“Sumer is Icumen in …”
The above quote is not full of typos nor an editorial error, but the title of the oldest song written in Middle English, circa 1250. No, it doesn’t much look like English as we speak or spell it today. It was written in the Wessex dialect and the title means Summer has come in, (not is coming in, as some think). It is a jolly medieval poem, also known as ‘Cuckoo Song’ and is often performed as a round*; and is still widely sung by traditional folk groups today. (*A Round: with four voices singing the same melody one after the other, accompanied by two lower voices.) It is also the first poem in the Oxford Book of English Verse.
Wessex is a county that has long ceased to exist but is famous as the Kingdom of Alfred the Great, its land once approximated the modern counties of Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset. At times its land extended north of the River Thames and eventually expanded westwards to the counties of Devon and Cornwall. The name Wessex is an old English elision of ‘West Saxon’ – and furthermore – it is Thomas Hardy country.
Thomas Hardy set all of his major novels in the south and southwest of England. He named the area “Wessex” after the medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdom that existed in that part of the country prior to the unification of England by Æthelstan.
Hardy was born in Stinsford (2nd June 1840) and died in Dorchester (11th January 1928). Below is one of his lesser-known short poems that rather sums up a fickle English Summer.
It Never Looks Like Summer by Thomas Hardy
On Beeny by the sea.”
But though she saw its look as drear,
Summer it seemed to me.
It never looks like summer now
Whatever weather‘s there;
But ah, it cannot anyhow,
On Beeny or elsewhere!
The above poem was actually written in Boscastle on the north coast of Cornwall, but about Beeny a small hamlet nearby; and further, in another poem on Beeny, Hardy writes:
“A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain. And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.
– Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky …”
From ‘Beeny Cliff’ by Thomas Hardy.
Well, the weather was not too kind here either in the past months of April and May, a pretty mixed bag indeed, but then again, those months would be astrologically classed as Spring, with the Summer officially ‘Icumen in’ on the Summer Solstice on the 20th June.
I once read an article, I forget who by, that started: “The solstice on 20 June marks the official beginning of summer; a season for beach trips, long evenings, and invariably, some great British weather …” What! I don’t mean to be cynical but that is a very optimistic statement. However, no doubt like everyone else, I sincerely hope that the anonymous author’s optimism is fully justified.
(As I write this piece in early June, the weather is warm and pleasant indeed, but the Solstice date is yet to be reached. I too can only wait and see what transpires.)
“Summer is the hottest of the four temperate seasons, falling after spring and before autumn. At or around the summer solstice (about 3 days before Midsummer Day), the earliest sunrise and latest sunset occurs, the days are longest and the nights are shortest, with day length decreasing as the season progresses after the solstice.”
July, often one of the hottest of the Summer months, followed by August and the glorious ‘Dog Days’. What memories people have of these days. Yes, often seen through rose-tinted glasses. It never rained when we were young, the seasons did what they were supposed to do and the summer holidays were long and warm and seemed to last forever … perhaps …
Whatever the truth or fantasy of the above, we certainly live in very uncertain times now, with climate change and Covid 19 still very much affecting so many people’s thoughts and lives. Little surety of many things now as we may have had when we were young. But nature survives and, in some cases thrives, and the sun still shines and the sea still reaches the shore; and if you have friends to share these things with life can feel better, despite the current problems we all still face in a world that seems so changed and turned upside down.
William Ernest Henley (23 August 1849 – 11 July 1903) despite writing of personal events of well over a century ago, sums up, I believe, both the companionship and adversity of today.
Between the Dusk of a Summer Night
“Between the dusk of a summer night
And the dawn of a summer day,
We caught at a mood as it passed in flight,
And we bade it stoop and stay.
And what with the dawn of night began
With the dusk of day was done;
For that is the way of woman and man,
When a hazard has made them one.
Arc upon arc, from shade to shine,
The World went thundering free;
And what was his errand but hers and mine —
The lords of him, I and she?
O, it’s die we must, but it’s live we can,
And the marvel of earth and sun
Is all for the joy of woman and man
And the longing that makes them one.”
A poem on a lighter note, which I like very much, is by the prolific and perennial Emily
Dickinson. It cleverly compares Summer with having a drink (or two), and I’ll drink to that!
After all what is nicer than a nice cool beer on a hot Summer’s day, or evening, well… anytime!
“Inebriate of Air – am I –
And debauchee of dew –
Reeling through endless Summer days
From inns of molten blue”
And continuing on a lighter note, I much appreciate the quote from James Dent below.
“A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing, and the lawn mower is broken”
I haven’t heard any cuckoos yet this year, (apart from the usual suspects: politicians, opinionated celebs, ad nauseam). It would be a shame not to hear this Summer visitor at all with its distinctive two note call. The echoing backdrop of so many still Summer afternoons.
The dunnock, meadow pipit and reed warbler would have very good reason to disagree with the rather romantic view above as they are the most parasitised of this bird who lays its eggs in other bird’s nests. Perhaps the first verse of ‘Sumer is Icumen in’ (Cuckoo Song) would be appropriate here, in modern English of course!
“Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
The seed is growing
And the meadow is blooming,
And the wood is coming into leaf now,
Sing, cuckoo!” By anon
Definitely a verse better sung in the round than read, I think.
Often some of our fondest memories are of long Summer days; the fields we walked, the beaches we swam from, the long hot evenings in the cafes and bars of our youth, growing older, (but not necessarily wiser) together with our peers, good friends and kinfolk. But all seasons have their precious memories; and strangely, though memory might fail somewhat as one gets older on everyday things, it seems to grow stronger when recalling the past. Of course, when recalling good times with relations and friends who are no longer here, we may also recall past sorrows as well as happiness.
I think Beryl’s short poem below sums this up rather well
by Beryl Fleming
Remembered words, a haunting tune,
A scent of roses on a summer day…
White winter silence, stormy seas,
A sudden, swirling gust of autumn leaves…
Why, in the twilight of our years,
Are memories as sharp as bitter tears?
Sometimes, on warm, bright Summer days there comes a feeling that you must escape – what the poet Philip Larkin called – ‘…that toad, work!’ Put down the pen, put away the tools, ‘accidently’ miss the bus for work, abandon this article and make a bid for glorious freedom! My poem below is about thinking and acting on that notion.
WHEN I FOLLOWED THE GREY HERON
By Peter Wathen
When I followed the grey heron
The river long day
And time left unmarked
My truant ways,
And I heard an unbridled
Beauty of song,
A skylark exultant, lost in the sun.
When I followed the contours
Of river and weald
For horizons to nowhere
Through a freedom of fields,
And heard my escape
Celebrated in song
As I followed the grey heron
The river day long.
Take care everyone. Stay safe. Peter Wathen
The Summer has Come In
© copyright Peter Wathen (all rights reserved)