You might assume a poem titled “August” would have something nice to say about the dog days of summer. But Helen Hunt Jackson, who wrote it under her pen name, “H. H.,” doesn’t seem too thrilled. All “sweet sounds” have ceased, leaving only the dull hum of insects. (Perhaps the crowds have gone on vacation?) Flowers still bloom, but she sees past this display of bounty; soon enough, they’ll shrivel. “Pathetic,” she writes. “Vain this show!” Her take is a little harsh, but this year, I’m particularly sympathetic to it. The air in New York City, where I am, feels like sludge: hot, thick, and still. Many people seem to be away or hiding inside. We expect September to knell the death of summer joy—but in August, the decline has already begun. Jackson was right: By this point, the season is “middle-agèd.”
Such stubborn passion was typical of Jackson—she was tough with most everything she approached. The poet was orphaned as a child; as an adult living on the frontier plains, she lost her husband and two sons. In her grief, she turned to writing. Then, after hearing a talk by Standing Bear, the Ponca chief, she devoted herself to supporting Indigenous rights: raising funds, spearheading investigations, and publishing related books, including A Century of Dishonor in 1881. (She supposedly sent a copy to each member of Congress with a Benjamin Franklin quote printed on the cover in red letters: “Look upon your hands! They are stained with the Blood of your Relations!”) Much of her life’s work, then, was on graver subjects than the seasons. But even when writing about quiet fields, goldenrods, and lilies, her resoluteness remains distinctive—and entirely admirable.
You can zoom in on the page here.