And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries 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 …
―James Russell Lowell
Even people who don’t know poetry—and who certainly don’t know much about James Russell Lowell—have often heard the June line from “The Vision of Sir Launfal.” This is probably a bit of oral tradition at work; pick up any school primer from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and you’re likely to find an excerpt from the poem. Generations of American schoolkids probably recited it and, in the way of recitations, remembered it instead of much more important things all their lives. (“What is so rare as a day in June,” my grandfather would sometimes say, in June. That was all he remembered—that and “hie me away to a woodland scene,” which I’ve never managed to place. But in those moments, it was 1920s Arkansas.)
Lowell—Boston Brahmin, poet, satirist, Atlantic editor, abolitionist, and diplomat—was a major cultural figure in intellectual circles of his day. And a popular writer, too. Like the other Fireside Poets (Whittier, Longfellow, Bryant, and Holmes) his themes were frequently romantic or heroic, and “The Vision of Sir Launfal” is both. Here’s how Lowell describes it in the poem’s 1848 preface:
According to the mythology of the Romancers, the San Greal, or Holy Grail, was the cup out of which Jesus partook of the last supper with his disciples. It was brought into England by Joseph of Arimathea, and remained there, an object of pilgrimage and adoration, for many years in the keeping of his lineal descendants. It was incumbent upon those who had charge of it to be chaste in thought, word, and deed; but one of the keepers having broken this condition, the Holy Grail disappeared. From that time it was a favorite enterprise of the knights of Arthur’s court to go in search of it. Sir Galahad was at last successful in finding it, as may be read in the seventeenth book of the Romance of King Arthur. Tennyson has made Sir Galahad the subject of one of the most exquisite of his poems.
The plot (if I may give that name to any thing so slight) of the following poem is my own, and, to serve its purposes, I have enlarged the circle of competition in search of the miraculous cup in such a manner as to include, not only other persons than the heroes of the Round Table, but also a period of time subsequent to the date of King Arthur’s reign.
The poem is—well, epic, as befits the subject. In fact, it’s easy to see why the tale, of knights errant and Ivanhoe-ish shenanigans (anachronistic, by the author’s own admission) would have appealed to educators. Classical, yet American! Wholesome, but full of adventure! Long, yes—but the themes would attract kids. But, reading it, one wonders why any teacher would stick a child with a mealy-mouthed June/flora recitation when instead they might learn:
The drawbridge dropped with a surly clang,
And through the dark arch a charger sprang,
Bearing Sir Launfal, the maiden knight,
In his gilded mail, that flamed so bright
It seemed the dark castle had gathered all
Those shafts the fierce sun had shot over its wall
In his siege of three hundred summers long,
And, binding them all in one blazing sheaf,
Had cast them forth: so, young and strong,
And lightsome as a locust-leaf,
Sir Launfal flashed forth in his unscarred mail,
To seek in all climes for the Holy Grail.
As Sir Launfal made morn through the darksome gate,
He was ware of a leper, crouched by the same,
Who begged with his hand and moaned as he sate;
And a loathing over Sir Launfal came,
The sunshine went out of his soul with a thrill,
The flesh ’neath his armor did shrink and crawl,
And midway its leap his heart stood still
Like a frozen waterfall;
For this man, so foul and bent of stature,
Rasped harshly against his dainty nature,
And seemed the one blot on the summer morn, —
So he tossed him a piece of gold in scorn.
(Spoiler alert: the leper reappears at several points. Let’s just say Sir Launfal learns a few life lessons.)
And yet, it’s the June line people know today; one of those improbable bits of poetry that’s somehow managed to survive in our cultural memory long after its author’s name and accomplishments have lost their nineteenth-century luster. This could also be the work of joke books. Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
Q: What is so rare as a day in June?
A: A day in February!
But then, this probably went over bigger when young wags all had the same stockpile of rote learning to draw on. And nowadays, I fear the part of the Venn diagram that covers both “people old enough to know the quote” and “people young enough to find this riddle hilarious” is pretty, pretty tiny.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.