The best poems about summer, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘In a summer season, when soft was the sun’: so begins one of the great long poems of medieval England, William Langland’s Piers Plowman. But many shorter poems have reflected the warm sunshine and sense of happiness that we tend to associate with the summer season. Here are ten of the greatest poems about summer – at least, so we believe. Bask in their warm glow by clicking on the title of each poem below.
Anonymous, ‘Sumer is icumen in’. This song or ‘canon’ was composed in the thirteenth century, over a century before Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, yet it is identifiably English in a way that still resonates with us today. The song celebrates the arrival of summer – ‘summer is, or has, come in’ – and the joyous images of lowing cows and cavorting (farting?) stags brilliantly define this time of year. One of the first, and finest, summer poems in English literature.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, ‘The Soote Season‘. Its title translating as ‘the sweet season’, this early English sonnet is unusual in this list of classic summer poems in that it doesn’t praise the summer season outright – instead, Howard reflects on how being miserable or heartsick during the beautiful summer months is worse than being miserable at any other point of the year, because you know you should feel happier because you’re surrounded by signs of growth and beauty and colour.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18. This poem is perhaps so famous as to need no introduction. Its opening line, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, sets up the central comparison of the sonnet, which is addressed to a young man commonly referred to as the ‘Fair Youth’. H. E. Bates borrowed the phrase ‘the darling buds of May’ for one of his book titles.
John Clare, ‘Sonnet’. Another sonnet, this, but less well-known than Shakespeare’s. Clare’s poem, from its celebratory opening line, ‘I love to see the summer beaming forth’, to its closing image of ‘bright beetles’ playing in the ‘clear lake’, is a marvellous evocation of summer.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘A Summer’s Night’. Dunbar (1872-1906) was the son of African parents who had been slaves prior to the American Civil War. He was one of the first internationally popular African-American poets, though he died young, of tuberculosis, aged just 33. ‘A Summer’s Night’ is one of Dunbar’s most widely anthologised poems written in standard English (Dunbar also wrote poems in his local African-American dialect), a sensual paean to the warmth and life of a summer evening in the city.
Emily Dickinson, ‘As imperceptibly as Grief’. This poem describes the passing of summer, which happens imperceptibly. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it happens ‘as imperceptibly as Grief’, suggesting that something is coming to a close but brighter times are just coming into view. An unusual take on the onset of autumn, admittedly, but one of the many reasons why Dickinson’s poems repay a closer look. (We offer a selection of some of her greatest poems here.)
Edward Thomas, ‘Adlestrop’. The setting for this poem is the railway station serving the small village of Adlestrop in Gloucestershire; the moment is a day in ‘late June’ – specifically, late June 1914, when Thomas, on his way to visit Robert Frost, noted the summery sounds and sights while the train stopped at the station. The poem captures a moment of English summer tranquillity in a few vivid, evocative images and sounds.
H. D., ‘Heat’. Of course, the summer sun isn’t always warm and pleasurable. Sometimes it’s just too hot – and Hilda Doolittle, who also published under the initials ‘H. D.’, wrote this short Imagist lyric about such heat. In the poem, the speaker calls upon the wind to divide the close air and provide respite from the cloying heat.
Philip Larkin, ‘Mother, Summer, I’. This isn’t among Larkin’s most famous poems, but it’s included here because, like the H. D. poem, it offers an alternative to the celebratory tone of many of the summer poems on this list. In ‘Mother, Summer, I’, Larkin reflects how his mother is suspicious of a nice summer’s day in case it is secretly harbouring thunderstorms; Larkin concludes that he has inherited his mother’s suspicious attitude towards perfect weather (and, by extension, perfection in general), and prefers the arrival of autumn as a time when expectations are lowered. A typically Larkinesque message! The poem has what James Booth, in his engaging recent biography of Larkin, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, has described as ‘an Eeyorish glumness’.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’. This classic Heaney poem, which appeared in his first published volume, the 1966 book Death of a Naturalist, is simultaneously about picking blackberries in August and, on another level, about a loss of youthful innocence and a growing awareness of disappointment as we grow up.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here). For a change of pace, see our review of a superb collection of hilariously bad poetry by the great and good. You might also enjoy our pick of the best vacation poems.
Are there any classic summer poems you’d like to add to our list?
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.