Monday, October 4, 2021


And so we find ourselves in October, that brilliant month, the heart of autumn.  Yet the leaves have long since begun to turn red and gold. Those that have already fallen have been rattling at our heels for weeks, spun along the ground by a wind that carries a chill thread. The tree shadows have been steadily lengthening across the fields since late August.  Still, October is something else altogether, isn't it? We have arrived.  As I am wont to say each year (and I beg your forbearance once again, dear readers): we are now well and truly in the season of bittersweet wistfulness, wistful bittersweetness.

I am fond of the poets of the Nineties.  Theirs is a world of twilight and mists, a melancholy world of lost or unattainable love and conflicted faith; a dream-haunted, Death-haunted world.  Have I frightened you away from them?  I hope not, for their poetry can be quite moving and lovely.  And, as one might expect, they are in their element in autumn.

             Autumn Twilight

The long September evening dies
In mist along the fields and lanes;
Only a few faint stars surprise
The lingering twilight as it wanes.

Night creeps across the darkening vale;
On the horizon tree by tree
Fades into shadowy skies as pale
As moonlight on a shadowy sea.

And, down the mist-enfolded lanes,
Grown pensive now with evening,
See, lingering as the twilight wanes,
Lover with lover wandering.

Arthur Symons (1865-1945), London Nights (Leonard Smithers 1895).

Too florid or too Romantic for modern tastes?  No doubt.  But who in their right mind pays any attention to modern tastes?  Of what account are Beauty and Truth in the news of the world that appears each day, or in the daily world of endless, empty distraction?  Of no account whatsoever, as far as I can tell.  This is not a misanthropic comment on humanity.  Rather, it is a description of our current "culture."  Yet, come what may, I have faith in individual human souls.  Beauty and Truth will always find their preservers.

"Autumn Twilight" has its share of the Beauty and Truth of autumn. But, if the poets of the Nineties are not your cup of tea, autumn's Beauty and Truth can be found in a sparer, more restrained (but still passionate) form as well:

Even in a person
most times indifferent 
to things around him
they waken feelings --
the first winds of autumn.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 67.  The poem is a waka.

Duncan Cameron (1837-1916), "Harvest Time in Lorne" (1888)

Saigyō and Arthur Symons were both moved by autumn.  I have no interest in deciding which of the two poems contains a more beautiful, or a more truthful, articulation of what autumn can mean to a human being.  A fool's errand, that.  Separated by seven centuries, on opposite sides of the planet, the human truth of autumn, and its beauty, is the same.  

I am reminded of what Edward Thomas wrote about poetry and poets:

"What [poets] say is not chosen to represent what they feel or think, but is itself the very substance of what had before lain dark and unapparent, is itself all that survives of feeling and thought, and cannot be expanded or reduced without dulling or falsification.  If this is not so, and if we do not believe it to be so, then poetry is of no greater importance than wallpaper, or a wayside drink to one who is not thirsty. But if it is so, then we are on the way to understand why poetry is mighty; for if what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death."

Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 86.  

This is the finest, and most beautiful, description of poetry I have ever come across.  (A side-note: I presume that "for if what poets say is true and not feigning" is an echo, transformed, of Shakespeare's "for the truest poetry is the most feigning" from Act III, Scene iii of As You Like It.)

With that, it is time to return to autumn with Arthur Symons:


There is so little wind at all,
The last leaves cling, and do not fall
From the bare branches' ends; I sit
Under a tree and gaze at it,
A slender web against the sky,
Where a small grey cloud goes by;
I feel a speechless happiness
Creep to me out of quietness.

What is it in the earth, the air,
The smell of autumn, or the rare
And half reluctant harmonies
The mist weaves out of silken skies,
What is it shuts my brain and brings
These sleepy dim awakenings,
Till I and all things seem to be
Kin and companion to a tree?

Arthur Symons, The Fool of the World and Other Poems (William Heinemann 1906).

And, once more, Saigyō:

Crickets --
as the cold of night
deepens into autumn
are you weakening? your voices
grow farther and farther away.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 82.  The poem is a waka.

"True and not feigning."  At any time, and in any season, human messages such as these are few and far between.

George Vicat Cole (1833-1893), "Harvest Time" (1860)

I look forward to the coming brilliance, melancholy, exhilaration, and sadness of October.  But, a few days ago, I stumbled upon this:

             On the Road on a Spring Day

There is no coming, there is no going.
From what quarter departed?  Toward what quarter bound?
Pity him! in the midst of his journey, journeying --
Flowers and willows in spring profusion, everywhere fragrance.

Ryūsen Reisai (d. 1365) (translated by Marian Ury), in Marian Ury, Poems of the Five Mountains (Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan 1992), page 33.  

The poem is a kanshi: a poem written in Chinese characters by a Japanese poet.  Ryūsen Reisai was a Zen Buddhist monk.  Ury provides the following note to the poem: "The poem begins with a Zen truism, which is expanded into a personal statement."  Ibid, page 33.

The poem feels like a coda of sorts to the emotions evoked by October, and autumn.  Or a comment upon them.  Scraps from T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton" (from Four Quartets) come to mind: "at the still point of the turning world;" "neither from nor towards." Whatever the season, there it is: the World.  As ever, there is only one appropriate response: gratitude.

Joseph Farquharson (1846-1935)
"Harvesting, Forest of Birse, Aberdeenshire" (1900)


Bruce said...

"I praise the fall;it is the human season"
from "Immortal Autumn" by Archibald Macleish

This morning I sat on my porch and read your current posting. As I read your beautiful lyrical piece, I noticed, for the first time with a keen eye, that my yard is beginning to be mantled with sere leaves. Four large river birch trees stand guard over my porch. I have written to you how choked they are with greenery during the hot riot and rut of a southern summer. Now, however, the leaves have lost that bright patina of green, and as I watched, a leaf every three or four seconds unspooled from a river birch and spiraled to the ground. It is the season, eh?

I loved the poems you quoted in your post, but, Steve, I've always thought Keats's "To Autumn" to be the definitive poem about autumn, his definitive answer to the questions raised in the earlier odes. In "Nightingale" Keats realizes that we cannot lose ourselves in nature, except in sublime moments. To join the nightingale, to be one with it, one would have to be "a sod." To hear the melody of the bird we must accept living in a world "where men sit and hear each other groan," a life full of "weariness, the fever, and the fret." In urn ode, Keats understands that art lives in stasis, the lover forever young and always on the verge of kissing the young maiden. We live in an ephemeral and transitory world, one in which art can only be our friend. We live in a world of process. I think that in his autumn ode, he accepts a world of process. Through the spring and the summer nature had been moving toward ripeness, a rich and swollen excess, toward an exquisite acme of development. All that robust ripeness, at its full, seems for a moment as if this richness will never fade.

We don't despair--if I read the poem correctly--we know we are intertwined with process. The moment of fruition has come. We watch easily, with approval, and with wonder at the glory of it all. we [watch] the last oozings hours by hours." "Barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day. Night in coming. I suppose implicit in the poem is the old memory that we must die. The day after he indited the autumnal ode, he wrote a letter in which he says he "is writing with one hand and with the other holding to my mouth a nectarine. . . . It went down soft, pulpy, oozy--all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat."

Esther said...

Wow! I am quite blown away by all the masterful juxtapositions here, particularly that of Ryusen Reisai’s poem with the lines from T. S. Eliot.

Jeff said...

Here in rural Maryland, we're starting to see the same colors as in the beautiful post-haymaking photos you've posted, but not because most farms are making hay yet. Instead, in the vast fields of soybeans, the leaves dry up and turn a brilliant gold. It's one of the first signs here that autumn is coming.

The other sign is the presence of snakes, with their heads pointed toward the foundation of our house rather than away, as they appeared six or seven months ago. This year I sealed up the hole that leads right into our basement, but in the months ahead we'll see if the snakes have moved in, or moved on.

Thanks, as always, for punctuating the year with just the right poems and art.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: Thank you so much for the wonderful meditation on autumn, and for your thoughts on "To Autumn." I defer to your knowledge when it comes to Keats, "To Autumn," and its relationship to the other odes. In line with what you say, it does strike me that "To Autumn" is not dominated by the mournful tone and sense of mortality that one often finds in poems about autumn. It feels like a poem of light and illumination, not decline and darkness. (In contrast, for instance, with Symons' "Autumn Twilight" and the two poems by Saigyō.) Thus, your point is an excellent one: "We live in a world of process. I think that in his autumn ode, he accepts a world of process." The final stanza brings in the mournful tone and the mortality a bit, but, as you indicate, there is an overall sense of acceptance of what autumn brings, what it means: "We don't despair . . . we know we are intertwined with process." Thank you for these insights.

As always, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and for visiting. I wish you a wonderful autumn in the company of the birches -- fine companions. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: That's very nice of you to say. Thank you. I'm pleased you liked the post. Placing Symons and Saigyō together seemed natural to me: I try to return to their autumn poems each year, and have been doing so again. It's wonderful how these feelings about autumn transcend time and place (and poetic forms and styles). As for Eliot and Ryūsen Reisai, I only recently came across Ryūsen's wonderful poem, and it keeps coming back to me. I revisited Four Quartets over the summer, which may account for why it floated into view unexpectedly. Again, the wonderful thing is how the insights that Ryūsen and Eliot provide us transcend time and place.

The autumn colors are lovely here, but I wouldn't mind seeing a hillside or a park full of Japanese maples at this time of year. I hope that you are able to do so. Thank you very much for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you for the kind words about the post.

Soybean fields in autumn. That's something new for me. I usually associate rows of dry stalks of picked cornfields with autumn (based upon my childhood in Minnesota). I have now found photos of autumn soybean fields on the internet: they look lovely.

Best of luck with the snakes! Living in the country must be an adventure. But I suppose you're an old hand by now.

Thank you very much for visiting. I'm pleased to see you making posts at Quid Plura, and I always enjoy them. I hope that all is well with you and your loved ones. Take care.