Previously, we offered some of the finest poems for June, so now we move forward into that even hotter summer month of July, a month which brings ‘cooling showers, / Apricots and gillyflowers’ according to the poet Sara Coleridge. Below are some of the best and most famous poems about July, including a few ‘wild cards’ which we’d especially recommend.
John Clare, ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar: July’. After Edmund Spenser’s Elizabethan calendar, the most famous ‘shepherd’s calendar’ in English verse is by one of England’s greatest nature poets, John Clare (1793-1864). In ‘July’, we are told, ‘Daughter of pastoral smells and sights / And sultry days and dewy nights / July resumes her yearly place / Wi her milking maiden face …’
George Meredith, ‘July’. Meredith was a noted novelist as well as a poet, whose innovations with the sonnet form were brilliantly displayed in his 1862 sequence Modern Love, about the breakdown of his own marriage. In ‘July’, Meredith (1828-1909) sings the praises of this warm summer month: ‘Blue July, bright July, / Month of storms and gorgeous blue; / Violet lightnings o’er thy sky, / Heavy falls of drenching dew; / Summer crown!’
Emily Dickinson, ‘Answer July’. In this poem, the wonderfully distinctive American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) goes one further than praising July: she addresses the month itself: ‘Answer July— / Where is the Bee— / Where is the Blush— / Where is the Hay?’ July responds by asking where the seed, the bud, and the may are, pointing out that spring flowering has given way to summer heat.
Helen Hunt Jackson, ‘A Calendar of Sonnets: July’. Jackson (1830-85) was an exact contemporary of Dickinson – she was born the same year and died just one year before Dickinson – but she’s far less well-known. As well as being a poet, Jackson was also a novelist as well as an activist who campaigned on behalf of Native Americans. Her Calendar of Sonnets offered a sonnet for every month of the year, accompanied by related illustrations. In ‘July’, Jackson shows the ravages wrought by the hot July weather: ‘Some flowers are withered and some joys have died; / The garden reeks with an East Indian scent / From beds where gillyflowers stand weak and spent…’
Amy Levy, ‘London in July’. Linda Hunt Beckman said of Amy Levy (1861-89) that she ‘was one of the poets who pioneered symbolist methods in England, and she seems to have turned to symbolism’s poetics with increasing frequency toward the end of her life’. She committed suicide, aged just 27, having suffered from depression throughout her life; Oscar Wilde was among those who eulogised her in print following her death. A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse, published posthumously in 1889, shows how Levy took her inspiration from late Victorian London, using symbolist techniques she had learnt from French writers. ‘London in July’ is a fine poem about the capital in the hot summer month of July: ‘The London trees are dusty-brown / Beneath the summer sky; / My love, she dwells in London town, / Nor leaves it in July …’
Patrick Kavanagh, ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’. We love this sonnet by Kavanagh, an Irish poet who’s often overlooked in our rush to get to his fellow twentieth-century giants, W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. The title says it all, and we love the way ‘blooming’, the penultimate word of the poem, hovers deliciously between light curse and simple poetic description.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Poppies in July’. One of the first things we think of when we think of July is the summer heat, and in this poem – one of two famous poems about poppies that Plath (1932-63) wrote – she refers to the flowers as ‘little hell flames’. From this arresting opening line onwards, this short poem becomes a darker and more intense voyage into the speaker’s own consciousness, with images of hellfire and blood aplenty. Perhaps not the cheeriest way to wrap up our pick of July poems, but a poetic tour de force nevertheless.