Last Week in October
The trees are undressing, and fling in many places --
On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill --
Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces;
A leaf each second so is flung at will,
Here, there, another and another, still and still.
A spider's web has caught one while downcoming,
That stays there dangling when the rest pass on;
Like a suspended criminal hangs he, mumming
In golden garb, while one yet green, high yon,
Trembles, as fearing such a fate for himself anon.
Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (Macmillan 1925).
A side-note: Hardy's likening of the "dangling" leaf to "a suspended criminal" is not a mere fancy on Hardy's part: he witnessed two public hangings in his teenage years. His second wife Florence's "biography" of him (which is, in fact, an autobiography written by Hardy) contains the following passage:
"One summer morning at Bockhampton, just before he sat down to breakfast, he remembered that a man was to be hanged at eight o'clock at Dorchester. He took up the big brass telescope that had been handed on in the family, and hastened to a hill on the heath a quarter of a mile from the house, whence he looked towards the town. The sun behind his back shone straight on the white stone façade of the gaol, the gallows upon it, and the form of the murderer in white fustian, the executioner and officials in dark clothing, and the crowd below, being invisible at this distance of three miles. At the moment of his placing the glass to his eye the white figure dropped downwards, and the faint note of the town clock struck eight.
"The whole thing had been so sudden that the glass nearly fell from Hardy's hands. He seemed alone on the heath with the hanged man; and he crept homeward wishing he had not been so curious. It was the second and last execution he witnessed, the first having been that of a woman two or three years earlier, when he stood close to the gallows."
Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), pages 32-33.
At another time, Hardy described the hanging of the woman:
"I went there really for a jaunt. The hanging itself did not move me at all. But I sat on after the others went away, not thinking, but looking at the figure (it was a woman) turning slowly round on the rope. And then it began to rain, and then I saw -- they had put a cloth over the face -- how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary. A boy had climbed up into a tree nearby, and when she dropped he came down in a faint like an apple dropping from the tree. It was curious the two dropping together."
Elliott Felkin, "Days with Thomas Hardy," Encounter (April 1962) (italics in original), reprinted in Martin Ray (editor), Thomas Hardy Remembered (Ashgate 2007), pages 202-203.
Edward Waite, "The mellow year is hastening to its close" (1896)
Christina Rossetti's poetry is characterized by a continual movement back and forth between loss and faith. What gives this movement its beauty and its emotional resonance is the overarching and underlying love that links the two together. This love is both mortal and Immortal. In her poetry, mortal love is ever threatened by loss.
An October Garden
In my Autumn garden I was fain
To mourn among my scattered roses;
Alas for that last rosebud which uncloses
To Autumn's languid sun and rain
When all the world is on the wane!
Which has not felt the sweet constraint of June,
Nor heard the nightingale in tune.
Broad-faced asters by my garden walk,
You are but coarse compared with roses:
More choice, more dear that rosebud which uncloses
Faint-scented, pinched, upon its stalk,
That least and last which cold winds balk;
A rose it is tho' least and last of all,
A rose to me tho' at the fall.
Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).
I would categorize "An October Garden" as one of Rossetti's secular poems: it is an Elizabethan-sounding contemplation on the transient beauty of the rose, a symbol of love and life and loss. In contrast, she also wrote a large number of devotional poems in which she articulates her belief that religious faith can provide solace for, and can ultimately redeem, the inevitable loss of mortal love and life.
Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)
In her finest poems, Rossetti combines the secular and the religious into something that is uniquely evocative, enigmatic, and beautiful. In her collection A Pageant and Other Poems, "An October Garden" is immediately followed by this:
"Summer Is Ended"
To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
Scentless, colourless, this!
Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
Thus with our bliss,
If we wait till the close?
Tho' we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
Sooner, later, at last,
Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:
An end locked fast,
Bent we cannot re-bend.
Christina Rossetti, Ibid. The source of the title is the Book of Jeremiah 8:20 (King James Version): "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems (edited by R. W. Crump and Betty Flowers) (Penguin 2001), page 960.
As in "An October Garden," the fading of a final rose is the ostensible subject of the poem. But "'Summer Is Ended'" operates in an entirely different realm. The second stanza is breathtaking: to my mind, it is one of those rare combinations of feeling, thought, and verbal music that remind us of why we read poetry.
Edward Waite, "The Autumn Road (Mitcham Woods, Surrey)"
For Thomas Hardy, religious consolation is not an option that is available to assuage our losses: we live in a universe of "Crass Casualty" and "purblind Doomsters." ("Hap," Wessex Poems and Other Verses.)
The Later Autumn
Gone are the lovers, under the bush
Stretched at their ease;
Gone the bees,
Tangling themselves in your hair as they rush
On the line of your track,
With a dip to their hive
In a prepossessed dive.
Toadsmeat is mangy, frosted, and sere;
Apples in grass
Crunch as we pass,
And rot ere the men who make cyder appear.
On fallows around,
And shades far extend
Like lives soon to end.
Spinning leaves join the remains shrunk and brown
Of last year's display
That lie wasting away,
On whose corpses they earlier as scorners gazed down
From their aery green height:
Now in the same plight
They huddle; while yon
A robin looks on.
Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles.
I'm particularly fond of the robin at the end of the poem. It brings to mind the wonderful birds that appear throughout Hardy's poetry, birds who observe (and often comment upon) the goings on of the World and the antics of its human inhabitants. "Starlings on the Roof." "The Darkling Thrush." Another thrush in "The Reminder." The thrushes, finches, and nightingales in "Proud Songsters." The rook, the starling, and the pigeon in "Winter in Durnover Field." To name but a few.
Hardy's birds signify both timelessness and transience. As does the loss of autumn.
Edward Waite, "Fall of the Year"