Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
This is the latest in our monthly posts celebrating some of the best poems about each of the months of the year. This time, of course, it’s September’s turn: that point where summer may still linger on, but autumn is beginning to rear its head. The harvest is being gathered, and that ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is upon us, in John Keats’s immortal words. Here’s our pick of the best poems about the month of September.
1. William Wordsworth, ‘September, 1819’.
Departing summer hath assumed
An aspect tenderly illumed,
The gentlest look of spring;
That calls from yonder leafy shade
Unfaded, yet prepared to fade,
A timely carolling.
No faint and hesitating trill,
Such tribute as to winter chill
The lonely redbreast pays!
Clear, loud, and lively is the din,
From social warblers gathering in
Their harvest of sweet lays …
So begins this Romantic meditation on the arrival of autumn, in which Wordsworth detects an echo of spring in the mellowing nature of everything.
2. Helen Hunt Jackson, ‘September’.
The golden-rod is yellow;
The corn is turning brown;
The trees in apple orchards
With fruit are bending down.
The gentian’s bluest fringes
Are curling in the sun;
In dusty pods the milkweed
Its hidden silk has spun.
The sedges flaunt their harvest,
In every meadow nook;
And asters by the brook-side
Make asters in the brook …
Jackson (1830-85) was an exact contemporary of Emily Dickinson – she was born the same year and died just one year before her more famous fellow American poet – 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 ‘September’, however, Jackson writes not a sonnet but a poem of quatrains, in which she muses upon ‘the secret / Which makes September fair.’
3. W. B. Yeats, ‘September 1913’.
Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You’d cry, ‘Some woman’s yellow hair
Has maddened every mother’s son’:
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they’re dead and gone,
They’re with O’Leary in the grave …
A slightly different meditation on September, this, from arguably Ireland’s most famous poet, W. B. Yeats (1865-1939). Meditating on the situation in Ireland in September 1913, Yeats laments a lost past for his home country, concluding that ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, / It’s with O’Leary in the grave.’
4. Lucy Maud Montgomery, ‘September’.
Lo! a ripe sheaf of many golden days
Gleaned by the year in autumn’s harvest ways,
With here and there, blood-tinted as an ember,
Some crimson poppy of a late delight
Atoning in its splendor for the flight
Of summer blooms and joys
This is September.
Montgomery (1874-1942) is best-known for her classic novel for children, Anne of Green Gables, set in Montgomery’s own country of Canada (on Prince Edward Island). But Montgomery was also a poet, and in this short poem about September (quoted above in its entirety) she pays tribute to the ‘late delight’ of the month.
5. Sara Teasdale, ‘September Midnight’.
Lyric night of the lingering Indian Summer,
Shadowy fields that are scentless but full of singing,
Never a bird, but the passionless chant of insects,
The grasshopper’s horn, and far-off, high in the maples,
The wheel of a locust leisurely grinding the silence
Under a moon waning and worn, broken,
Tired with summer …
Listening to the chirruping and clicking insects at midnight on a warm late summer’s night – for this is an ‘Indian Summer’, and the warm summer weather has lasted into early autumn – Teasdale (1884-1933) hopes to remember the ‘voices’ of the little insects as summer fades.
6. Patrick Kavanagh, ‘On an Apple-Ripe September Morning’.
Of all the Irish poets who wrote before Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67) is the one who most clearly prefigures – and perhaps the one who most strongly influenced – Heaney’s direct, intimate style. Here, Kavanagh recalls walking through the fields on a September morning, with a pitchfork, ready to go and help with the threshing at the mill.
7. W. H. Auden, ‘September 1, 1939’.
This is a different kind of ‘September poem’ from many of the others on this list, since it’s about a specific event – Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and the ensuing outbreak of war – rather than a more general September mood. A such, it’s closer to Yeats’s September poem than the others – and, indeed, Auden borrowed the stanza form for this September poem from another one by Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’. Auden later disowned this poem, written shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, arguing that the rhetoric won out over truth (‘We must love one another or die’ should, he reasoned, strictly be ‘We must love one another and die’).
As a result, you won’t find it in the Faber Collected Auden. But you can read it by following the link in the title above. Auden stirringly calls for others like him to ‘show an affirming flame’ and light a way forward during the dark days ahead.
8. Geoffrey Hill, ‘September Song’.
Another different take on September: beginning with the birth and death dates of a child who, we are told, was ‘deported’ in September 1942, ‘September Song’ addresses one of the most difficult subjects for a poet to write about: the Holocaust. As we read on, we realise that ‘deported’ is a military euphemism, and the child was in fact killed in 1942, aged just ten years old, presumably in one of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps.
The reference to September ‘fatten[ing] on vines’ draws upon the natural imagery of early autumn to reflect on the horrors and atrocities of the Second World War.
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.