“Summer Afternoon”: Two Most Beautiful Words in the English Language?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” These are the words of Henry James as quoted in A Backward Glance, an autobiography of Edith Wharton published in 1934. Summer afternoon in the English countryside must have been lovely back in the early years of the twentieth century, for it was in 1908 on the occasion of his visit to Bodiam Castle with Edith Wharton that Henry James uttered these words. Edith Wharton expresses her agreement with Henry James when she opens the paragraph in which these words are quoted with a line: “One perfect afternoon we spent at Bodiam.”

This was, of course, back in the first years of the twentieth century when the term “global warming” was not in wide circulation as it is now. In fact, it was in 2001 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, with a warning about the potential impact of global warming on the future of human civilizations. Would Henry James use the same words now to describe summer afternoon in the English countryside where the high temperature often goes well beyond 35˚C (95˚F)? For example, the high temperature reached 38.5˚C in August 2003 in Haversham, Kent, which is adjacent to East Sussex where Henry James was in the summer of 1908. And what about Shakespeare? It was back in 1609 when he published his Sonnets, which includes a sonnet that begins with a line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Would he continue to use a summer’s day as a metaphor for loveliness and temperateness? What imagery would he use now to describe a summer’s day when the brutal summer heat covers the English countryside, not just the cities?

As we all know by now, it is not just England that started to see the record high temperatures in the twenty-first century. In 2007, 15 countries set the record for high temperatures. It is no coincidence, then, that the Japan Meteorological Agency decided to introduce a new category of “Extremely Hot Summer Days” in April 2007 to refer to the days of brutal summer heat with the high temperature exceeding 35˚C. The decision to introduce the new category, in addition to the two previous categories of “Summer Days” (25~29˚C) and “Hot Summer Days” (30-34˚C), was in response to the recognition, on the part of the Japan Meteorological Agency, that “Extremely Hot Summer Days” are occurring too often and that the public need to be warned about the health hazards of high summer temperatures. As a matter of fact, it is customary for weather forecasters now to include the warning about the potential danger of heat strokes whenever the high temperature is expected to exceed 35˚C in the days ahead, advising people to avoid strenuous outdoor activities and to take plenty of liquids.

Hiking is certainly one of those strenuous outdoor activities that we need to refrain from on “Hot Summer Days,” let alone on “Extremely Hot Summer Days.” Strenuous or not, Matsuo Basho, known as the finest master of haiku, is also known for his extensive travels on foot while composing his haiku. It was on July 13 of 1689 that Basho composed one of his best-known haiku for summer: “sizukasa ya/ iwa ni simiiru/ semi no koe (In serenity/ Deep into rocks penetrate/ Cicadas’ chorus)”. Basho was at Risshaku-ji in Yamagata Prefecture when he composed this haiku. Since Risshaku-ji is also known as Yamadera, or “Mountain Temple,” constructed as it is on the side of a rocky mountain, it must have been a strenuous walk for Basho to reach this temple, with no easy access like a railroad station nearby which is now available to visitors. Considering how secluded the temple must have been back then, it is easy to imagine how Basho must have enjoyed a serene moment of meditation there, while listening to cicadas’ chorus. Perhaps summer heat was not as bad as it has since become.

Yamagata Prefecture, though located in the northern region of Japan, is not exempted from “Extremely Hot Summer Days.” Yamagata City, the capital of the prefecture, had the high temperature of 40.8˚C back in July of 1933, the highest recorded temperature in Japan until August of 2007 when two other cities broke the record with the high temperature of 40.9˚C. Even this new record did not last long, and was replaced by another record high temperature of 41˚C in 2013. Then in 2018, two cities matched this new record high temperature and another city set yet another record with the high temperature of 41.1˚C. What is becoming increasingly clear is that an extremely hot summer afternoon is not suitable either for hiking or for serene meditation even for a vigorous walker like Basho. Instead of appreciating serenity amid cicadas’ chorus, a twenty-first century disciple of Basho might compose a haiku that expresses a sense of sympathy for cicadas singing in the brutal summer heat: “natu no gogo/ mosho ni aegu/ semi no koe (Summer afternoon/ Even cicadas’ chorus/ Sounds feeble with heat)”. Whether we like it or not, it is time to ask for a second opinion as to whether “summer afternoon” are the two most beautiful words in the English language or, for that matter, in any language.