Saturday, September 1, 2018


Each year, a moment arrives when we say to ourselves:  Autumn is here.  That moment varies from year to year:  the angle or the color of the sunlight; the appearance of the first red or yellow spray of leaves near the top of a tree; a warm breeze with a single chill thread running through it; the look of swaying bough-shadows on the dry grass of a meadow; beside a path, a bush with unknown, deep red berries.  The list goes on.

                              Autumn Begins

Autumn begins unnoticed.  Nights slowly lengthen,
and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,

summer's blaze giving way.  My thatch hut grows still.
At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.

Meng Hao-jan (689-740) (translated by David Hinton), in David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (Counterpoint 2002).

Cecil Gordon Lawson (1849-1882), "The Minister's Garden" (1882)

This moment of recognition does not move in step with the autumnal equinox.  In my experience, it can occur any time from the middle of August onward.  It happened for me this past week.  On a late afternoon, I was walking down a slight slope towards a wide yellow field.  A tree-lined road (closed to vehicles) ran through the middle of the field.  The sky was deep blue, mottled with white clouds.  I suddenly noticed that the entire scene, despite its clarity and brightness, was suffused in a golden, soft-edged light that came from everywhere and nowhere.  Autumn had arrived.

     By the Pool at the Third Rosses

I heard the sighing of the reeds
In the grey pool in the green land,
The sea-wind in the long reeds sighing
Between the green hill and the sand.

I heard the sighing of the reeds
Day after day, night after night;
I heard the whirring wild ducks flying,
I saw the sea-gull's wheeling flight.

I heard the sighing of the reeds
Night after night, day after day,
And I forgot old age, and dying,
And youth that loves, and love's decay.

I heard the sighing of the reeds
At noontide and at evening,
And some old dream I had forgotten
I seemed to be remembering.

I hear the sighing of the reeds:
Is it in vain, is it in vain
That some old peace I had forgotten
Is crying to come back again?

Arthur Symons, Images of Good and Evil (Heinemann 1899).

Despite its references to "the green land" and "the green hill," "By the Pool at the Third Rosses" has always felt like an autumn poem to me. "The sighing of the reeds," of course.  Not to mention the melancholy and wistfulness of my beloved poets of the 1890s.

According to a note by Symons, the poem was written at Rosses Point, Ireland, on September 1, 1896.  One hundred and twenty-two years ago today.  Imagine that.  It seems like only yesterday.

Cecil Gordon Lawson, "The Hop-Fields of England" (1874)


Sam Vega said...

Many thanks for this selection and your thoughts about this turning point of the year. I have always preferred the subtlety and suggestiveness of the first faint stirrings of change to the full-on description of a season in full sway. Keats' To Autumn, for example, is a fine poem, but lacks the delicacy of your examples. As you know, and have often illustrated here, it's the same for each of the seasons; that first touch is barely perceptible, and is the source of a strange thrill in us.

August is a particularly beautiful month with a feeling all to itself. Although he doesn't over-emphasise it, Robert Burns captures something of it in his poem Now Westlin Winds, which is also known as Song Composed in August:

"Now westlin winds and slaught'ring guns
Bring Autumn's pleasant weather;
The moorcock springs on whirring wings
Amang the blooming heather:
Now waving grain, wide o'er the plain,
Delights the weary farmer;
And the moon shines bright, when I rove at night,
To muse upon my charmer.

The "pleasant weather" is still warm enough for Burns' nocturnal ramblings with his love, although I expect that in Scotland it would be a degree or two cooler than here, in the South of England.

I have only quoted the first verse, but the whole thing is worth a look if you are not familiar with it.

mary f.ahearn said...

Another lovely post, thank you. I like the sighing of the reeds, and agree it's autumnal in feeling. I have a memory, more of a sensory memory, of when, as a child, I first felt the melancholy of Autumn. I was sitting under a walnut tree, the air changed and charged with something different and the drifting down of the leaves. Walnuts give up their leaves early. There was the scent of the fallen walnuts- their rough green husks have an almost medicinal scent, though pleasant. I "saw" the natural world that day in a new way. An awakening?

Two poems I especially like are Sylvia Plath's "Flute Notes from a Reedy Pond" from her collection "The Colossus."
"Now coldness comes sifting down, layer after layer,
To our bower at the lily root.
Overhead the old umbrellas of summer
Wither like pithless hands. There is little shelter.

Hourly the eye of the sky enlarges its blank
Dominion. The stars are no nearer.
Already frog-mouth and fish-mouth drink
The liquor of indolence, and all things sink

Into a soft caul of forgetfulness
The fugitive colors die
Caddis worms drowse in t"heir silk cases,
The lamp-headed nymphs are nodding to sleep like statues."

I'll leave it at the three verses. Another of her poems is Frog Autumn from the same collection. I think she catches the losses of Autumn well.

And then the beautiful "I Remember You as You Were" from Pablo Neruda's "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair."

I have gone on a bit long, so will just say thanks again for this blog, so appreciated.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: Thank you very much for those thoughts, which articulate much better than I did the power of the "first faint stirrings of change" in autumn, and in each of the seasons. Your thoughts remind me of some lines in Wallace Stevens's "The Motive for Metaphor": "In the same way, you were happy in spring,/With the half colors of quarter-things,/The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,/The single bird, the obscure moon." As you say, these hints and inklings are indeed "the source of a strange thrill in us."

Thank you as well for sharing the stanza from Burns, which is new to me -- my knowledge of his poetry is woefully limited, so I appreciate the education. After following the link to the poem, I also found a number of lovely musical renditions of the poem.

Yes, August does have "a feeling all to itself," doesn't it? I fear that I have come to realize this far too belatedly. But it is never too late to learn these things.

Thank you for visiting again. It is always good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: Thank you very much for sharing that lovely autumn anecdote. "A sensory memory" is a wonderful way to describe that sort of experience. This is reflected in your recollection of the scent of the walnut husks. I have similar memories of the burning of leaves each autumn in Minnesota when I was growing up. I can still see the smoldering piles of leaves, in darkening dusk, out on the lawns of the houses on our street, and the scent of the burning leaves is still with me. I think "an awakening" is a perfect characterization of what you experienced. I feel the same way about the burning of the leaves.

Thank you also for sharing the lines from Plath, and for the recommendations of "Frog Autumn" by her and Neruda's poem, all of which are new to me.

As ever, it's a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by again. I wish you a happy late-summer-moving-into-autumn.

John Ashton said...

I’ve noticed those hints of autumn here too. That slight chill of a morning even though the sun shines and skies are blue and almost cloudless. There is a certain dampness in the air in the local woods I often walk through, the evenings are drawing in and vegetables growing outside on my allotment are producing less.

I noticed while working there on Sunday afternoon that as the day wore on, though still sunny and remarkably warm, white clouds had begun to line up, almost one behind the other in the blue sky and a suddenly strengthening breeze loosened leaves from the poplar trees.

August is an almost borderless month, seeming to change from full summer to the feint beginnings of autumn without us immediately noticing and then, becoming aware, we may wonder if these changes happened only today.

The poem by Meng Hao-Jan has reminded me that I have a copy of Mountain Home on my bookshelf that has for far too long been unopened. I like the air of melancholy in the Arthur Symons poem, which, though previously unknown to me, reminded me of the sighing of the reeds I’ve heard walking around reed-fringed pools on the salt marshes along the north Norfolk coast.

One of my own favourite autumn poems, one I never tire of reading is by the wonderful, sadly largely forgotten Elizabeth Jennings. Written originally for children it is such a beautiful, example of what a simple poem can do. I may have shared this before, but the best poetry can never be shared too often.

Autumn- Elizabeth Jennings

Fragile, notice that
As autumn starts, a light
Frost crisps up at night
And next day, for a while
White covers path and lawn.
“Autumn is here, it is,”
Sings the stoical blackbird
But by noon pure gold is tossed
On everything. Leaves fall
As they meant to rise.
Nothing of nature’s lost.
The birth, the blight of things,
The bud, the stretching wings

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for sharing those lovely observations on the coming of autumn. You and Sam Vega share similar views on August: your comments (including the phrase "an almost borderless month") parallel his remark about the month having "a feeling all to itself." As I said in my response to his comment, I have come to appreciate August more and more, and both your and his thoughts resonate with me.

I am quite fond of the Symons poem. I believe his stay in that part of Ireland (in County Sligo) was at the invitation of Yeats, who was a friend of his. It does have a "Celtic Twilight" feel, doesn't it? Although I have never been to Norfolk, I can imagine how its marshes might evoke some of the same feelings.

Thank you for sharing the poem by Elizabeth Jennings, which is a favorite of mine as well. Coincidentally, it appeared here back in September of 2012, as well as in September of last year. It is paired in my mind with another lovely autumn poem by her (which I'm certain you know well): "Song at the Beginning of Autumn." I agree with you that her work is, alas, neglected these days.

Thank you very much for visiting again. I always appreciate hearing from you.

Nikki said...

For me, there is always a day, usually in September, when the light changes, is palpably different. It's a physical sensation, distinct, intense. And even though it might remain to all intents like summer as far as heat goes, melancholy autumn has arrived.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your comment. Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts. It is all about the light, isn't it? Your description of the moment of autumn's arrival as "a physical sensation, distinct, intense" is right on the mark. And I agree: even if it still may feel like warm summer, we know an irrevocable change has occurred. Any attempt to fully capture it in words inevitably fails (at least for me). But poets help us to relive an experience which we all know well.

Thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts. Again, my apologies for the tardy response.