The last month of summer has inspired topics from nature and executions to flying nuns – what can you come up with?
August, the eight month, is the second to be named after a Roman emperor, this time Augustus. He is said to have chosen this month for his own because he'd had a number of military victories in Sextus, or the sixth month, as it had previously been called before the addition of January and February. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, August is the last month of summer, with just a hint of autumn in the air. However, as some posters reminded me in July, things are different south of the equator, where this month is much like our February.
In The Shepheardes Calender, Spenser's August takes the form of a poetic competition between two shepherds, Willye and Perigot, who take turns improvising alternate lines of a song, a roundelay on the theme of love unrequited, with a cowherd's boy, Cuddie, to judge who is the winner between them. This kind of competition was quite common in oral poetry, and lives on to today in the Basque tradition of the bertsolari. Cuddie calls it a draw and then rounds things off by singing a song on the same theme by Spenser's alter-ego, Colin Clout.
Matthew Arnold places the opening of his poem The Scholar-Gipsy in a distinctly Spenserian bucolic setting of shepherds and reapers, with the narrator taking shelter from "the August sun" under a tree beside which he can see the sheep grazing the recently harvested fields. However, the poem is a very 19th-century meditation on the differences between the civilised and natural man, and on the fear that prevents us from adopting a more natural approach to living. The speaker in the poem clearly envies the wandering scholar his freedom, but he realises that he could never follow the example of abandoning the soft life of academia.
Robert Burns's Song – Composed in August is equally filled with the charms of the rural, but in this case there is no tinge of sadness or regret. The Scottish summer landscape is teeming with life and forms the perfect backdrop to the poet's declaration of love for his darling Peggy. Things are, as you might expect, a touch less sunny in Christina Rossetti's Amor Mundi; the lovers may start out walking "in glowing August weather", but the easy downhill path they take is pregnant with omens of hellfire and damnation. Somehow I can't but think that Rossetti would not have approved of Burns's more easygoing attitude to physical love.
Anne Sexton found herself writing a Letter on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound "at 2 o'clock on a Tuesday/ in August of 1960". She, too, was meditating on love and sadness, and found her escape in a surreal vision of a group of nuns, her fellow passengers, spreading their habits and taking to the air with a cry of "good news, good news". The contrast between Sexton's precise description of the sea and landscape seen from the ferry and the absurdist flight of the reverend sisters is the fulcrum on which the poem rests. A similar attention to the smallest detail of vision informs William Carlos Williams's Flowers of August sequence, a celebration of the most ordinary, easily overlooked weeds and wildflowers that is in keeping with the poet's affection for the everyday.
Of course, August isn't all sunshine and flowers and flying nuns; serious stuff happens even in late summer. While Climbing Milestone Mountain, 22 August, 1937, Kenneth Rexroth found himself remembering the still controversial executions, exactly 10 years earlier, of the Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. There can be no doubt where the poet's sympathies lay, and the poem cuts between the Sierras of now and the Boston of then in a way that builds inexorably to the final assertion that like the mountains, the two men's legacy would endure.
And so the challenge this month is to write poems celebrating the month of Augustus. Whether you're in the mood for a bucolic idyll or a more urban, and possibly less sun-drenched bit of late-summer surrealism, the choices are all yours. Just remember to post your August poster poems here.