I had the last week off work due to the Mers threat over here in South Korea. It was a funny kind of week, a week of fear-tinged relaxation. Since we were avoiding crowded or enclosed areas, it was a good opportunity for a wee rural retreat – and lo and behold, my wife’s friend invited us to her father’s countryside getaway a short drive east of our city.
This is a bit of a Korean thing: men in their late middle ages, those who can afford it, will buy a small plot of land with a small hut, often nothing more than a converted container, and spend weekends tending their plot and generally enjoying the simple life. Here’s another Korean thing, outside of Christian circles at least: getting your male guests drunk. Our friend’s father kept the soju flowing and before long I was pleasantly tipsy. As the others talked, and my son played happily in the makeshift paddling pool, I sat back and enjoyed the view.
The plot was in a narrowish valley in which the fields had been terraced, some flooded to make rice paddies. A heron preened in the nearby tall grass, before flying up to nest in a hillside tree, while white egrets floated down to his vacated spot. Sparrows chirped in the young pines, and a redstart perched on a nearby telegraph line. Some brown ducks flew down to the paddy, something flitted through the distant trees – a dove maybe, or a hawk? A cuckoo unseen cried from the woods, sounding both close and far (who was it said that about the cuckoo’s call?) was in one of those moods where one is receptive to everything before me, where every detail registered on my consciousness, and I enjoyed it. I have often thought that this kind of receptive mood must be necessary before the writing of a nature poem. Of course, a poet also needs the skill to turn such moments into a poem and reflection enough to make of it something interesting, but first must come this openness to perception.
When I got home I slept off the soju, and later that night, already a little hungover, sat idly surfing this and that on the net. I must have had that cuckoo on my mind, for I suddenly wanted to know the words of that middle English lyrics that I knew started ‘Summer is icumen in’. And here they are:
Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
and bloweþ med (bloweth meadows)
and springþ þe wode nu
Awe bleteþ after lomb (Ewe bleeteth after lamb)
lhouþ after calue cu (loweth after calve, cow)
bucke uerteþ (farteth)
murie sing cuccu (merry)
Wel singes þu cuccu (thou)
ne swik þu nauer nu (never stop)
Sing cuccu nu • Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu • Sing cuccu nu
Now this is a bit of a British thing, is it not: saying summer has arrived because of the appearance of a particular animal. Actually, it is probably what people in most temperate or cold climates do, wherever the weather is not always a reliable guide to the season. Here in Korea we know it’s summer because it is hot – 30 degrees hot. But home in England the mercury is hovering in the mid-teens, so it is better to look (or listen) to the animal kingdom. Obviously, this is a longstanding habit because this lyrical celebration of summer was written in the thirteenth century. Cuckoos can still herald summers, but the swallow is the bird most associated with the start of summer, albeit often in the negative sense – ‘one swallow does not make a summer’. Which creature heralds the winter, by the way? A Goddamn according to Ezra Pound’s strange pastiche ‘Winter is icumen in’ although I’ve never seen one: fieldfares are pretty reliable that way, though, if you know where to look.
Back to summer though… The poem has a good claim to being the first nature poem written in English – the poet (unknown, but thought to be ‘W of Wycombe’ from the west country) certainly sounds as if he has a great deal of the perceptiveness I wrote about above, taking in the details of an English summer scene. Not every detail in the poem is what would nowadays be considered poetic in the conventional sense – in particular that farting buck in the second stanza, but one gathers thirteenth century folk were less squeamish about bodily functions than us moderns. There is a slight sense that the poet is mixing up the seasons of spring and summer somewhat too – the wood comes into leaf in late spring, not summer, and those calves and lambs would have been weaned by June. Is the word ‘summer’ being used more broadly, or is the poet first in a line of nature poets who didn’t quite know their stuff about farming? (not that I know much better, but here’s my source – http://strangehorizons.com/2001/20010212/agriculture.shtml )
It is best appreciated,of course, to the accompanying melody, which is quite lovely, and very memorable. There are worse things to have in your head all summer. ibecause of its use in a sinister scene of The Wicker Man (a film I haven’t seen, but that, somewhat like Buchan’s Witch Wood, imagines the survival of paganism in the wilds of Scotland) some people associate the poem and song with paganism and human sacrifice. In fact, it was written long after the pagan era in Britain. I can see why they used it: it is archaic without being obscure, and as entrancing and catchy as anything written by Brian Wilson, but its lyrics are entirely secular, and no more connected to pagan rituals than, say, an average Beach Boys song.