26 August 2015

‘Summer’s lease hath all too short a date’

‘Summer’s lease hath all too short a date’ … a rainy autumn afternoon in Rathmines (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date …

Summer’s lease seems to have been all too short this year. It rained all Sunday afternoon in West Wicklow; it seemed to rain all day on Monday while I was in London; and it seemed to rain all day yesterday [25 August 2015], so that I was soaked while I made my way into Rathmines for coffee with a clerical colleague from England in the afternoon, and I was soaked again as I made the journey from Rathmines to Templeogue, where I waited for a consultation with my GP, received my monthly injections for my B12 deficiency, and collected new prescriptions for the inhaler for my Sarcoidosis and tablets for my joint pains.

I had hoped a warm, sunny summer would bring some relief to my lungs and the symptoms of Sarcoidosis, but there have been many other compensations this year.

‘Sonnet 18,’ sometimes known by its opening words, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, is one of the best-known of Shakespeare’s 154. Throughout the sonnets Shakespeare frames his love in explicitly or implicitly economic terms (like “lease”).

In this sonnet, the speaker compares his beloved to the summer season, and argues that his beloved is better for summer is short and love is long-lasting. Indeed, he believes his beloved will live on forever through the words of the poem.

Today we see summer as the time for holidays and as a time to relax in the sun. But in Shakespeare’s day, summer was the busiest time of year.

The Cambridge poet Thomas Tusser (1524-1580), who is known for his phrase “A fool and his money are soon parted,” organised his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry month by month, from September to August, with August marking the culmination of all the work done in the previous 12 months.

Harvesting, mowing, storing, gathering, cutting and taking home are all busy tasks for the month of August. Saint Batholomew’s Day, which arrived earlier this week (24 August), was the time to sell produce and to think about repairs in the home in time for autumn and winter. As Thomas Tusser wrote:

At Bartilmewtide, or at Sturbridge faire,
buy that as is needfull, the house to repaire:
Then sell to thy profit, both butter and cheese,
who buyeth it sooner, the more he shall leese.

I remember childhood Augusts as the month for family holidays, returning to my grandmother’s farm outside Cappoquin in West Waterford, or later renting a house by the beach in Co Wicklow or Co Meath or by a lake in Co Cavan.

Today, families still leave the city for a few weeks in August for summer holidays. But in the 16th century, in the time of Shakespeare and Tusser, August was the time for families to leave the city for the countryside to help with harvesting crops. Perhaps our long university and school holidays come from this tradition rather than the need for a few weeks in the sunshine.

The longed-for rest only came after the harvest of August had been completed. The reapers in The Tempest are allowed to enjoy themselves once they have completed their harvest work:

You sunburnt sicklemen, of August weary,
Come hither from the furrow and be merry:
Make holiday; your rye-straw hats put on.

In Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18,’ summer is short-lived, despite the speaker’s wish that it would last longer.

It certainly seemed to over with the heavy rain in London on Monday and in Dublin yesterday.

Hopefully, summer has not come to an end in Crete by the time I arrive there in 10 days’ time.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

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