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"


Bovey Belle said...

Wonderful. Thank you. My favourite poets together in praise of autumn - a much needed balm to my soul as I pack up the memories and contents of our home (for the past 32 years). Parting with nearly half my books has been the hardest wrench. . . Needless to say all my literary biographies are staying, and all my poetry books.

Edward Thomas felt the seasons so intensely. Thomas Hardy can be relied upon to capture a moment too. Derek Mahon is new to me but I will remember leaves "ticking" on the lane forever.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, Another wonderful post. There are so many delights. The Cranes by Po-Chui, which is new to me is lovely,so evocative and beautiful. Autumn in Kings Hintock Park has long been a firm favourite.
I hadn’t read Thomas’s prose in a long while. It was good to be reminded how wonderful his prose writing is. I hope you won’t mind if I share two of my own favourite autumn poems. I know you will know the John Clare poem. You may or may not know the poem by Leslie Norris. Sadly an almost forgotten and much under rated poet in my opinion, though, again I know you will also know his wonderful poem, Ransoms, dedicated to Edward Thomas.

I love the fitful gust that shakes
The casement all the day,
And from the glossy elm tree takes
The faded leaves away,
Twirling them by the window pane
With thousand others down the lane.

I love to see the shaking twig
Dance till the shut of eve,
The sparrow on the cottage rig,
Whose chirp would make believe
That Spring was just now flirting by
In Summer's lap with flowers to lie.

I love to see the cottage smoke
Curl upwards through the trees,
The pigeons nestled round the cote
On November days like these;
The cock upon the dunghill crowing,
The mill sails on the heath a-going.

The feather from the raven's breast
Falls on the stubble lea,
The acorns near the old crow's nest
Drop pattering down the tree;
The grunting pigs, that wait for all,
Scramble and hurry where they fall.
Autumn Elegy – Leslie Norris

September. The small summer hangs its suns
On the chestnuts, and the world bends slowly
Out of the year. On tiles of the low barns
The lingering swallows rest in this timely
Warmth, collecting it. Standing in the garden,
I too feel its generosity; but would not leave.
Time, time to lock the heart. Nothing is sudden
In Autumn, yet the long, ceremonial passion of
The year’s death comes quickly enough
As form veins shut on the sluggish blood
And the numberless protestations of the leaf
Are mapped on the air. Live wood
Was scarce and bony where I lived as a boy.
I am not accustomed to such opulent
Panoply of dying. Yet, if I stare
Unmoved at the flaunting, silent
Agony in the country before a resonant
Wind anneals it, I am not diminished, it is not
That I do not see well, do not exult,
But that I remember again what
Young men of my own time died
In the Spring of their living and could not turn
To this. They died in their flames, hard
War destroyed them. Now as the trees burn
In the beginning glory of Autumn
I sing for all green deaths as I remember
In their broken Mays, and turn
The years back for them, every red September.

Anonymous said...

Late October in Carolina

Now is the time for the raking of pine straw.
Old ladies wearing drab sweaters
Scratch their rakes though the grass,
As if they were pulling their vanishing days
To the borders of the street.

George said...

When I was in college, a couple of the younger members of the philosophy department kept a sort of stammtisch on Fridays at a bar near campus. One day, the English professor John Williams, now very well known as the author of Stoner, then rather unpopular and obscure, showed up. I remember that he said that as he got older, Yeats's "The Wild Swans at Coole" meant more and more to him. Certainly it is a thoroughly autumnal poem.

I'm not sure what my favorite autumn poem would be.

Esther said...

Very beautiful musings on autumn, and much food for thought here. Those who delight in summer must not live in Tokyo. With the coming of autumn and the dying of the leaves, I come alive.

Edward Thomas' "Once or twice in a life we cry out that we know the footprints..." brings to mind Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler's "I Dug up a Diamond":

"I dug up a diamond
Rare and fine
I dug up a diamond
In a deep dark mine...

Maybe once in a lifetime
You'll hold one in your hand
Once in a lifetime
In this land...."

Pen said...

Dear Stephen, once again I am soothed by your words and the words of others that you choose to take us through these months. You may recall that I live in the southern hemisphere and so we are now mid-Spring, although not the kind of spring that you experience. Ours is a surge of absolute tenacity in the face of no rain, no water - yet the green shoots still appear, ever hopeful that at some point in the next few weeks a little rain may fall. So, despite the miles and miles of space and earth and weather between us, there is yet a common link: all seasons hold a promise, a blessing, no matter where we stand in their slow, grand cycle. I love to imagine your autumn, brought to life in your humble, perceptive posts. It has been a hard year and I count myself fortunate to receive your posts regularly, quietly, gratefully. Be well.You are much appreciated.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: I'm delighted to hear from you again. It's been a while, and I'm happy to know that you are still visiting. We have chatted about Hardy and E. T. now and then over the years, so I'm pleased you saw this post. I suspect that, given your acquaintance with Dorset, you may be familiar with Melbury Osmund, and know that Hardy's mother lived there as a child, and was married in its church.

Through Codlins and Cream, I am aware of your efforts over the years to sell your house, but it must indeed be a difficult, emotional, and exhausting task to now be finally making the move. I cannot imagine having to part with books, and I sympathize with your feelings -- but I am happy to hear that the literary biographies and poetry are surviving the culling. Hardy and E. T. will remain!

I greatly appreciate your presence here over the years, and it's very nice of you to visit, and comment, in the midst of what is a busy and trying time (particularly in this horrible year). I wish you, your husband, and your loved ones all the best. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. I'm pleased you like "The Cranes." Reading Waley's translations introduced me to Chinese poetry while I was in college, and "The Cranes" was one of the poems that captivated me. For me, it embodies the essence of what is so wonderful and beautiful about traditional Chinese poetry: ostensibly "simple," but containing all of the World, and life. I agree with you about Thomas' prose, and I always feel that I do not give it the attention it deserves -- it surprises and delights me whenever I return to it. As you likely know, the Oxford University Press is in the midst of issuing a series of his writings titled: "Prose Writings: A Selected Edition," which will eventually run to six volumes. I have been collecting the volumes as they are published (four thus far), and they have spurred me to explore his prose further.

Thank you for sharing the poems by Clare and Leslie Norris, both of which are lovely, and both of which are new to me. Yes, I am familiar with Norris' "Ransoms," a wonderful poem which evokes Thomas well: "I have my small despair/And would not want your sadness; your truth,/Your tragic honesty, are what I know you for." I'm sure you also know Norris' "A Glass Window, in Memory of Edward Thomas, at Eastbury Church." You may be aware that he occasionally taught at the University of Washington in Seattle, where I attended law school. He wrote a few poems about the neighborhood where I lived when I was in law school.

Thank you for very much for visiting again. It's always good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for the wonderful poem. It is a perfect companion to Hardy's poem, and captures well the feeling of the season. We are all raking up leaves and pine straw, aren't we? "Earth never grieves!" Thank you again. Lovely.

Danish dog said...

Thank you, Stephen.

John Maruskin said...

This post reminded me of something I read here sometime in the past, but I couldn't remember what. Then, this morning, as I was getting ready to walk my dog, I opened one of the old pocket notebooks I always take with me, and found:

In this way we lived, wearing a coat of leaves;
then it gradually becomes tattered and ragged
but without impoverishing us . . .
Soon we will need only light.

Philippe Jaccottet, The Second Seedtime

And that suggested the end of Pierre Reverdy's "Wind's Source in the Bend of the Road," (trans. Guy Davenport), one of my touchstones:

when the sundial's
sure step edges
another notch along

toward the horizon
the shouting's over
the weather's changed

and I walk
with the sun
in my eyes

all was for
nothing some names
and some faces

I have remembered
everything that happened
in the world

was a holiday
on which I
wasted my time

I love it when the answer comes, bidden, but in its own good time. As John Livingston Lowes wrote at the beginning of The Road to Xanadu: "the game of coming to close quarters with the riddle is more than worth the candle."

Thanks again. Have a wonderful week.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you very much. That's a wonderful anecdote. A fine choice by Williams, and I have now revisited the poem: it's been a while, alas. It's beautiful. Thank you for the reminder, and for sending me back to the poem.

As to Yeats in autumn, I also think of "Ephemera": not at the same level as "The Wild Swans at Coole," but with some nice lines: "the yellow leaves/Fell like meteors in the gloom, and once/A rabbit old and lame limped down the path;/Autumn was over him." The younger Yeats of the Celtic Twilight, not the Yeats of the "The Wild Swans." But I am quite fond of the Celtic Twilight Yeats. "The Falling of the Leaves," from the same period, also comes to mind. But "The Wild Swans" is in a class by itself, isn't it?

I'm with you: I wouldn't be able to choose my "favorite" autumn poem. It depends on the year, and on one's life at the moment. For instance, I'd hate to pit Po Chü-i versus Hardy versus Mahon.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you for your kind words about the post. Yes, autumn does come as a relief in Japan, doesn't it? Although, since memory sometimes has a way of mellowing one's thoughts, I have fond memories of summer in Tokyo -- for instance, the semi and the hotaru (rare, the latter, but I saw them a few times in a meadow beside a small river in the outer parts of Tokyo -- Nogawa Koen, in Mitaka). Or zaru soba and kakigōri. But, of course, I haven't forgotten the draining heat.

Thank you for sharing "I Dug Up a Diamond": I love that album. The lyrics fit well here.

I hope all is well. Thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Pen: That's very nice of you to say. Thank you so much. As I have said before, I see myself as simply the messenger for the poets and the artists, and I am always gratified to discover that the things I love may resonate with others as well.

Your description of spring in your part of the world is lovely. I completely agree with your wonderful thought: "all seasons hold a promise, a blessing, no matter where we stand in their slow, grand cycle." Perfectly said. Your spring sounds delightful. There were some years in my life when I spent time in the high desert of eastern Utah in spring, and your description reminded me of that part of the world.

Thank you again for your kind words. And thank you for visiting again. I hope all is well. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Danish dog: You're welcome. As always, thank you for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Maruskin: Thank you very much for another thought-provoking comment. I had forgotten about the Jaccottet poem -- thank you for reminding me. Another book I need to return to. And thank you as well for the poem by Reverdy: both he and his poem are new to me. Your pairing of the poem with the thought by Lowes is perfect. (That is a wonderful book, isn't it? Inexhaustible.)

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