‘June’ is a popular section from ‘The Vision of Sir Launfal’ by James Russel Lowell, a parable about a knight who dreams of finding the holy grail.
In this well-known section of the poem, Sir Launfal muses about the restorative, overwhelming, and lively features of the month of June. Through his imagery-laden description, it becomes clear that nature is closest to God and Heaven.
June ( From 'The Vision of Sir Launfal') James Russell LowellAnd what is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days;Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune, And over it softly her warm ear lays:Whether we look, or whether we listen,We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;Every clod feels a stir of might, An instinct within it that reaches and towers,And, groping blindly above it for light, Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;The flush of life may well be seen Thrilling back over hills and valleys;The cowslip startles in meadows green, The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,And there's never a leaf nor a blade too mean To be some happy creature's palace;The little bird sits at his door in the sun, Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,And lets his illumined being o'errun With the deluge of summer it receives;His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,—In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?Now is the high-tide of the year, And whatever of life hath ebbed awayComes flooding back with a ripply cheer, Into every bare inlet and creek and bay;Now the heart is so full that a drop over-fills it,We are happy now because God wills it;No matter how barren the past may have been,'Tis enough for us now that the leaves are green;We sit in the warm shade and feel right wellHow the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;We may shut our eyes, but we cannot help knowingThat skies are clear and grass is growing;The breeze comes whispering in our ear,That dandelions are blossoming near, That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,That the river is bluer than the sky,That the robin is plastering his house hard by;And if the breeze kept the good news back,For other couriers we should not lack; We could guess it all by yon heifer's lowing,—And hark! how clear bold chanticleer,Warmed with the new wine of the year, Tells all in his lusty crowing!
‘June’ by James Russell Lowell is a religiously-charged romantic narrative poem about the overwhelming beauty and rejuvenating power of summer.
As the speaker, Sir Launfal, opens the poem with a rhetorical question, he begins to explore the beauty and rarity of a summer day in June. He describes this month in religious terms, explaining that, in June, heaven comes down to earth and brings the dead back to life.
Through personification, the speaker explains how the flowers, birds, crops, and breeze speak and react to the overwhelming beauty of the golden summer days in June.
Each organism, from cow to rooster to corn husk, is affected by the wonder of summer. Even when one turns away from the beauty, one cannot escape the wide range of sensations that June brings.
Form and Structure
‘June’ is written in iambic tetrameter, and it incorporates a subtle yet omnipresent rhyme scheme.
The rhyme scheme is a bit tricky to puzzle out, but each long stanza consists of the scheme: ABABCCDEDFFFGFGHIHIJJKK. This scheme is slightly reminiscent of the ballad, but this poem is actually a lay.
Lay is a broad category of rhyming folk songs, and ballads belong to this category. However, parable narratives like ‘June’ also fit within this genre.
This selection of ‘The Vision of Sir Launfal’ is rich in naturalistic imagery. In this poem, the features of nature come to life, emphasizing the rejuvenation and rebirth of all things as early summer sets in.
The dominant color of this text is yellow, as the sunlight, cowslip, buttercups, dandelions, and corn add a sunshiny hue to everything. Additionally, this yellow haze meets the rolling hills of the American countryside, establishing this poem as a bucolic, or rural, one.
Furthermore, much of the imagery in this poem has to do with water, cups, and floods. The summer rushes into and overwhelms the speaker’s mind like a “deluge,” and his heart becomes so full that “a drop over-fills it.” This fluid, liquid-based understanding of summer fits within the context of the entirety of ‘The Vision of Sir Launfal,’ a poem about the knight’s quest for the holy grail.
‘June’ is a rather interesting synthesis of Arthurian legends, medieval lays, and American poetry.
Lowell was an American Romantic poet, which comes off as quite peculiar when we look at this medieval, English-inspired poem. In many ways, this chivalrous lay is an American interpretation of the English Romantic movement and its focus on reviving historical folk poems and tales.
As such, the plants mentioned in this poem are North American plants. This indicates that Sir Launfal, whose title also suggests that he is an English knight, is an American. Here, we have a real contradiction, but therein lies the fusion of English and American folk narratives.
This “recycling” of the Sir Launfal story is not new, though. The first mention of a Sir Launfal comes from the 12th century early French poem ‘Lanval’ by Marie de France. This Arthurian romance is about a knight who falls in love with a fairy, but Guinevere falls in love with the knight. At the end of the poem, Sir Lanval and the fairy lady ascend into Avalon, where they live happily ever after.
However, the narrative of Sir Lanval/Launfal passed through many authors, poets, and bards over the centuries, and gradually, the story changed. By the 16th century, there were well over five poems about Sir Launfal, and his tale ultimately became one about rejecting wealth and status in favor of humility and poverty.
As such, ‘June’ is a poem about appreciating the simple things and finding God in nature. This rustic life, according to the narrative, is the true holy grail.
And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays:
Lines one through four of ‘June’ give us the main idea of this section of verses.
The speaker, the virtuous knight Sir Launfal, asks us, listeners, a rhetorical question. This question gets us engaged in the poem, and it also introduces us to the theme: June itself.
However, we’re not just talking about a month. Launfal will be using June as a metaphor for heaven and holy exaltation, as we must remember that ‘The Vision of Sir Launfal’ is about a knight’s search for the holy grail.
As such, the way he speaks of June in this poem makes it very much alike to the holy grail itself. June is bursting with life, it’s sunny, and it’s also the time of year when “Heaven tries the earth,” or when heaven comes down to earth.
So, like the grail, June offers youth, happiness, new life, and healing.
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,
An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, groping blindly above it for light,
Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
In lines five through ten of ‘June,’ Sir Launfal describes how pervasive and rejuvenating June can be. June appeals to all the senses in these lines, as it “murmur[s],” “glisten[s],” “stir[s],” and “climbs.” The earth seems to be a living, sentient being in Launfal’s perspective.
All of the clods climb “to a soul,” indicating that each clump of dirt becomes a living force that drives itself closer to heaven during June. The soil is almost like Jesus returning from the dead after the crucifixion, each soul ascending to heaven during summer.
The flush of life may well be seen
Thrilling back over hills and valleys;
The cowslip startles in meadows green,
The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there’s never a leaf nor a blade too mean
To be some happy creature’s palace;
In lines eleven through sixteen, the yellow flowers and glades come alive, taking on heavenly and religious qualities.
The cowslip, also known in folk terms as the “Key of Heaven,” is stunned by the beauty of the green meadows around it. This flower’s place in this poem indicates that heaven truly is closest to Earth during June.
The buttercups also remind us that this poem is about Sir Launfal’s search for the holy grail. These butter-cups catch the sun, with the sun becoming a metaphor for god, the son of God, or heavenly light. Basically, the whole holy trinity gathers in these bright yellow flowers.
Even the leaves and grass blades become gentle and celestial, functioning like little regal “palace[s]” for insects and animals. Here, everything thrives and is elevated, as if all are ascending in social rank and righteousness.
The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o’errun
With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,—
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?
In lines seventeen through twenty-four of ‘June,’ the speaker describes a scene of a pair of birds.
The male bird “sits at his door,” which we can only assume to be a metaphor for the tree that he lives in. There, like a man opening his door on a sunny day, the bird takes in the cheerful scene’s sights, sounds, smells, and sensations.
The summer is like a “deluge,” or flood, that rushes upon the bird, which brings up connotations of Noah’s Ark and the great flood. However, the flood in this scene is not of water but of light, indicating that God is happy and heaven is near.
The female bird adds another sensory detail to the mix as she feels the eggs beneath her and is thoughtlessly overcome with joy and song. The pair sing together, but the female bird is focused on her unhatched eggs, and the male bird is focused on the world at large. Here, we get hints of traditional gender roles, as the woman stays home to care for the children and the male interacts with the outside world.
The speaker next asks us which song is best, but we hear no mention of this question again in this poem. No one knows which one is better than the other because both are equally wonderful.
Now is the high-tide of the year,
And whatever of life hath ebbed away
Comes flooding back with a ripply cheer,
Into every bare inlet and creek and bay;
Now the heart is so full that a drop over-fills it,
We are happy now because God wills it;
No matter how barren the past may have been,
‘Tis enough for us now that the leaves are green;
Lines twenty-five through thirty-two of ‘June’ discuss how June brings life and youth back to earth.
In this section, God becomes even more present as “God wills” the dead to come to life again. God sends sunlight and life “flooding” back to earth, again alluding to Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood. June, to the speaker, is like the calm after the storm, when God makes all things right in the world and life flourishes.
Additionally, June fills the hearts of all so much that “a drop over-fills it.” This mention of liquids again hearkens back to the holy grail, which has become a heart in these lines.
We sit in the warm shade and feel right well
How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;
We may shut our eyes, but we cannot help knowing
That skies are clear and grass is growing;
The breeze comes whispering in our ear,
That dandelions are blossoming near,
That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,
That the river is bluer than the sky,
That the robin is plastering his house hard by;
In lines thirty-three through forty-one of ‘June,’ the speaker indicates that “we sit,” suggesting that he feels at one with all of nature and the world.
Although the speaker may shut his eyes, the sensations of summer push through, “flooding” his mind like some sort of holy revelation. The scene’s liveliness also emphasizes the forces at play in the speaker’s perception of June.
For example, the speaker uses pathetic fallacy to personify the breeze, which whispers in everyone’s ears.
Additionally, the presence of the “maize,” or corn, reminds us that we are in an American landscape, observing the rustic countryside of the USA.
And if the breeze kept the good news back,
For other couriers we should not lack;
We could guess it all by yon heifer’s lowing,—
And hark! how clear bold chanticleer,
Warmed with the new wine of the year,
Tells all in his lusty crowing!
The speaker now turns to describe the animals that dominate this bucolic landscape. He continues to emphasize the rapturous, pervasive, inescapable sensations of the early summer.
The female cattle moo, while the “chanticleer,” crows. “Chanticleer” is an interesting word choice here, as it is first attested in Chaucer’s medieval romances. It is simply a fancy name for a rooster, but the connection to Chaucer reestablishes this poem as a descendant or imitation of medieval Arthurian lays.
This rooster’s “lusty” crowing reminds us of the fertile season of summer, when life bounces back in full force, bringing light, action, and movement to the American countryside.
The meaning of “What is so rare as a day in June” is that, in the summertime, heaven comes to earth. This heavenly arrival of life, sensation, and color is all-encompassing, and it ultimately leads Sir Launfal to the conclusion that nature, humility, and simplicity are the true holy grail.
The main theme in ‘June’ by James Russell Lowell is summer, although religion, nature, light, water, and growth also play important roles in this poem. ‘June’ explores how heaven surrounds us during summertime as life and color flood into naturalistic landscapes.
The speaker in ‘June’ by James Russell Lowell is Sir Launfal, a legendary knight who belonged to King Arthur’s court. There are many historical songs and poems about this knight, who was admired for his generosity, charity, and loyalty.
‘June’ by James Russell Lowell was published in 1848. This poem is a great representative of the American Romantic movement in poetry, as it recaptures the characters and themes of medieval courtly romances, Arthurian lays, and folk parables in its description of the American countryside.
During the Romantic period, many poets wrote new interpretations of traditional medieval lays and ballads, shedding new light on the courtly romances of chivalric knights during the days of the legendary King Arthur.
Some great examples of similar poems include:
- ‘The Lady of Shalott’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson – is a popular ballad that illustrates the life of a Medieval peasant woman isolated in a tower in a tower far from what she wants to live and experience.
- ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ by John Keats – is a romantic-rea English chivalric ballad about a fairy who condemns a knight after seducing him with her singing and looks.
- ‘Lochinvar’ by Sir Walter Scott – is a ballad about a young and courageous knight who saves his beloved, the fair lady Ellen, from marrying another man.