole day long.
I’ll know her in the windrows, tall
Above the crickets of the hay.
I’ll know her when her odd eyes fall,
One May-blue, one November-grey.
I’ll watch her from the red barn wall
Take down her rusty scythe, and call,
And I will follow her away.

August is also described as a woman, for her beauty and strength, who is tanned from the “lidless eye of noon”—the sun. The sun kisses her brown for most of the day during these months when daylight hours are longer. Ledwidge describes August’s “odd eyes:” one blue, like May; one gray, like November. Her eyes symbolize her place as the stage between summer and fall. Ledwidge concludes this short poem in a mysterious image, saying that he will watch her from his barn, taking her “rusty scythe” and, calling after her, follow her away.

It is amazing that this poetry came from a man with only a primary education who was forced to leave school and start working at the age of 13. Francis Ledwidge was born in 1887 in a laborer’s cottage. He was born into poverty, the eighth of nine children. His father died when he was four, and his mother worked as a field laborer. Ledwidge, however, grew up in a country replete with nature, and his rural roots are to be found everywhere in his poetry. He is also a “war poet” in the sense that he wrote some poems about his experience fighting in World War I. The Poet of the Blackbird, as he is now vaguely remembered in Ireland for his love of nature, lost his life fighting in the war, killed by a long-range German shell. Biased though I may be, his collection of poems Songs of the Fields is a brilliant series of meditations on life in the midst of nature.

Ledwidge’s use of months as muses for nature’s seasons is a common theme in poetry. His poems in particular call to mind a staple work of pastoral poetry that is thought to mark the beginning of English Renaissance literature: Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender. Published in 1579, this series of twelve eclogues—short pastoral poems, often written in dialogue—is considered the first pastoral work of poetry in English. Eclogues depict an idyllic rural life that is simple, calm, and humble. The first example of an eclogue is considered to be Theocritus’ Idylls, written around 310-250 BC, and Theocritus the inventor of this form of poetry. Virgil later adopted Theocritus’ form of pastoral poetry in his own Eclogues (also known as the Bucolics) written around 37 BCE. The eclogue is one form of pastoral poetry that was revived and adapted during the Renaissance, namely by Italian poets such as Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch.

Like Ledwidge, Spenser was poor to a family of small means. Although he is best known for his work The Faerie Queene, Spenser is also unique for bringing the eclogue into the English language. He followed Virgil’s form in his work, featuring various modest shepherds who converse about life, love, and nature, of course. The Shepheardes Calender consists of twelve eclogues, each named after a month of the calendar year, that mark the turning of the seasons and, therefore, also the turning of man’s life. The form varies in metres, and Spenser borrows archaic English vocabulary and spellings from Chaucer and Skelton. His verse echoes Chaucer the most, making The Shepheardes Calender a challenging read for the reader unfamiliar with archaic English spellings (the charm lies in reading the work in this form nevertheless, and you can read the whole series in their original spellings here)

The introduction to The Shepheardes Calender explains that scholars believe that most of the characters in The Shepheardes Calender actually represent figures from the history of the time, but there is little agreement on which characters represent these figures. There is a general agreement, however, that Collin (one of the shepherds) is Spenser himself. Spenser, moreover, used two sources to craft his eclogues: the ancient almanac called “The Kalender of Sheepehards” and the Emblem Books of Elizabethan times. Emblems are the allegorical images featured in books, which are created mainly from prints. The introduction nicely explains the purpose behind these two sources:

Each of the twelve woodcuts [in The Shepheardes Calender] forms part of a whole impression of the year, yet each easily stands alone with its eclogue as an enclosed work. The cyclical pattern of the “monethes”—name, woodcut, argument, eclogue, “embleme,” gloss—is enhanced by the repetition of graphic elements: argument in italics, eclogue in black letter, glosses in roman type. All this local variation helps to unify the whole, as it is the same throughout. The effect is to bring the reader simultaneously to an awareness of the present moment and of the cycle of months and years throughout eternity. In this way, even the weakest moments of the verse are vested with the grandeur of timelessness.

On the topic of June, let’s look at Spenser’s sixth eclogue. Iune is about a conversation between Collin, who is “enamoured of a Country lasse Rosalind,” and his friend Hobbinol. Collin tells his friend about his unrequited love and his woes; Rosalind has left Collin for another man. Despite this unfortunate event, the opening remarks made by Hobbinol set the tone for the season, greeting Collin:

LO Coll[in], here the place, whose pleasaunt syte
From other shades hath weand my wandring mynde.
Tell me, what wants me here, to worke delyte?
The simple ayre, the gentle warbling wynde,
So calme, so coole, as no where else I fynde:
The grassye ground with daintye Daysies dight,
The Bramble bush, where Byrds of euery kynde
To the waters fall their tunes attemper right.

Hobbinol’s speech flows with alliteration. He describes the pleasant place that has weaned his wandering mind with air that feels like a warbling wind; the grassy ground that is dighted with dainty daisies; and birds in the bramble bushes. As in Ledwidge’s “June,” we can envision the place where this conversation is developing. Despite the beautiful day, Collin’s joyful remarks about nature turn into a gradual recognition of the passing of time, as June marks the turning point of the year during the summer solstice:

And I, whylst youth, and course of carelesse yeeres
Did let me walke withouten lincks of loue,
In such delights did ioy amongst my peeres:
But ryper age such pleasures doth reproue,
My fancye eke from former follies moue
To stayed steps: for time in passing weares
(As garments doen, which wexen old aboue)
And draweth newe delightes with hoary heares.
Tho couth I sing of loue, and tune my pype
Vnto my plaintiue pleas in verses made:
Tho would I seeke ,
To giue my Rosalind, and in Sommer shade
Dight gaudy Girlonds, was my comen trade,
To crowne her golden locks, but yeeres more rype,
And losse of her, whose loue as lyfe I wayd,
Those weary wanton toyes away dyd wype.

Compare these stanzas to Ledwidge’s last four lines of “June,” which also represent a turn in the narrator’s tone that is, in part, the result of his reflection on youth and its fleeting nature. Collin (perhaps Spenser himself) recognizes that youth is a course of careless years where the young man can ignore love’s obligations (its links). “Riper” age, he concludes, reproves these fleeting pleasures, for now he knows that time wears out. Time seems to be the enemy in The Shepheardes Calender, and this is only natural: Measuring out our lives in months and seasons is an ancient practice. The arrival of the summer months signals joy for many, and their departure (along with the coming of winter) is a reminder of another year gone by. Pastoral poetry, however, is special because it allows us to contemplate this trying topic that is our “ripening of age” and to view it along the course of nature as a process filled with beautyboth in its blossoming and its withering. Like in the seasons of the year, we can see moments of growth and decay; to recognize this connection with Mother Nature makes growing older a more peaceful process, as Ledwidge and Spenser’s poems prove.

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References:

John Quinn, “An Irishman’s Diary on Francis Ledwidge, a poet in the making,” The Irish Times (2017).

Francis Ledwidge: the life & death of an Irish poet,”  Century Ireland.

For a view of the Calender as it would have appeared in print, consider this website.

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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