Poetry Corner: James Russell Lowell
Perhaps it would be good to define what, exactly, are "perfect days."
Things have been soggy of late, just about everywhere, it seems. The blogs that I follow, whether from California or New England or Europe or wherever, have been reporting major rainfall. And here in New Mexico, we've been getting a lot of rain as well.
Normally, in June, New Mexico is about as dry as it gets. The late spring snowfalls have ended, and the summer monsoons – yes, true monsoons, caused by the same sorts of wind patterns as cause the classic monsoons in India – have not yet begun. Generally, from April through June, we have almost no precipitation, and what water we have in our streams and rivers comes from snow-melt from the mountains. In a good year, with a heavy snowpack, this melt-water comes down through the month of May and, if we're really lucky, into the beginning of June.
This year, however, June has been unusually rainy. The past week, in particular, has seen heavy thunderstorms, especially in the northern part of the state, including Rio Arriba County. Friday, on our way up to Five O'Clock Somewhere, when we crossed Willow Creek, it was flowing full, at a level that is ordinarily seen only during the peak of spring runoff. Normally, in late June, the creek would be nearly dry.
Not that we're complaining. More rainfall means more water in the lake to sail upon, and more water to send downstream to the other lake to sail upon. In the case of Heron Lake, it also means that the marina gangway, which was becoming submerged as the lake level came up, needed to be relocated.
But all of this rainfall is at odds with the way most people think of June weather, as promoted by American poet James Russell Lowell, in the famous couplet, "What is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days." Certainly, especially in parts of the world where rainfall is not seen as a valuable gift from Heaven, rainy days are not considered to be perfect.
Lowell was something of a character. He was a troublemaker at Harvard, but somehow managed to graduate anyway, publishing bits and pieces of satire along the way. He was a journalist, essayist, lawyer, diplomat, and political activist, especially in the cause of the abolition of slavery. He had a sharp wit, and he contributed many epigrams to popular culture, such as , "Blessed are they who have nothing to say and who cannot be persuaded to say it." (You can read more such wit at BrainyQuote.)
The lines about the day in June come from a massive work, The Vision of Sir Launfal, an epic poem set in Arthurian times, dealing with the quest for the Holy Grail. This is merely an excerpt from the prologue to one portion of the work.
What is so Rare as a Day in June?
James Russell Lowell
And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays;
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,
An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, groping blindly above it for light,
Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
The flush of life may well be seen
Thrilling back over hills and valleys;
The cowslip startles in meadows green,
The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there's never a leaf nor a blade too mean
To be some happy creature's palace;
The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o'errun
With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?
Now is the high-tide of the year,
And whatever of life hath ebbed away
Comes flooding back with a ripply cheer,
Into every bare inlet and creek and bay;
Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it,
We are happy now because God wills it;
No matter how barren the past may have been,
'Tis enough for us now that the leaves are green;
We sit in the warm shade and feel right well
How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;
We may shut our eyes but we cannot help knowing
That skies are clear and grass is growing;
The breeze comes whispering in our ear,
That dandelions are blossoming near,
That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,
That the river is bluer than the sky,
That the robin is plastering his house hard by;
And if the breeze kept the good news back,
For our couriers we should not lack;
We could guess it all by yon heifer's lowing,
And hark! How clear bold chanticleer,
Warmed with the new wine of the year,
Tells all in his lusty crowing!
Joy comes, grief goes, we know not how;
Everything is happy now,
Everything is upward striving;
'Tis as easy now for the heart to be true
As for grass to be green or skies to be blue,
'Tis for the natural way of living:
Who knows whither the clouds have fled?
In the unscarred heaven they leave not wake,
And the eyes forget the tears they have shed,
The heart forgets its sorrow and ache;
The soul partakes the season's youth,
And the sulphurous rifts of passion and woe
Lie deep 'neath a silence pure and smooth,
Like burnt-out craters healed with snow.