Summer is showing its age and the River Houses year is winding down — late August is about to arrive. The Song Sparrows and House Finches in my neighborhood that had been singing since May have gone quiet, and the thistles and goldenrod are filling up the fields and riverbanks. There can surely be no better homeschool poem-of-the-week for us at this seasonal moment than the lovely sonnet “August” by Helen Hunt Jackson:
Silence again. The glorious symphony
Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
Pathetic, summer seeks by blazonry
Of color to conceal her swift decrease.
Weak subterfuge! Each mocking day doth fleece
A blossom and lay bare her poverty.
Poor, middle-agèd summer! Vain this show!
Whole fields of golden-rod cannot offset
One meadow with a single violet;
And well the singing thrush and lily know,
Spite of all artifice which her regret
Can deck in splendid guise, their time to go!
Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885) is little remembered now, but she was very popular and widely read in her day. Born Helen Fiske in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was a childhood friend of Emily Dickinson, and she wrote for many leading magazines of her era, including The Atlantic, still in publication, where this poem first appeared in August 1876.
When you introduce your students to a new poem, especially one in a traditional form, take your time, and don’t worry about “getting” everything the first time through. A good poem is a friend for life, and as with any friend, it takes several meetings to get acquainted. Before you even start to think about meaning, take a look at the poem’s structure. “August” is a sonnet. Sonnets usually have fourteen lines that are grouped into either an octave of eight and a sestet of six (a Petrarchan sonnet), or into three quatrains of four and a couplet of two (a Shakespearean sonnet). I’d say “August” is a bit closer to the Petrarchan type in its sentence arrangement, although it’s a bit of a hybrid — and that’s fine, because creative writers can invent new forms as they please. The precise rhyme-scheme, by contrast, puts it into the Shakespearean-sonnet camp: I make it out to be ABBA ABBA CDDC DC. By showing your students these details of structure they will come to appreciate the intricate literary craftsmanship that poets put into their work.
And did your young scholars recognize a little punctuational detail that’s important to the poem’s meter and to correct pronunciation? In the phrase I pulled out for the title of this post — “Poor, middle-agèd summer” — Jackson uses a grave accent to indicate that “agèd” is pronounced as two syllables (age-ed) rather than one (aged). (Turn to page 768 in your family dictionary to find an explanation of the grave accent in English.) Each line in this sonnet is ten syllables long, and to maintain that pattern, Jackson needs “agèd” to count as two. The learnèd little ` accomplishes just that.
What other wonderful words and poetical productions have you been studying in your homeschool this Hercules Term? 😊
❡ Poor, middle-agèd summer: If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our weekly poems, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud — that’s all it takes to begin a new poetical friendship and learn a few lovely words that will stay with you for life. 🌞
❡ Literary lives: The website of the Poetry Foundation includes biographical notes and examples of the work of many important poets (including Helen Hunt Jackson) that are suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers. 🖋
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Add your name to our River Houses mailing list to get posts like these delivered right to your mailbox, and print your own River Houses Poetry Calendar to follow along with us as we visit fifty of our favorite friends over the course of the year. 📖