April in Town

Lizette Woodworth Reese was a late 19th century poet and teacher from Baltimore who wrote extensively about the seasons. It would seem from her sonnet, April in Town, that daffodils and rain were as common then in the eastern USA, as they are here and now – although there were daffodils in the village in January this year.

Straight from the east the wind blows sharp with rain,

That just now drove its wild ranks down the street,

And westward rushed into the sunset sweet.

Spouts brawl, boughs drip and cease and drip again,

Bricks gleam; keen saffron glows each window-pane,

And every pool beneath the passing feet.

Innumerable odors fine and fleet

Are blown this way from blossoming lawn and lane.

Wet roofs show black against a tender sky;

The almond bushes in the lean-fenced square,

Beaten to the walks, show all their draggled white.

A troop of labourers comes slowly by;

One bears a daffodil, and seems to bear

A new-lit candle through the fading light.


May is a Pious Fraud

May is a Pious Fraud

 This poem by James Russell Lowell was published in 1869. It explores the unpredictable character of the month of May. What will it be this year is something I always find myself wondering.

May is a pious fraud of the almanac.

A ghastly parody of real Spring

Shaped out of snow and breathed with eastern wind;

Or if, o’er-confident, she trust the date,

And, with her handful of anemones,

Herself as shivery, steal into the sun,

The season need but turn his hour-glass round,

And Winter suddenly, like crazy Lear,

Reels back, and brings the dead May in his arms,

Her budding breasts and wan dislustred front

With frosty streaks and drifts of his white beard

All overblown. Then, warmly walled with books,

While my wood-fire supplies the sun’s defect,

Whispering old forest-sagas in its dreams,

I take my May down from the happy shelf

Where perch the world’s rare song-birds in a row,

Waiting my choice to upen with full breast,

And beg an alms of springtime, ne’er denied

Indoors by vernal Chaucer, whose fresh woods

Throb thick with merle and mavis all the years.

Sonnet 18

This is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, and parts of it have featured in these Notes once before – in a comment on how unpredictable the weather in the month of May can be. Seeing the whole sonnet as set out here reveals that it’s not about the weather (or the Summer) at all, but about love, and poetry. Who will you recite it to?

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Set me whereas the sun doth parch the green …

Set me whereas the sun doth parch the green …

Set me whereas the sun doth parch the green

Or where his beams do not dissolve the ice,

In temperate heat where he is felt and seen;

In presence prest of people, mad or wise;

Set me in high or yet in low degree,

In longest night or in the shortest day,

In clearest sky or where clouds thickest be,

In lusty youth or when my hairs are gray.

Set me in heaven, in earth, or else in hell;

In hill, or dale, or in the foaming flood;

Thrall or at large, alive whereso I dwell,

Sick or in health, in evil fame or good:

Hers will I be, and only with this thought

Content myself although my chance be nought.

Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was first cousin to both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.  After Thomas Wyatt introduced sonnets into English, it was Howard who gave them the rhyming structure that Shakespeare then used. But these were dangerous times, even for a writer of sonnets about unrequited love, and he was beheaded for treason in 1547.

Lamenting Autumn Rains

Du Fu (712 – 770) was a Tang Dynasty poet. Here he is writing here about the very wet autumn of 754 in what is now the Chinese megacity of Xi’an.

Lamenting Autumn Rains

Blustrous winds, unending rains, autumn of chaos.

The four seas, eight directions one solid cloud:

Horses going, cows coming, who can make out for sure?

Muddy Jing River, clear Wei, how to tell them apart?

From grain tips, ears sprouting, millet heads turned to black;

No word of how farmers, farmers’ wives are faring.

In the city, exchange a bed of quilt, get a meagre peck of grain –

Just agree, don’t argue over which is worth more!

We have had weather like this in England in the past. The summer of 1314 was wet and cool and the harvest poor. In May 1315, it began to rain and continued for 15 months with widespread crop failures and food prices doubling between by midsummer. It wasn’t till 1325 that food supply returned to normal. Then the Black Death came and wiped out 40% of England’s people. The young were especially vulnerable, just as they are to today’s pandemics.

The Elm

The Elm

It has been a bad summer for the elm. Driving across southern England, wherever there is elm, there are the tell-tale signs of attack by the elm bark beetle with shriveled brown leaves and bent-over branches standing out against the green hedge background. Semington was not completely free from this recent attack; from being green and healthy-looking in May and June, during July and August at least some of the elm in the village gradually fell victim to the fungus the beetle carries. To try to stop the fungus spreading, the tree blocks the vessels within the wood that carry water and nutrient through up trunk, and this causes tissues to die. So, just when the elm was fighting back, it’s had another knock, and the cycle of attack – recovery – attack – recovery … continues. Curiously, however, this is not so much a story of decline, as one of survival. We have not seen the last of the elm.

Elm wood is strong, durable and resistant to water. Traditionally it was used to make furniture, floorboards, boats, wheel hubs, water pipes, troughs, coffins and lavatory seats. Odd then, perhaps, that it has a reputation for not generating much heat as this old rhyme reminds us:

Apple wood will scent your room, with incense-like perfume;

Oak and maple, if dry and old, keep away the winter’s cold;

Ash wood wet or ash wood dry, a king will warm his slippers by; but

Elm burns like the graveyard mould, even the very flames are cold!

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Robert Laurence Binyon, CH, died in 1943.  For the Fallen is his best known work.