Thursday, September 19, 2019

Autumn Evening

For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, the calendar tells us that autumn will arrive next Monday.  However, as we all know, the timing of the turning of the seasons is a matter of the heart and of the spirit, not of the calendar.  Equinoxes and solstices are of no moment.  Light and color -- and darkness, contrasting or complementary -- are everything.

         The Trees at Night

Under vague silver moonlight
The trees are lovely and ghostly,
In the pale blue of the night
There are few stars to see.

The leaves are green still, but brown-blent:
They stir not, only known
By a poignant delicate scent
To the lonely moon blown.

The lonely lovely trees sigh
For summer spent and gone:
A few homing leaves drift by,
Poor souls bewildered and wan.

William Kerr, in Edward Marsh (editor), Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 (The Poetry Bookshop 1922).

I am fond of "The Trees at Night," and I try to visit it each autumn.  It is a waif of a poem, hidden away in the middle of the final installment of Georgian Poetry, a series of anthologies that was popular in its day, but is now a footnote to "literary history."  As for William Kerr, he published (to my knowledge) only a single volume of poetry (in 1927), and his appearance in Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 represents the peak of his visibility as a poet.  "Literary critics" have had no occasion to debate whether Kerr was a "major" or a "minor" poet:  he briefly appeared and then disappeared.

But I have no interest in "literary history."  Nor is the spurious taxonomy of "major" and "minor" poets of concern to me.  At the risk of trying the patience of long-time readers, I am afraid I must repeat my First Poetic Principle:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.  As I say, I am fond of "The Trees at Night."  I understand the objections that might be forthcoming from moderns:  the poem is "sentimental" and "romantic," and its anthropomorphism ("The lonely lovely trees sigh"; "A few homing leaves drift by,/Poor souls bewildered and wan") places it beyond the pale.  We have progressed beyond such things, the undeceived and knowing moderns say, all irony and self-regard.  They are wrong, of course.

William Knight (1872-1958), "Autumn Afternoon"

Ah, yes, the loneliness of autumn.  Kerr knows it well:  "By a poignant delicate scent/To the lonely moon blown."  And:  "The lonely lovely trees sigh/For summer spent and gone."  He is in good company:  the Japanese haiku poets know a thing or two about autumn loneliness. For instance:

     Still lonelier
Than last year;
     Autumn evening.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 1 (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 283.

Among the traditional four masters of haiku (the other three being Bashō, Issa, and Shiki), Buson is perhaps the least prone to the melancholy of loneliness.  Having said this, I must immediately qualify my statement:  melancholy, whether it be the melancholy of loneliness, the melancholy of each of the seasons (and of autumn in particular), or the melancholy of mortality, is never in short supply in any of these four wonderful poets.  We are speaking of a matter of degree.  Moreover, given that the essence of any haiku is its embodiment and presentation of a single moment in all of its evanescence -- an ephemeral moment in an ephemeral life in an ephemeral World -- one might naturally expect a high quotient of melancholy in each of the four masters.  And yet . . .

     An autumn eve;
There is joy too,
     In loneliness.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 229.

We must never lose sight of the fact that the melancholy of haiku is, above all, a joyful melancholy, a beautiful melancholy, a grateful melancholy.  How could it not be?  It is life.

     Not quite dark yet
and the stars shining
     above the withered fields.

Buson (translated by Robert Hass), in Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 104.

William Knight, "Autumn Evening"


  1. I was going to comment on your latest post, on deaths in September, but then I decided this post seems a little lonely. The pictures on this one, especially the first one, perfectly express the warm gentle greeny-gold September we've been having.
    In the past week I've been a lotos-eater, enjoying the flowers on my deck. Wonderful that I could find "The Lotos-Eaters" on the internet, since it wasn't in any anthology I have. What a poem it is, so redolent of late-summer excess.
    And what you wrote about melancholy made me think of a way I felt when I was young, & came to express as "happy sadness". A truly September sentiment.

  2. Susan: Thank you very much for those lovely thoughts. Now you've got me in the mood for returning to Tennyson! After reading your comment, I pulled his poems from the shelf and visited "The Lotos-Eaters." "The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came." There is an autumnal feel to a great deal of Tennyson's poetry, isn't there? (Even if a poem, or a passage of a long poem, is not explicitly set in autumn.) Thank you for the reminder.

    "Happy sadness" is a wonderful phrase, and has a place in any consideration of melancholy in general, or of the melancholy of autumn in particular. As you may recall, on more than one occasion I have written here of the bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness of autumn. Your phrase "happy sadness" is perhaps of a similar character. Without being overly presumptuous, I think I may be acquainted with the "happy sadness" of which you speak. Melancholy is not a bad thing.

    I think the paintings in the post evoke the color and the cast of light of the feeling you mention. Your phrase is perfect: "warm gentle greeny-gold." I agree with you that the first painting captures that color and light particularly well.

    Thank you very much for stopping by again. As I have said before, I greatly appreciate your long-time presence here. I'm happy to have the opportunity to once again wish you a lovely and wonderful autumn.