I love autumn, even in these earliest days of the season. It is not just now, as I (reluctantly) accept that I am middle-aged. I have always loved the colours, smells and celebrations in the months up to Christmas. The painting (left) by Millais – ‘Autumn Leaves’ – is said to represent the passing of youth and beauty, or perhaps the loss of innocence as the harsh realities of decay surround the young women as they light a bonfire in the twilight; but it is stunning. Ever since my teens, hearing Justin Hayward sing ‘Forever Autumn’ I have delighted in the change of seasons from the seeming inevitability of a disappointing summer to the cosy glow of the latter part of the year.
I admit I would love it a little more if it would just stop raining, but it is a season of striking beauty and one in which you can imagine ‘four seasons in one day’. In the Lake District last week we experienced gale force winds, flinging leaves and branches in our faces as we walked; thick mist; freezing hail and a day of blissfully warm sunshine. It was a little early to witness the forests in shades of gold and red but the first hints were there. The bushes were thick with autumn berries and nestling beneath the canopy were huge red and brown fungi – agaric, bracket and tiny brown mushrooms like Maltesers on fragile stems. The bracken on the fellsides was turning and as the sun came out and warmed up the wet fronds the smell was intoxicating – evocative of all the wonderful walks we have had there over the years.
Readers of my blog know of my love of the poetry of John Keats. His ‘Ode to Autumn’ written in 1819 is a true classic of English literature and is so much more than the oft-quoted first line ‘Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness…’. For example:
…..To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel……
Can you not just sense the swell and plump on you tongue as you read it aloud? The whole poem is a sensuous delight.
Keats wrote in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds from Winchester, where the poem was written: ‘How beautiful the season is now–How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather–Dian skies–I never liked stubble-fields so much as now–Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm–in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.’
The air with a ‘temperate sharpness’ about it – for me a perfect description of that first ‘nip’ that heralds the end of summer.
However, I was listening to ‘Poetry Please’ on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday afternoon and the final poem was one I was not familiar with, even though it is by one of my favourite 20th century poets, Philip Larkin. ‘And now the leaves suddenly lose strength’ considers autumn from a very different perspective. No ripeness, Dian skies or twittering swallows. No warmth indeed (apart from that experienced by those huddled on the welcome buses). Autumn is the harbinger of winter; a signal of the passing of another year. Decay. ‘Rubricate’ can mean both establishing a rule for (a rubric) or to mark in red and both seem equally appropriate to describe those long lines of trees drifting towards the end of their life cycle for another year. Their afternoon.
Larkin was a great friend of the novelist Barbara Pym, a wonderful writer of the 1950s, who enjoyed her first success in fifteen years when she was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1977 for ‘Quartet in Autumn‘. Instead of her usual descriptions of town and country life – light and subtly ironic – she deals movingly with the story of friends on the verge of retirement. The melancholy is reminiscent of the Larkin poem and I would recommend that, and other of her novels, to anyone who enjoys quiet style and gentle characterization in their reading choices.
To the poem, written by Philip Larkin in 1961.
And now the leaves suddenly lose strength.
Decaying towers stand still, lurid, lanes-long,
And seen from landing windows, or the length
Of gardens, rubricate afternoons. New strong
Rain-bearing night-winds come: then
Leaves chase warm buses, speckle statued air,
Pile up in corners, fetch out vague broomed men
Through mists at morning.
And no matter where goes down,
The sallow lapsing drift in fields
Or squares behind hoardings, all men hesitate
Separately, always, seeing another year gone -
Frockcoated gentleman, farmer at his gate,
Villein with mattock, soldiers on their shields,
All silent, watching the winter coming on.
It is a little early to suggest ‘winter is coming on’, but for me autumn’s melancholy is a beautiful one. So as nostalgia is an appropriate emotion for this time of year, I take you back to 1978, Top of the Pops and the perfect voice of Justin Hayward.