Days after the winter solstice, my favorite among Yvor Winters’ poems is “A Summer Commentary”:
“When I was young, with sharper sense,
The farthest insect cry I heard
Could stay me: through the trees, intense,
I watched the hunter and the bird.
“Where is the meaning that I found?
Or was it but a state of mind,
Some old penumbra of the ground,
In which to be but not to find?
“Now summer grasses, brown with heat,
Have crowded sweetness through the air;
The very roadside dust is sweet;
Even the unshadowed earth is fair.
“The soft voice of the nesting dove,
And the dove in soft erratic flight
Like a rapid hand within a glove,
Caress the silence and the light.
“Amid the rubble, the fallen fruit,
Fermenting in its rich decay,
Smears brandy on the trampling boot
And sends it sweeter on its way.”
The first stanza is dazzling. “Could stay me” almost stops the poem at the start of its third line, after the first two run-on lines. Try substituting “stop” for “stay.” The vowel sound is open, more pause than halt, a pause that implies suspense without melodrama: Now what?
“Some old penumbra of the ground” – “of,” not “on.” Some of Winters’ finest effects are accomplished by subtly odd word choices, unexpected but not conspicuously so. I connect “A Summer Commentary” with Helen Pinkerton’s “Degrees of Shade”: “Our darkness stays, the self-made dark we know.” Winters’ “dove in soft erratic flight” recalls Pinkerton’s “Red-Tailed Hawk”: “He seemed to shift from nothingness toward flight.”
Stanza four is ravishing, in particular the first two lines, the repetition of “soft” and “dove.” Read it aloud. Listen to the repeated “s” sounds. The “rapid hand within a glove” implies benign containment, feeling shaped by form, like the poem we are reading.
Anyone who has walked on windfall in late summer – plums and apples worked by bees and yellow jackets – recognizes the experience evoked by the final stanza. I smell it as I write about it. Earlier the “roadside dust” was sweet. The fermented fruit, the “brandy,” is sweeter still, carried into the world on the walker’s boot.
We return to the question posed in the second stanza: “Where is the meaning that I found?” The answer is the poem and the experiences it recalls. “A Summer Commentary,” like any great poem, defies glib paraphrase. It immerses us in sensory detail (auditory, visual, perhaps olfactory and gustatory) while connoting emotional and intellectual maturity. It renders a life’s education in twenty lines.