THAT NOMAD GYPSY: FRANCIS LEDWIDGE’S JUNE

Yes, today is the Summer Solstice, Midsummer’s Day, the longest day of the year.

It is also the turning point. Now, though roses are blooming, the days will grow increasingly shorter, the nights longer again. Time does not pause a moment in its passing.

We see that reflected in a very colorful poem with a remarkably rural feeling by the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917), who, from family need, had to leave school for work at age 13, and who, like so many young men of his time, died in the First World War.

First, let’s look at the whole poem:

JUNE

Broom out the floor now, lay the fender by,
And plant this bee-sucked bough of woodbine there,
And let the window down. The butterfly
Floats in upon the sunbeam, and the fair
Tanned face of June, the nomad gipsy, laughts
Above her widespread wares,the while she tells
The farmer’s fortunes in the fields, and quaffs
The water from the spider-peopled wells.

The hedges are all drowned in green grass seas,
And bobbing poppies flare like Elmo’s light
While siren-like the pollen-stained bees
Drone in the clover depths. And up the height
The cuckoo’s voice is hoarse and broke with joy.
And on the lowland crops the crows make raid,
Nor fear the clappers of the farmer’s boy,
Who sleeps, like drunken Noah, in the shade.

And loop this red rose in that hazel ring
That snares your little ear, for June is short
And we must joy in it and dance and sing,
And from her bounty draw her rosy worth.
Ay! soon the swallows will be flying south,
The wind wheel north to gather in the snow
Even the roses spilt on youth’s red mouth
Will soon blow down the road all roses go.

Now here’s a running commentary on all the lines:

The setting is Ireland in June, the time when the weather warms and the roses bloom.
A country school is closing up for the summer, freeing its students into the warm June air. Someone is speaking, perhaps the teacher, perhaps the poet just speaking in his mind:

Broom out the floor now, lay the fender by,

Sweep the floor, put aside the fireplace fender…

And plant this bee-sucked bough of woodbine there,

And place this bough of honeysuckle in the now unused fireplace…

And let the window down.

And close the window.

The butterfly
Floats in upon the sunbeam,

A butterfly flutters into the room, an invitation to the bright outdoors.

….and the fair
Tanned face of June, the nomad gipsy, laughs
Above her widespread wares,

The month of June is likened to a nomadic gypsy, just passing through, who smiles over all the wonderful things she offers, all the joys of June spread out before youth…

the while she tells
The farmer’s fortunes in the fields,

The state of the crops in June predicts what a farmer’s income and security is likely to be, just as a gypsy predicts the future.

and quaffs
The water from the spider-peopled wells.

June as “gypsy” is manifested in the the country people, easing their thirst from wells that when the cover is lifted, reveal spiders that have taken up their webby residence within.

The hedges are all drowned in green grass seas,

The hedges that edge the fields and roads are all surrounded by high, green grass…

And bobbing poppies flare like Elmo’s light

And wild red poppies in the fields bloom like “St. Elmo’s light,” a natural electric discharge sailors see on masts of ships at sea…

While siren-like the pollen-stained bees
Drone in the clover depths.

While the buzzing of the pollen-coated bees in the clover call temptingly to the child like the voices of sirens in the old Greek story of Odysseus….

And up the height
The cuckoo’s voice is hoarse and broke with joy.

And on the nearby hill the cuckoo’s call seems hoarse and broken with the joy of repeated singing…

And on the lowland crops the crows make raid,

While in the farm fields below, a flock of crows is flying in to feed,

Nor fear the clappers of the farmer’s boy,

And the crows are unafraid of the wooden noise-maker the boy set to guard the field uses…

Who sleeps, like drunken Noah, in the shade.

Because the boy, in the intoxicating warmth of June, has fallen asleep in the shade of a tree, just as Noah, in the Old Testament story, got drunk from the wine of his vineyard and fell deeply asleep.

And loop this red rose in that hazel ring
That snares your little ear,

So stick a red rose in the ring of bent hazel-twig around your ear…

for June is short
And we must joy in it and dance and sing,

Because June is all too brief, and we should enjoy it while it lasts…

And from her bounty draw her rosy worth.

And get all the pleasure that we can from it in this time when roses bloom and the world is young…

Ay! soon the swallows will be flying south,

Because, sad to say, the swallows all too soon will be migrating southward as the weather turns cold again…

The wind wheel north to gather in the snow

And The warm winds that blow now will become cold northern winds that bring the snow.

Even the roses spilt on youth’s red mouth
Will soon blow down the road all roses go.

And even the rosy lips of youth will soon fade and pass away, just as the roses of June fade and drop their petals in the wind, passing away as all young things will do with the passing of time.

This poem is striking in its “homely” depiction of the joys of June, and reminiscent of both Herrick and Housman in its “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” sense of the shortness of June and youth, and its reminder that “The rose-lip’t girls are sleeping in fields where roses fade.”

David

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