“In Summer Time,” Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906)
When summer time has come, and all
The world is in the magic thrall
Of perfumed airs that lull each sense
To fits of drowsy indolence;
When skies are deepest blue above,
And flow’rs aflush,—then most I love
To start, while early dews are damp,
And wend my way in woodland tramp
Where forests rustle, tree on tree,
And sing their silent songs to me;
Where pathways meet and pathways part,—
To walk with Nature heart by heart,
Till wearied out at last I lie
Where some sweet stream steals singing by
A mossy bank; where violets vie
In color with the summer sky,—
Or take my rod and line and hook,
And wander to some darkling brook,
Where all day long the willows dream,
And idly droop to kiss the stream,
And there to loll from morn till night—
Unheeding nibble, run, or bite—
Just for the joy of being there
And drinking in the summer air,
The summer sounds, and summer sights,
That set a restless mind to rights
When grief and pain and raging doubt
Of men and creeds have worn it out;
The birds’ song and the water’s drone,
The humming bee’s low monotone,
The murmur of the passing breeze,
And all the sounds akin to these,
That make a man in summer time
Feel only fit for rest and rhyme.
Joy springs all radiant in my breast;
Though pauper poor, than king more blest,
The tide beats in my soul so strong
That happiness breaks forth in song,
And rings aloud the welkin blue
With all the songs I ever knew.
O time of rapture! time of song!
How swiftly glide thy days along
Adown the current of the years,
Above the rocks of grief and tears!
‘Tis wealth enough of joy for me
In summer time to simply be.
My favorite lines in this poem are when the speaker is talking about why nature seems so beautiful to him right now–The summer sounds, and summer sights that set a restless mind to rights when grief and pain and raging doubt of men and creeds have worn it out– he retreats from civilization–he just glances off the pain of the memory– because it is too brutal to bear.
Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the author of this poem, was the eldest son of a woman freed from slavery in Kentucky. Although he died when he was just thirty-three, he is remembered as one of the first nationally acclaimed African American poets. Interesting fact: the title of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is from the first line of Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”: I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, / When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, / When he beats his bars and would be free; / It is not a carol of joy or glee, / But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, / But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –/ I know why the caged bird sings.
The rest and relaxation of Dunbar’s summer is set in unstated contrast to his usual state. The conclusion of the poem invokes the image of time as a stream and the speaker as a compliant passenger–tis wealth enough of joy for me in summer time to simply be. But even as he enjoys the temporary pause in striving in the world–with the “raging doubt of men and creeds”–he suggests his intention to return. The joy he feels is as dependent upon the conclusion of rest, the fact that summertime is a concluding period of time, as upon that rest itself.
There is a sense of extended adolescence that accompanies academia–few adults get months of vacation at a time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty great. I’m not complaining. But one of the things that makes it wonderful is that I know in two months I’ll be getting back to work.
But for the mean time, I’ll simply be.