By Rachelle Zipper
for the course The Green Fuse
Instructor: Prof. B. Sentes
Analysis of “August” by Christopher Dewdney
In Christopher Dewdney’s “August”, the author looks back at the title month from the end of October. In doing so, he is reminded of the brevity of life, thus evoking melancholy. This emotion is evoked both by depicting atemporal aspects of life, as well as contrasting the atemporal with descriptions of temporary entities. Dewdney explores the concept of atemporality by discussing circular objects, as well as by structuring his poem in a circular fashion. These endless circles contrast with temporary life-forms, reinforcing the inevitable demise of mortal beings, inducing sadness. The contrast with temporariness is brought by using classic images that depict the brevity of life, such as dying leaves and insects, as well as by alluding to the fact that his death too, is inescapable. These associations with the mere temporary existence of lives establish melancholy in “August”.
Melancholy is first evoked in “August” as the speaker discusses circularity in the form of the Earth’s orbit around the sun, a metaphor of a ring, and finally, by giving the poem a circular structure. The image of the Earth orbiting around the sun is introduced in the first stanza as the speaker describes the time that has elapsed from August to his current position in October in terms of distances:
August occupies 50 million miles
a function of the radius
to find me here in October
a full 125 million miles from August. (1-5)
The radius he mentions refers to the radius of the circular orbit of the Earth travelling around the sun, while the distances he describes refer to the physical arc lengths of that orbit. These arc lengths correspond to the length of August as a fraction of the full year’s orbit, and to the time that has elapsed from August to October. In describing the time that has elapsed since August in terms of distances of great magnitudes, the time he describes is exaggerated, marking sadness, as such a desired time is so far gone. The endless character of a circle is further explored as the author mentions a “gold-platinum alloy ring” in the second stanza (8), suggesting that just as an orbit is atemporal in its circularity, so too is the shape of a ring. Here, the ring serves as a metaphor for the Earth’s orbit around the sun. The particular alloy of the ring too, is relatively endless, being made of a “gold-platinum alloy” (8). The alloy of which the ring is made does not oxidize, resulting in a relatively eternal metal. In describing yet another atemporal object, the idea of the brevity of life in contrast with these relatively eternal entities evokes melancholy. Finally, the circular structure of the poem reinforces sadness as the author is reminded that his death is inescapable, while the world continues to exist. The poem begins by mentioning “October” in the first stanza (4, 20). The month is once again repeated in the last stanza, at the poem’s close. Another word that follows the same pattern is “still” (6, 17). These words too, are found in the first and last stanzas. The final aspect of the poem’s circular composition is the reference to life, first seen in the poem’s opening stanza, as the author notes that the “leaves [are] still green (entirely on some trees)” at the time he is looking back at August (6). The author once again references life in the poem’s final stanza as he lists “August’s survivors” (16). The circularity of the poem reiterates the notion that unlike this circularity, life is not eternal. Using circular aspects throughout the poem, Dewdney evokes melancholy by cleverly depicting his perception of lapsing time in terms of distances. Dewdney also explores atemporal, circular objects, namely the Earth’s orbit, and gives his poem a circular structure in order to greater magnify the sad association with the brevity of life as the Earth continues to exist in its relatively eternal state.
Dewdney juxtaposes the atemporal and temporal aspects of this poem by using classic images that depict the brevity of life to instill melancholy as he describes dying insects and leaves, as well as hinting that he too, will die. In the first stanza, Dewdney notes that some leaves are “still green entirely on some trees” (6). Here, he indicates a surviving life-form in the approach of the winter frost, marking a certain sadness as the leaves inevitably shrivel up and fall from the trees they originally clung to. He continues to acknowledge death as he lists “August’s survivors” in the final stanza (16):
August’s survivors are Acheta assimilis (field cricket)
still chirping, a wasp (indeterminate), Danaus plexippus
(Monarch butterfly), Pieris rapae (cabbage butterfly) &
a Colias philodece (sulfur), here on the twenty second
of October. (16-20)
The insects that Dewdney lists each represent a different melancholic aspect associated with the ephemeral quality of life. Firstly, the “Acheta assimilis (field cricket)” demonstrates a hopeful plea with its “still chirping” characteristic (16, 17). Although its death is approaching with the coming of winter, it remains hopefully amorous as it tries to attract a mate. Sadly, its efforts are in vain, as the chances of it attracting a mate this late in October are slim. The “wasp” that Dewdney next describes instills melancholy as its identity is unknown (17). Though wasps are colonial, this particular wasp’s species is “indeterminate” (17), and cannot be identified given the wasp’s lone nature. The three species of butterfly that the author describes each react to winter’s chill in different ways. The “Danaus plexippus (Monarch butterfly)” migrates southward (17-18), while the “Pieris rapae (cabbage butterfly)” hibernates in chrysalis form (18), wrapped in cocoons, and the “Colias philodece (sulfur)” simply dies (19). However, the similarity amongst them all is that as the summer months turn cold, their presence dissipates. The butterfly’s classical image of transcendence contributes to the melancholic association with the brevity of life, evoking sadness. The final being that meets its end by the poem’s close is the poet itself, as in the first stanza the poem begins “to find me here in October” (4), only to advance, the poet disappearing from existence in the last stanza as the short word “me” disappears from the page. The brevity of life, the inevitability of this temporality, is truly evident “here on the twenty second of October” (19-20). Using classical images that effectively illustrate the transient quality of life, as well as insinuating his own death, Dewdney evokes melancholy as he bring temporary aspects to contrast the atemporal.
Christopher Dewdney’s melancholic poem is a keen reminder of the brevity of life. Dewdney successfully illustrates atemporality in increasing the awareness of the fleeting nature of our lives. He highlights atemporality by speaking of circles and structuring the poem in a circular fashion. In depicting his perception of lapsing time in terms of distances, he magnifies the time he senses has sadly passed since August. The circular composition of his work strongly magnifies the melancholic association with the brevity of life as well, as the Earth continues to exist in its relatively eternal state as mortal life-forms meet their inevitable demise. These mortal life-forms are described using classic images that depict the brevity of life. Dewdney begins by describing the few green leaves that remain on the trees in October, followed by describing the dissipating nature of the insects that have survived August. He specifically speaks of crickets, which remain hopefully amorous, a lone wasp, its species unknown, and three species of butterfly, each one reacting differently to winter’s approach. Dewdney then outlines his own death, albeit subtly, as the existence of the word “me” disappears in the final stanza (4). The disappearance of the leaves, insects, and the poet all contribute to the feeling of melancholy that the author portrays. Moreover, the juxtaposition of temporal and atemporal magnifies this emotion even more in Christopher Dewdney’s “August”.