Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we offered some of the finest poems for July, so now we move forward into the month of August, a month which ‘brings the sheaves of corn, / Then the harvest home is borne’, according to the poet Sara Coleridge. Below are some of the best and most famous poems about the month of August, including, as ever, a few ‘wild cards’ which we’d especially recommend.
John Clare, ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar: August’. 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 ‘August’, we are told,
Harvest approaches with its bustling day
The wheat tans brown and barley bleaches grey
In yellow garb the oat land intervenes
And tawney glooms the valley thronged with beans …
Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘August’. We’re offered a slightly different take on August in this poem by Swinburne (1837-1909), famed for sliding naked down banisters and writing scandalously erotic poems. Nevertheless, we can catch a strain of late Romanticism in Swinburne’s hymn to the month of August:
In the mute August afternoon
They trembled to some undertune
Of music in the silver air;
Great pleasure was it to be there
Till green turned duskier and the moon
Coloured the corn-sheaves like gold hair …
Thomas Hardy, ‘An August Midnight’.
A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While ‘mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands …
August is the month when we notice all the moths and other insects scuttling and fluttering about at night in the warm summer air, with numerous flying insects drawn to our night lamps. In this poem, Hardy observes that such simple creatures appear to know ‘Earth’s secrets’ – secrets of which, as in Hardy’s more famous poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ – the poet himself is unaware. Look out for the dialect word ‘dumbledore’ in this poem – an old term for the bumblebee.
Emma Lazarus, ‘August Moon’. Best-known for her sonnet written for the (then new) Statue of Liberty, ‘The New Colossus’, Lazarus (1848-87) also penned this paean to the August night:
Look! the round-cheeked moon floats high,
In the glowing August sky,
Quenching all her neighbor stars,
Save the steady flame of Mars …
Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘In August’. The African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) wrote wonderfully about the feeling of a summer’s night elsewhere, and here he offers us an enticing vision of a hot August day:
When August days are hot an’ dry,
I won’t sit by an’ sigh or die,
I’ll get my bottle (on the sly)
And go ahead, and fish, and lie …
Sara Teasdale, ‘August Moonrise’.
O Beauty, out of many a cup
You have made me drunk and wild
Ever since I was a child,
But when have I been sure as now
That no bitterness can bend
And no sorrow wholly bow
One who loves you to the end …
Teasdale (1884-1933) was an American poet whose lyrics about the natural world, and particularly the natural world of the United States, are well worth reading. Adopting a Romantic view of nature, Teasdale, aware that one day she will die, considers herself lucky to have witnessed the moon rising over the Connecticut hills: ‘Let this single hour atone / For the theft of all of me.’
Dorothy Parker, ‘August’. ‘Summer, do your worst!’ entreats the celebrated American writer and wit, Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), in this short poem about the month of August.
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.
O come on Swinburrne was indeed naughty, but his fame is in his great poetry…