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Shakespeare & Beyond

Summertime in the Folger collection: Sunshine, youth, and harvest


Ahh, summer. Sunshine (or torrential downpours), warm and lazy breezes, baseball, day trips to the beach, brunching on the patio of your favorite restaurant, or…stealing away for precious research time at the Folger. We all have summer rituals.

Slip into the Folger collection with me and connect with sweltering people from summers past in their quest to beat the heat or rhapsodize summer’s charms.

No SPF Needed

SPF 12, tank top, shorts, sandals—my summer uniform. Summer fashions have certainly changed since Wenceslaus Hollar’s Summer engravings (one of four seasons represented in seasonal sets common in the era). The engravings feature women wearing veils for sun protection and carrying fans to cool off.

Summer Lovin’

Depicting the seasons is a common literary and artistic move that traces the passage of time in nature through blossom, abundance, decay, and renewal. Summer is the time of abundance, typically represented by sheaves of grain, a cornucopia, and scythe—motifs based on depictions of Ceres, Roman goddess of agriculture holding her favorite accessories.

Check out Faithorne’s A perpetuall ephemeris to feast your eyes on the major symbols for all seasons, but especially Summer, who is Ceres in 17th century dress. The calendar itself gestures towards the cyclical nature of the seasons and revolutions of time. Also pay close attention to how long Faithorne thinks “forever” lasts according to his calendar…


William Faithorne, A perpetuall ephemeris, or, table shewing the day of the month for ever. London : Are to be sould by Will. Faithorne at the Signe of the Shipp within Temple Barr, [1655?] Folger call number: ART 265- 109 (size L)

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12 marches through the seasons in efficient space. He describes the summertime of life as the peak of attractiveness and vivacity. Youth, like “summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,” is fleeting, though, thanks to “Time’s scythe.”

Utilizing the traditional motifs for each season, Shakespeare seemingly wants to harvest some of the youthfulness of his sonnet’s subject, stealing for himself some of what Time has gathered from him already. At the very least, he wants to soak up some of the rays of youth the subject is emitting. Any warnings to the subject to “gather ye rosebuds” are fruitless—so there are none.

Sonnet 12 succinctly packages the tension between Time as a Devourer and Time as a Revealer of changes in nature, loss of youth, waning of love, and diminution of beauty.

Time, that relentless jerk.

You Reap What You Sow

If you’re a grain, summer is when you fear the reaper. June through August is traditional harvest time for grains, with wheat usually harvested in July and August. Much of what we know about historical work practices come from Labors of the Months—sequences of images that depict work throughout the growing cycles of the year.

One of the sources of inspiration for these sequences is Genesis 8:22: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (KJV). The trend of Labors of the Months reached its pinnacle in medieval and early modern art and calendars.


Etienne Delaune, [The Labors of the Months, August]. Folger call number: ART Vol. c96

Characteristics of traditional Labors of the Months for July and August emphasize the idealized moral and spiritual obligation of work. We also can see these ideals beginning to unravel in Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar, which mostly depicts the harvesters resting during and after work.

Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser, The shepheardes calender : conteyning tvvelue aeglogues proportionable to the twelue monethes. Entitled to the noble and vertuous gentleman most worthy of all titles both of learning and cheualrie M. Philip Sidney. At London : Printed by Hugh Singleton, dwelling in Creede Lane neere vnto Ludgate at the signe of the gylden Tunne, and are there to be solde, 1579.

The “lazy peasant” motif was a popular one in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the “August” eclogue, Perigot and Willye really don’t want to work in the blistering heat and are clearly too lovelorn to focus on the task at hand, so they decide listen to Colin’s song instead.

Good choice. It is summer, after all.

Perigot: That shall yonder heardgrome, and none other,
Which over the pousse* hetherward doth post.

Willye: But for the Sunnebeame so sore doth us beate,
Were not better, to shunne the scortching heate?

Perigot: Well agreed Willy: then sitte thee downe Swayne:
Sike a song neuer heardest thou, but Colin sing.

*pousse refers to a “crop of legumes”