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.
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:
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)