On the Summer Solstice

With today being the summer solstice, my thoughts naturally turned to . . . William Dunbar’s “A Meditation in Winter.” Why wouldn’t they? Thanks to my brain chemistry, the longest day of the year–about fourteen and a half hours where I live–should be, if not my happiest, at least my least miserable. That doesn’t bode well. This fact, along with my having written about Dunbar recently, reminded me of the poem.

In “A Meditation in Winter,” Dunbar appears to describe what today we call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or winter depression. With SAD, many think, the lack of sunlight causes a decrease in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that improves one’s mood. Thus, the less serotonin, the more depression.

Dunbar’s poem begins with “dirk and drublie dayis” (dark and murky days) and “mystie vapouris, cluddis, and skyis” (misty vapors, clouds, and skies), a recipe for depression for many people. Nothing, even “sangis, ballattis, and . . . playis” (songs, poems, and plays), can cheer him up. He connects this feeling with winter’s short days, mentioning that “the nycht dois lenthin hours” (the night does lengthen [in] hours).

Despair, the first of several personified concepts, tries to motivate him by warning him of the “trouble and mischeif” he will experience if he doesn’t pull himself together. Patience and Prudence try to reassure him, but Old Age ominously offers his hand and reminds him that he “hes compt to mak” (has a reckoning to make) of the “tyme [he] spendit heir” (time he spent here), presumably on earth. On cue, Death opens his “gettis wyd” (gates wide)  and reminds him of his–and everyone’s–ultimate destination.

Nothing–not even “gold in kist, nor wyne in cowp,/ No ladeis bewtie nor luiffis blys” (gold in chest, nor wine in cup, nor ladies’ beauty, nor love’s bliss”–can stop him from thinking about death. Fortunately, as time passes, the “nycht begynnis to schort” (night begins to shorten) and his “spreit” (spirit) finds comfort. The poem ends on an optimistic note: “Cum, lustie Symmer, with this flowris, / That I may leif in sum disport” (Come, joyful Summer, with your flowers, / So that I may live in some enjoyment).

“Joyful Summer” is here indeed. Just as the long nights of winter pass to make way for the long summer days, though, eventually summer will pass, and we’ll find ourselves in winter again. Let’s enjoy the summer while it’s here.