By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Summer Day’ is a lyric poem by the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), a poet who has perhaps not received as much attention from critics as she deserves. It’s been estimated that she was the bestselling poet in the United States at the time of her death, so a few words of analysis about some of her best-known poems seem appropriate.
In ‘The Summer Day’, the poem’s speaker revels in the joys that nature can bring on a summer day, urging her readers to make full use of their ‘wild and precious life’.
You can read ‘The Summer Day’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Mary Oliver’s poem below. The poem takes under a minute to read.
‘The Summer Day’: summary
Mary Oliver’s poem comprises one single stanza. The speaker of the poem (who may or may not be Oliver herself) begins by asking who created the world and the animals which live in it, such as the swan, the black bear, and the grasshopper.
She then points out that she has a specific grasshopper in mind, one which has just hopped out of the grass and is now eating sugar out of the speaker’s hand. The speaker observes the insect closely, watching it moves its jaws backwards and forwards as it eats, rather than up and down (as humans eat).
The grasshopper is looking around with its eyes which are large, in proportion to the smallness of the creature itself. Looking at the insect closely, the speaker can see how complex the eyes of this small creature are. She watches as the grasshopper lifts its pale forearms and washes its face after eating. Then, with a snapping sound, it opens up its wings and flies off.
Now the speaker tells us that, although she doesn’t know how to define ‘prayer’ specifically, she knows how to pay attention to things, and how to fall onto one’s knees in the grass and kneel there. She also knows how to be carefree and to feel lucky, and how to wander through the fields – indeed, this is what she has been doing throughout the whole of this summer day.
She then turns to us, the reader, and asks: how else should she have spent her time? Is there a better way to spend a summer day than doing the things she has spent her day doing? Everything is mortal and will die in the end, all too quickly. So what, she asks the reader, do we plan to do with our one ‘wild and precious’ life?
‘The Summer Day’: analysis
In many ways, we might analyse ‘The Summer Day’ as an example of a belated Romantic poem. Like much of Mary Oliver’s poetry, it is a nature poem that also touches upon the significance that nature has for our human lives: brief, flawed, and mortal as they are. This is in keeping with Romanticism, that literary and artistic movement which, in English poetry at least, really got underway in the 1790s with the poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
For Romantics, nature is something that should not just be observed in a scientific manner, with a microscope and pair of binoculars: it is there to be engaged with on an emotional and psychological level, too. We can derive pleasure and meaning from spending time kneeling in the grass, or strolling through the fields, or from holding a single grasshopper in our palm and watching as it eats, as it looks around, and as it washes its face.
Of course, the speaker’s description of the actions of the grasshopper virtually humanise it, despite the significant differences between it and us (its wings, its six legs, its size). What differences are noted are of little practical significance (the insect chews its food from side to side, rather than up and down as we do). She also, more significantly, uses the pronoun ‘who’ when describing the insect, rather than the (strictly more correct) ‘which’ or ‘that’. And note the gendering of the creature, too: Oliver’s speaker uses ‘herself’ and ‘her jaws’ when describing the animal, rather than the more usual ‘itself’ or ‘its jaws’.
This encounter with the grasshopper is a joyous one not least because it isn’t merely about observing the insect in a detached, scientific way. Although she speaker does notice things about the creature, she is more interested in sharing this moment of communion with the grasshopper, letting it eat from her hand (as domesticated animals, such as pet dogs or birds, have done with humans for millennia), and sharing the grass with it.
And if ‘communion’ strikes a religious note in that previous paragraph, our choice of word is deliberate. For another feature we often find in Romanticism is an almost religious reverence for nature: the whole of the natural world is like one vast church, with every rock and tree and creature containing God’s divinity. Such a belief is known as pantheism.
However, there is some debate to be had about how religiously the speaker of ‘The Summer Day’ views the wonders of nature: although her actions reflect those of a worshipper praying – she even kneels down – Oliver leaves us in some doubt as to whether this action is the direct equivalent to prayer for the speaker, or whether it is merely something which approaches religious awe (while stopping short of full-on pantheism). There are, for instance, other reasons for kneeling in the grass: to find more creatures like the grasshopper, for one.
Sticking with Romanticism, we may wonder to what extent the speaker’s opening questions (rhetorical questions, or does she seriously want to know, or hope to discover, who the Creator of these animals was?) are influenced or at least inflected by William Blake’s famous questions in ‘The Tyger’:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
And similarly, to what extent is Oliver’s grasshopper a descendant of Keats’s, in his sonnet ‘The Grasshopper and the Cricket’, which begins:
The Poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
In summer luxury,—he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
Or stretching back even further, into the mid-eighteenth century, might we detect a faint echo of Christopher Smart’s cat, whose actions (including washing himself) were included in the poet’s celebration of the animal’s routine:
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
But Oliver’s poem stands in its own right, too, as a poem about the religious (or at least quasi-religious) awe but also blessing that nature can inspire or bestow. As well as the symbolic act of kneeling, the speaker’s decision to throw herself down into the grass neatly dovetails the actions of the grasshopper, which, true to its name, had literally flung itself up out of the grass before sharing this moment of communion with the poem’s speaker. Nature comes to us, if we go to it.
Finally, we should observe that the poem sees the value of life not in working until we drop or striving to cram as many productive things into one day as possible. There is a value in being ‘idle’, to use the speaker’s word, and in simply spending time doing ‘nothing’ among the wonderful sights that nature provides us with. Our age of laptops, consumerism, and ‘screen time’ (on phones as well as computers and TVs) is perhaps the age which has most forgotten that.
‘The Summer Day’: form
‘The Summer Day’ is written in free verse, like most of Mary Oliver’s poems. This means it lacks a regular rhyme scheme (none of the line endings rhymes) and a regular metre or rhythm. The line lengths are also variable and not fixed.
However, there is always some underlying structure, even an irregular one, to good poetry. And in ‘The Summer Day’, Mary Oliver’s use of questions at both the beginning and end of her poem, bookending her speaker’s encounter with the grasshopper, almost act like a secular catechism. Note also the repetition of the phrase ‘Tell me’ at the beginnings of two lines towards the end of the poem: a feature known as anaphora.