‘Summer Past’ by John Gray is a four stanza poem that is separated into irregular sets of lines. The first two stanzas contain seven lines, the second contains eight, and the fourth is structured as a rhyming couplet. The stanzas do not conform to a standard or consistent rhyme scheme but do make use of repetition in a couple of different ways.
Gray has chosen to repeat the same rhymes in the first three lines of the first and second stanza. They both start out rhyming, abc, and then diverge. The final four lines of these stanzas, while using different rhymes, stick to the same pattern of abba. The third stanza, which contains eight lines, follows an entirely different pattern of, abcaabca.
Another element of the poem which is important to note is the fact that Gray has chosen to begin with a dedication, in this case, directed towards Oscar Wilde. This choice is not surprising as the two writers had a short but intense relationship during the early 1890s. Gray’s poetry, while successful in its own right, is primarily known through his association with Wilde and the aesthetic movement which Wilde spearheaded.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he can recall a summer in which the world was “dripping amber sweat.” Everything was gloriously beautiful and pleasing to the mind and body. There was nothing but “ecstasy” in the environment.
The second stanza is more complicated and begins to outline the speaker’s quest to prolong the summer. He is searching for answers to questions about the divine and how one is to come upon the “naiads’” sunbathed hair and remain in that moment.
Analysis of Summer Past
To Oscar Wilde
There was the summer. There
Warm hours of leaf-lipped song,
And dripping amber sweat.
O sweet to see
The great trees condescend to cast a pearl
Down to the myrtles; and the proud leaves curl
The speaker begins this reminiscent poem by drawing the reader back to a “summer” that was. It was not like other seasons, or even other summers. There was something about this particular time that was, and is, important to the speaker. As one reads through the lines of this stanza, and those which follow, it is impossible not to address the sexual undertones of the work. While the poet’s speaker may be describing a summer’s day and the elements which make it up, the descriptions are overtly sexual in nature.
The second line, which begins to describe what it is about this particular summer which is so important, describes the hours as “Warm” and as containing “leaf-lipped song.” The next line expands on this description and states that the hours also played host to “dripping amber sweat.” From just these two lines it is clear that the summer was one of both joy and love. There were all the elements of nature, represented by leaves and amber, but also images of love-making, and moments of intimacy between lovers.
The next lines are written in the same way. The speaker is taking a look back at his memories and recalling how “sweet” these sites were to see. The trees are dripping water down to the “myrtles” and the leaves, reinvigorated by liquid, “curl / in ecstasy.”
Fruit of a quest, despair.
Smart of a sullen wrong.
Where may they hide them yet?
One hour, yet one,
To find the mossgod lurking in his nest,
To see the naiads’ floating hair, caressed
By fragrant sun-
The next stanza, which also contains seven lines, complicates the narrative of a past summer. The speaker is recalling the beauty of these moments but also the complexity. There was a constant need for more, to find a “fruit” at the end of a “quest.” These days were concerned with finding the ultimate pleasure that summer could afford.
The season was not without its troubles though. The speaker describes how the joy of seeking was often interrupted by “despair” and “sullen” moments of “wrong.”
The third line asks, “Where may they hide them yet?” This is likely a reference to the final lines of this section in which the speaker mentions gods and “naiads.” There is a divine “Fruit” that the speaker, and perhaps his lover, is searching for. The quest takes the speaker to find “the mossgod lurking in his nest” and to see the “floating hair” of the “naiads,” or female water spirits.
When they are found, they will be in the “fragrant sun” bathing in the “Beams” of its light. While very complexly written, it is clear that the speaker spent his summer seeking out otherworldly and divine experiences, particularly those which might bring him pleasure.
Beams. Softly lulled the eves
The song-tired birds to sleep,
That other things might tell
The beetle humming neath the fallen leaves
Deep in what hollow do the stern gods keep
Their bitter silence? By what listening well
Where holy trees,
In the third stanza of ‘Summer Past’, which contains eight lines, the speaker begins to conclude his narrative of the “summer past.” He speaks of the “Beams” of sunlight that warm the naiads as also touching the human world of “eves and “song-tired birds.” They are “lulled” to sleep by the warmth and simplicity of summer. While they are sleeping, there is a chance to understand their origin, their “secrecies.” The speaker is hoping to divine what it is about nature that makes it as alluring and important as it is.
It is amongst the simplest of creatures and elements, such as the “beetle humming neath the fallen leaves,” that he determines he will find his answers. Perhaps this is in an effort to prolong the summer or gain the ability to live within it forever. He desires more days likes those described in the first stanza.
The final section of this set of lines begins by asking a question. The speaker wants to know, perhaps as a reference back to his summer “quest,” where the “stern gods keep / Their bitter silence?” He is once more engaged with the divine and is seeking out the power and “silence” of the gods. The speaker knows that it is located within nature, somewhere hidden from human eyes. The next lines ask, “By what listening well,” which abuts “holy trees” is the “silence” is located? His question flows into the final couplet.
Song-set, unfurl eternally the sheen
Of restless green?
The couple concludes the question by further outlining where it is he thinks he will find his answers. The “holy trees,” which were previously mentioned, are “Song-set.” They are created and maintained by an artful deity and when they “unfurl they share the “sheen / Of restless green.” This is the place he is looking for. Somewhere which is consistently stimulated by nature and beauty. It is a world that does not end or decline.