William Morris’s “Summer Dawn”

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William Morris’s “Summer Dawn” differs from the poems by which he’s primarily known, such as “The Defence of Guenevere” or The Earthly Paradise. With its simple theme of waiting, the poem describes a moment of transition.

Pray but one prayer for me ‘twixt thy closed lips,
Think but one thought of me up in the stars.
The summer night waneth, the morning light slips,
Faint and grey ‘twixt the leaves of aspen, betwixt the cloud-bars,
That are patiently waiting there for the dawn:
Patient and colourless, though Heaven’s gold
Waits to float through them along with the sun
Far out in the meadows, above the young corn,
The heavy elms wait, and restless and cold
The uneasy wind rises; the roses are dun;
Through the long twilight they pray for the dawn,
Round the lone house in the midst of the corn,
Speak but one word to me over the corn,
Over the tender, bow’d locks of the corn.

I love the uncertainties in this poem. The poet and the earth are at the threshold of an encounter. There’s a sense that nature’s waiting is not merely a sustained instance of pathetic fallacy, but rather, that earthly nature really longs for the dawn, echoing St. Paul when he wrote, “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth” for the coming morn (Rom. 8:22). The “lone house,” enclosed by a circle of colourless, praying roses in the midst of the corn, is an oikos within an oikos. Like Andrew Wyeth’s depiction of the Olson House in Christina’s tawny world of sepian meadows, it stands a hub of focus, marginal and alone in a waiting and praying landscape. 

But whom is the poet addressing? –we aren’t given so much as a gendered pronoun. Traditionally, the sonnet expresses the poet’s love to a woman. This is most likely a Shakespearean sonnet, characterized by abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme with a volta, or turning point, in the third quatrain. Notice how the rhyme scheme is only employed when the poet is addressing the mysterious lover, who waits elusively, like the dawn, ever out of frame. The first quatrain, in which the poet makes his imperative address, is faithful to the abab rhyme scheme, while, throughout the more descriptive second and third quatrains, the rhyme is disregarded. Though the third follows an unconventional effe, it contains no volta. The volta occurs just before the third quatrain when we shift from the view of the expectant sky to the “restless,” “cold,” and “uneasy” scenes of the meadow. In the final address to the unknown entity, the poet returns to the rhyme scheme with a closing couplet.

Is the lover a woman, possibly dead? Is she God? Who else would pray with closed lips and think of him in the stars? The poem depicts a moment of transition and arrival–the arrival of the dawn and something else. In the seventh line, the two prepositions “along with” distinguish between “Heaven’s gold” and the impending “sun,” an important distinction suggesting that there are two dawns approaching, earthly and transcendent.  So much exists beyond the frame of the sonnet: it could easily be a prelude to that moment in the Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa when God startles a grieving soul after the loss of her lover: “For whom do you grieve?” he asks, “Do you remember me, your long-lost friend? You once spoke to me, and I to you, but you forgot me here in this world. Still, our souls are like two swans on Lake Mānasa, where we lived for thousands of years, though we are now far from home” (IV.28.52-55).  According to the ancient poetry of the Vedas, human souls are in transition, moving in cycles that are in the process of either moving toward or departing from God.

Yet, the unknown is still preferable. The uncertainty and ambiguity are not to be deciphered like a code. Rather, the uncertainties are invitations for us. This is the beauty of the poem. We’ve all experienced a summer dawn. Perhaps you know the lone house, the meadow, or the heavy elms. Perhaps you wait with them. 

 

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