Wednesday, October 28, 2020


With so many to choose from, I would never attempt to select my "favorite" autumn poem.  They are better thought of as parts of a tapestry.  Or a brocade.

     Unseen by men's eyes,
the colored leaves have scattered
     deep in the mountains:
truly we may say brocade
worn in the darkness of night!

Ki no Tsurayuki (c. 872-945) (translated by Helen Craig McCullough), in Helen Craig McCullough (editor), Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry (Stanford University Press 1985), page 73.

A brocade of leaves.  Yes, let the autumn poems come as they may, and fall in random patterns!  That being said, I do have three touchstones that call to me each year.  The following poem invariably arrives with the season's first whispers:

                           The Cranes

The western wind has blown but a few days;
Yet the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
In the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.
Through shallow ditches the floods are clearing away;
Through sparse bamboos trickles a slanting light.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
The garden-boy is leading the cranes home.

Po Chü-i (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (George Allen & Unwin 1919), page 57.

Those beguiling tell-tale hints of autumn: tentative, lovely. Inexorable.

Unable to sleep in the pre-dawn hours of the seventh of September, listening to a lone robin singing in the darkness, Edward Thomas later wrote this:

"Gradually I became conscious of nothing but the moan of trees, the monotonous expressionless robin's song, the slightly aching body to which I was, by ties more and more slender, attached.  I felt, I knew, I did not think that there would always be an unknown player, always wind and trees, always a robin singing, always a listener listening in the stark dawn: and I knew also that if I were the listener I should not always lie thus in a safe warm bed thinking myself alive. . . . And so I fell asleep again on the seventh of September."

Edward Thomas, from "Insomnia," in The Last Sheaf (Jonathan Cape 1928), page 43.  The ellipses appear in the original text.  Thomas was most likely writing of the early morning of September 7, 1913.  (Judy Kendall, Edward Thomas: The Origins of His Poetry (University of Wales Press 2012), pages 40-41.)

Samuel Sherwin (1846-1935)
"First Touch of Autumn, Rowditch, Derby" (c. 1917)

Of course, autumn would not be autumn without Thomas Hardy, would it?  And thus each year I return to this:

  Autumn in King's Hintock Park

Here by the baring bough
     Raking up leaves,
Often I ponder how
     Springtime deceives, —
I, an old woman now,
     Raking up leaves.

Here in the avenue
     Raking up leaves,
Lords' ladies pass in view,
     Until one heaves
Sighs at life's russet hue,
     Raking up leaves!

Just as my shape you see
     Raking up leaves,
I saw, when fresh and free,
     Those memory weaves
Into grey ghosts by me,
     Raking up leaves.

Yet, Dear, though one may sigh,
     Raking up leaves,
New leaves will dance on high —
     Earth never grieves! —
Will not, when missed am I
     Raking up leaves.

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (Macmillan 1909).

Very little escaped Hardy's notice.  After the poem was published in The Daily Mail on November 17, 1906, he wrote to a friend: "I happened to be walking, or cycling, through [the park] years ago, when the incident occurred on which the verses are based, and I wrote them out."  (J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (University of North Carolina Press 1970), page 207.)  The park was located near the village of Melbury Osmund in Dorset.

"Earth never grieves!"  Something to bear in mind when considering a meditation by Edward Thomas on autumn.

"The scent is that of wood-smoke, of fruit and of some fallen leaves. This is the beginning of the pageant of autumn, of that gradual pompous dying which has no parallel in human life yet draws us to it with sure bonds.  It is a dying of the flesh, and we see it pass through a kind of beauty which we can only call spiritual, of so high and inaccessible a strangeness is it.  The sight of such perfection as is many times achieved before the end awakens the never more than lightly sleeping human desire of permanence.  Now, now is the hour; let things be thus; thus for ever; there is nothing further to be thought of; let these remain.  And yet we have a premonition that remain they must not for more than a little while.  The motion of the autumn is a fall, a surrender, requiring no effort, and therefore the mind cannot long be blind to the cycle of things as in the spring it can when the effort and delight of ascension veils the goal and the decline beyond."

Edward Thomas, The South Country (J. M. Dent 1909), page 272.

William Samuel Jay (1843-1933)
"At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

My third autumn perennial is by Derek Mahon.  Given that he passed away at the beginning of this month, my visit to it this year comes with sadness.  Yet, we never lose the poets who move us, do we?  I have been living with this poem (and with many others by him) for years, and that will never change.


The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have led
Have found their own fulfilment.

Derek Mahon, The Snow Party (Oxford University Press 1975).

Just a few weeks ago, when the day was windy the trees still made the sound of the sea, green billows and swells swaying overhead.  Now, a strong breeze brings only a dry rustling, a rattling and scraping of individual leaves, each hold-out with its own voice.  In a dwindling choir.

"In November I returned for a day to a lonely cottage which I had known in the summer, and all its poppies were gone.  Here and there, in the garden, could be found a violet, a primrose, a wood sorrel, flowering; the forget-me-nots and columbines had multiplied and their leaves were dense in the borders; the broad row of cabbages gleamed blue in a brief angry light after rain; the black-currant leaves were of pure, translucent amber at the ends of the branches.  In the little copses the oaks made golden islands in the lakes of leafless ash, and the world was very little in a lasting mist.
*     *     *     *     *
It is a commonplace that each one of us is alone, that every piece of ground where a man stands is a desert island with footprints of unknown creatures all round its shore.  Once or twice in a life we cry out that we know the footprints; we even see the boats of the strangers putting out from the shore; we detect a neighbouring island through the haze, and creatures of like bearing to ourselves moving there.  On that night a high tide had washed every footprint away, and we were satisfied, raising not a languid telescope to the horizon, nor even studying the sands at our feet."

Edward Thomas, from "St. Martin's Summer," in The Heart of England (J. M. Dent 1906), pages 131-132.

Donald Floyd (1892-1965), "The Wye Valley below Wynd Cliff"

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Two Worlds

A politicized culture (or, more properly, "culture") inevitably tends toward puritanism: the elect and the impure.  Ever-recurring, the latest iteration of the self-anointed is upon us.  O, Tychon, god of small things, god of the humble, please grant us relief.

Earlier this week, revisiting The Complete Poems of Walter de la Mare (948 wonderful pages), I discovered this:


I saw bleak Arrogance, with brows of brass,
Clad nape to sole in shimmering foil of lead,
Stark down his nose he stared; a crown of glass
Aping the rainbow, on his tilted head.

His very presence drained the vital air;
He sate erect -- stone-cold, self-crucified;
On either side of him an empty chair;
And sawdust trickled from his wounded side.

Walter de la Mare, The Burning-Glass and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1945).

A thought from Walter Pater comes to mind:

"Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without.  Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world."

Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Macmillan 1893), page 249.

"Each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world." The temptation is great to conclude that one is wise and virtuous.  A comforting delusion.


To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998), page 60.

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

The trees are still mostly full, still mostly green.  Yesterday afternoon, in a gusty wind, their boughs tossed and roared.  The day was clear and brilliant, and dappled light and shadow turned and turned on the ground.  It could have been a summer day.  But, at intervals, lines of fallen leaves rushed along the sidewalks and the streets, carried away by the wind.

What has become of the two woolly bear caterpillars who appeared in my last post?  I encountered two more of the lovely, endearing creatures last week.  Like their companions, they were crossing a path, headed off toward the trees, full of intent, going about their appointed business.  As for humanity, we always have been, and always will be, a scold-ridden species, confused and grasping, forever meddling, never content.  Best to keep one's own counsel.  A woolly bear caterpillar.  "Everything Is Going To Be All Right."

         Mute Opinion

I traversed a dominion
Whose spokesmen spake out strong
Their purpose and opinion
Through pulpit, press, and song.
I scarce had means to note there
A large-eyed few, and dumb,
Who thought not as those thought there
That stirred the heat and hum.

When, grown a Shade, beholding
That land in lifetime trode,
To learn if its unfolding
Fulfilled its clamoured code,
I saw, in web unbroken,
Its history outwrought
Not as the loud had spoken,
But as the mute had thought.

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (Macmillan 1901).

David MacKay (1853-1904), "Crail at Harvest Time"

"The imperceptible movement of an invisible soul and the enormous sun."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-79 (Seagull Books 2013), page 159.)  There is the world.  And then there is the World.  Where does one reside?

          From My Window

An old man leaning on a gate
Over a London mews -- to contemplate --
Is it the sky above -- the stones below?
     Is it remembrance of the years gone by,
     Or thinking forward to futurity
That holds him so?

Day after day he stands,
Quietly folded are the quiet hands,
Rarely he speaks.
     Hath he so near the hour when Time shall end,
     So much to spend?
What is it he seeks?

Whate'er he be,
He is become to me
A form of rest.
     I think his heart is tranquil, from it springs
     A dreamy watchfulness of tranquil things,
And not unblest

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis  1954).

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