The title of this post comes from a sweet poem by James Agee, “Sure on this Shining Night.” It has been set to music by Samuel Barber and others (Morten Lauridsen has a lovely choral version), and I include links at the end of this post to two performances.
To me, the poem captures that feeling of blissful peace that summer mornings and evenings can trigger. “All is healed. All is health,” writes Agee. “Hearts all whole.”
When viewing our garden of blue hydrangea, pink roses, purple lavender, and more, and when listening to the cheerful chatter of catbirds, the chirping of cardinals, the whistling of robins, the squawking of bluejays, it’s as if we were in Eden, my husband and I, sitting on our patio surrounded by lush greenery and scampering wildlife. It silences me, and that’s saying something since I, like the catbird, can’t seem to stop myself from chattering.
This summer has already brought joy and sorrow, but mostly it’s brought peace. On the joyful side of the story, we’ve been blessed with a new grandchild, a beautiful baby girl named Filomina Mae who is as precious as a new baby can be.
And on the sorrowful side, a choir friend has passed away after several months in health care facilities.
All of this makes one “weep for wonder,” as Agee’s poem goes, wonder at the beauty of the world, at the cycle of life and death, of the desire for a stillness that can capture all of this and have it make sense and meaning. I wonder if that’s why Agee weeps “for wonder at shadows on the stars,” if he cries for his lack of ability to truly capture the greatness of creation as appreciation wells up in his heart.
When I was a child, spring and summer, the warm seasons, were my favorite times of the year. Summer meant no school, of course, and I especially remember with delight a mild sunny day when I and some friends lay on a blanket in the shade of a tree quietly reading or jotting notes in those marble cover notebooks of yore. I remember the existential ache that Agee’s poem evokes, wanting to make that serene day the benchmark for all others, yearning for it to be a guidepost toward deeper meaning.
Older, somewhat wiser, I now recognize that you must carry “high summer” in your heart, no matter the season, that its feeling of love–you loved me enough to give me this, God?--should color every day, no matter how gray or cold. That’s a hard task sometimes when large worries and petty irritants can distort perspective. It’s no wonder we “weep for wonder,” contemplating the beauty of high summer, as we realize how awfully, awfully hard it is to retain that sense of awe and appreciation throughout the year.
SURE ON THIS SHINING NIGHT by James Agee
Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far
Of shadows on the stars.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, Fall from Grace, will be released September 2017.