Sunday, September 22, 2019

When summer's end is nighing

       School begins before summer ends. So we typically sigh for the end of summer during the last days of August, when we are urged to stock up on rulers and pencils and back-to-school clothing. As if summer only exists for children, which in a sense it does, though adults appreciate the warmth and life and sense of possibility. My wife and I are members of the Chicago Botanic Garden, and while we do visit in February as well as July, let me assure you: July is better. 
A. E. Housman
       But summer ends for adults too, at 2:50 a.m. Central Time on Monday, Sept. 23. And for grown-ups, the opening gong of winter can bear an extra element of regret. There is a lovely poem by A.E. Housman, "When summer's end is nighing"—an unfortunate word, "nigh," redolent of the preciousness that poets have rightly banished, replaced by bodily fluids. 
     But to be expected. Housman was late 19th century Oxford don, seemingly a "dried up husk of a man," in Alan Bennett's words, huffing on the dying spark of a youthful, unreciprocated flame. A prig and something of a fraud—he lionized the dead in war but complained when Cambridge took in wounded soldiers. When the philosopher Wittegenstein, feeling the indisputable call of nature, rapped on Housman's door and asked to use the loo, the poet replied "Certainly not." 
     Still, he could be bracingly direct. "The faintest of all human passions," he wrote, "is love of truth." Practically ripped from the headlines, as is his observation that men "think in fits and starts."
      The poem is out of copyright, so I can print the whole thing without guilt, which is more than I can say about reading it:

      When summer's end is nighing
         And skies are evening cloud,
      I must on changes and fortune
         And all the feats I vowed
         When I was young and proud.

      The weathercock at sunset
          Would lose the slanted ray,
       And I would climb the beacon
          That looked to Wales away
          And saw the last of day.

      From hill and cloud and heaven
         The hues of evening died.
      Night welled through lane and hollow
         And hushed the countryside.
         But I had youth and pride.

      And I with earth and nightfall
           In converse high would stand,
       Late, till the west was ashen
           And darkness hard at hand
           And the eye lost the land.

        The year might age, and cloudy
            The lessening day might close.
        But air of other summers
             Breathed from beyond the snows.
             and I had hope of those.

        They came and were and are not
           And come no more anew;
         And all the years and seasons
            That ever can ensue
            Must now be worse and few.

          So here's an end of roaming
             On eves when autumn nights:
          The ear too fondly listens
              For summer's parting sights,
              And then the heart replies.

     A bit treacly perhaps, but to the point.
     Speaking of which, I'm giving a talk entitled "Box Full of Darkness," a line filched from Mary Oliver, at the Northbrook Public Library, 1201 Cedar Lane, this Tuesday.  It begins at 7 p.m., lasts about an hour and admission is free. The subject is poetry and recovery from addiction, and I'll sign copies of "Out of the Wreck I Rise," the book on the subject I wrote with Sara Bader. 
     Though if you plan to go—and I hope you do, I'd feel stupid standing there alone, talking to myself—the library asks that you pre-register here.


  1. It’s Chicago BOTANIC Garden. Not “Botanical”. Sorry but this one drives me crazy. It’s like when people say ‘Illinoise”. When I hear it I always think that the person saying it about the CBG has never been there and I know you go there all the time and treasure it.

    1. Fixed Annie, thanks. So I guess we're both mistaken, eh?

    2. I’m dyslexic so I make mistakes when I write all the time. Can’t even spot my own this time.

    3. "When I hear it I always think that the person saying it about the CBG has never been there."

    4. Ahhh. Ok. As I said I knew my thought was wrong. But I’m always surprised at how many people make this error is it unusual for this type of garden to label itself a “ botanic” garden rather than a “ botanical” Most I know who have don’t frequent the place very often. We like you go all the time. The Pop Up Gallery in Evanston sells prints by an artist of key spots in the garden. They are lovely.

  2. My favorite Housman poem:

    Oh when I was in love with you,
    Then I was clean and brave;
    For miles around the wonder grew
    How well I did behave.

    And now the fancy passes by
    And nothing will remain;
    For miles around they'll say that I
    Am quite myself again.


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