To Autumn

Henry Baxter & James Soderholm

JS: Let us speak of death, poetry, and transfiguration. Today in Hyde Park I showed you an oak leaf in its death throes, flaming into beauty one last time. I gave you a botanical explanation about why leaves turn color in Autumn—sometimes I still prefer the American “Fall,” partly for its biblical and Miltonic associations—and I spoke of the accessory pigments in the leaf –the carotenoids (orange colors) and xanthophylls (yellow colors)—being trapped and highlighted because the stem, or petiole, has died. These masked pigments now overwhelm the usually dominant chlorophyll.

I then recited the first two lines of Keats’s “To Autumn”:

Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun

and talked about how Keats was like an autumn leaf in being more voluptuously vivid as he dies. Keats was to undergo an early, fecundating autumn (1819) and enter the fast winter of his discontent in Rome, where he died in 1821 at the age of 25. I then mentioned the sadly long autumn of Yeats’s life and how he turned his unrequited love for Maud Gonne into the lyric leaves we now turn over in his books of poems.

On our many walks we have been discussing death and transformation, transubstantiation, and other miraculous metamorphoses, including the way metaphors and similes can transform a student’s writing. The mystery of faith, metamorphic metaphors, Catholicism, epiphany, trans/figuration, conversion, confirmation, communion, transference—we have many colorful topics spread out before us.

What is so fascinating about the act and the art of turning over an old leaf?

HB: I have wondered whether it is nothing more than the coincidence of Autumn's beginning, and the academic year’s, that has, by the infusion of the circumstances related to the latter, into the former, given the appearance of those first, hard bud-like blackberries, in early July, more hopefulness (at least, to my mind) than winter's green compacts, which promise Spring, waiting to unfurl; made cool breezes in September, even more lovely than April's 'sweet breath'; imparted greater expectation to the old leaves' slowly turning red, than to the permeation of brass and brightness in clouds at dawn. Might not this connection between the two types of leaves (I mean, the one on the pavement, the other in the mind) that are turned over around Michaelmas time be emblematic?

JS: A mass of dying leaves. A Mass for dying leaves. That’s what Keats sings in 1819, a requiem for things of beauty that are a joy forever, and yet do pass into nothingness, as everything does. Their very morality insists on their beauty. There is no other way. Seasons probably have always been emblematic, or blazons. Keats is not just writing about Autumn: he is writing Autumn.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

But you also mean emblematic of a new fecundity, I think. Spring revives and rejuvenates and Chaucerian infusions of spirituality and sexuality are a matter of record. But when the dying season is even more full of promise, even as it verges on the season of death, things get interesting. Is this paradox really nothing more than Dr. Johnson’s observation that the thought of death wonderfully concentrates the mind? But those autumn leaves are more beautiful as they die. A Michaelmas of leaves, turning, like metaphors, into something rich and strange. What do you make of it?

HB: Concentrate is very apt, I think: the rest of the long year is squash to it. Perhaps an analogy with memory might be made: as with desiccated fruit, the much purer and underlying flavour of an experience is more – sometimes only (as cheese from milk) – palpable after all that which, at the time, 'watered it down', all those trivial fond thoughts and worries that nag even the most serious moment–the itchy impression of a label, a slightly parched throat, the churning of some mundane matter in the mind etc.–have been forgotten. And just as all the beauty of sunlight, breathed in by the trees all year, is only gingerly discovered when they cease to do so, might it be that, the spirit of the ripened year is most truly distilled when it reaches that end denoted so well by the denouement of the leaves from the branches: when forgetfulness has boiled off all that fidgety back-and-forth of Winter and Spring? 

There are plenty of instances where the value of something becomes apparent when it is lost, or is heightened, when its displeasing qualities are then forgotten; but something more than this happens at Autumn, just as it happens when one nears sleep: for then there is no threshold, after passing which, memory becomes intimation, and thoughts, dreams. When does warmth in the afternoon cease to be an ember, and begin to be a spark? As at midsummer in those countries within the arctic circle, twilight melts into dawn; and snowdrops in January are as much an inkling of the year to come as snowflakes in April are of the one to have passed. If the year is concentrated at Autumn by the imminence of its ending, then so, and also born of forgetfulness, there is, at that 'second infancy' which is the familiar to its old age, a different sort of concentration: that of growing inexperience, where speaking and walking again seem miraculous, and the dying mind sees everything with the intensity of the new. 

JS: “The dying mind”—that pretty phrase has much life in it. One recalls Wallace Stevens’s “Death is the Mother of Beauty” and how Percy Shelley likens the imagination in action to fading coal. And are these concentrated vanishings somehow connected to Edgar’s lines, “Their going hence even as their coming hither. / Ripeness is all.” That is a compressed way of putting it, like Keats’s cider-press oozings in his poem. 

Burns also understood pleasure’s fleet foot.

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white--then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow's lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.—

Concentrated little harvests of sound, couplets don’t last long—a moment musical, then silent forever. Everything really is more beautiful because it’s doomed, and we’re doomed, and everything’s doomed according to the laws of entropy. But before the long winding down, there is the intensity of the winding up. Summer winding up into Autumn. The emergency of that emergence. It has so many analogues in music and literature that we must detain ourselves further to bear witness to the many fallings of autumn.

HB: I confess, when I taste honey, or jams, chutneys, pickles, or liqueurs, cider, or wine, if it has crossed my mind that these contain 'all the treasure of [Spring's] lusty days', I never feel invaded by any Proustian surge of all the time, and light, that are distilled in these conserves: although perhaps it is different for a gardener. But it seems not insignificant that harvest does become wonderfully potent, when it is itself recollected, as a metaphorical vehicle:

Thou art thy mother's glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.

Himself being a father when he wrote this, Shakespeare was in a better position than am I, to know whether this advice really would, as with Proust's Combray-packed madeleine, make all 'les vicissitudes de la vie indifférentes, ses désastres inoffensifs, sa brièveté illusoire'. But what does seem certain, is that these 'harvests of sounds' are pleasurable more than simply metaphorically: now that you make me think of it, some of the most pleasing moments in a 'plot' (which now seems a very apt name indeed), are its equivalents to these 'golden couplets', when what an audience may have disregarded as a mote, is revealed, by its flourishing, to have been a seed. I am surely not alone in finding, when I first watched the play, or when I try to have the mind of one who does, a considerable delight in the interruption of the 'trumpets, and ordnance shot off, within' near the beginning Hamlet's fourth scene, and realising, before the spoken explanation, and with the same thrilling epiphany after momentary confusion as one who suddenly grasps the pun around which a joke swivels, that it was the yield of Claudius's absurd promise two scenes previous, that 

No jocund health that Denmark drinks to-day,
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell.

Nor is this at all an isolated instance: in act four, for example, almost every single emerging plot thread–Laertes's angry bursting in, the entrance of the messenger who brings news of Hamlet's arrival, Ophelia's death–is seen to have been sown earlier. Even the way in which Claudius delivers his own plot ('ripe in [his] device') is Autumnal: he begins by setting his spring–that description of the 'gentleman of Normandy', the very skilful horse rider–which only after this laboursome delay, bears its fruit, when the plan for the duel is revealed. 

JS: Funeral plots are particularly teleological, it would seem. We are less potted plants than plotted plants, for many people now “buy” these bits of earth in advances to make certain they have a final resting place (Hamlet’s last line: “The rest is silence”). Couplets make their little graves in their metre and end-rhyme. 

From mote to seed has my wheels turning. The Greek word translated as "mote" (κάρφος karphos) meant "any small dry body" and apparently the workshop of Jesus was littered with them. Eschatology is sacred teleology, the mote made flesh, seeding the future with sacrifice and redemption. Good plots are littered with foreshadowing. When Hamlet finally stares into the hollow eye sockets of Yorick in the graveyard scene, is this moment not simply a literal culmination of his staring at death pretty much the entire play.  

I think it be no other but e'en so:
Well may it sort that this portentous figure
Comes armed through our watch; so like the king
That was and is the question of these wars.
A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets…

And later, this—

Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven
Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!
My father!--methinks I see my father.
Where, my lord?
In my mind's eye, Horatio.

These companionable motes seed the play until Hamlet looks death straight in the face, and his gorge rise at it. Is “Hamlet” a long autumn (“the readiness is all”), a premature ripeness, a potent harvest that a thirty-six year-old Shakespeare gleaned from his soul five years after his son Hamnet shuffled off his coil and in the same year (1601) that the playwright’s father went from being to nothingness? 

HB: I agree: in several senses, the play was, perhaps,–as I think are many works of narration–the mere occasion for Harvest. A gardener doesn't plant seeds, merely to enrich the ground; but he considers, I presume, the plot to be rather the circumstance of their growth. So does our thinking–and it is the received opinion–that a good plot ought to be 'littered with foreshadowing', not share in some of the same backward reasoning, as the farmer uses, when he grows his potatoes only for the sake of the land that holds them, or as the horticulturist, who breeds his hybrids, merely to 'improve the plot'? Foreshadowing, and its harvests, seem to me to be more than the 'outward flourishes'–the makeup or varnish–of a narrative; and all the specific action and motivation of a story may be merely the (deceptively concrete) medium by which the real things–expectation and recollection–are made visible, just as the abstraction of light manifests to particularity through the medium of a prism, or a cloud.

That fantastically pregnant metaphor used by Pericles, just before he discovers that his daughter, Marina, has not been killed, as he had imagined, and that the lady to whom he is speaking, is she–"I am big with woe, and shall deliver weeping"–does this merely improve the play? Or should we not rather regard the play as merely that which gives such wondrous potency to this line? 

JS: We seem to be ‘falling’ into a literary dialectic where images and plots mutually inflect. It almost does not matter which of the two has primacy when they are both so intimately involved in the Harvest, no? What seems to be simply decorative is often constitutive of the plot, as you suggest. 

It’s now time etymologically to harvest “harvest.”

Old English hærfest "autumn," as one of the four seasons, "period between August and November," from Proto-Germanic *harbitas (source also of Old Saxon hervist, Old Frisian and Dutch herfst, German Herbst "autumn," Old Norse haust "harvest"), from PIE root *kerp- "to gather, pluck, harvest."

In Old English and Middle English primarily a season name, with only an implied reference to the gathering of crops. The borrowing of autumn and the use of fall (n.) in a seasonal sense gradually focused the meaning of harvest to "the time of gathering crops" (mid-13c.), also to the action itself and the product of the action (after c. 1300), which became its main senses after 14c. Figurative use by 1530s. As an adjective from late 14c. Harvest home (1570s) was a festive celebration of the bringing home the last of the harvest; harvest moon (1704) is that which is full within a fortnight of the autumnal equinox.

The harvest has, then, both natural and literary affinities with the idea of carpe diem (which one could translate as ‘pluck the day.’ And we swing back around to Keats who, on a given day in—say—1819, could make a move to pluck Fanny Brawne or—for the sake of literature and future readers like us—he could sit on his little sofa in the house on Hampstead Heath and make rich use of his time by harvesting his poetic soul, as he does so lavishly and self-reflexively in “To Autumn.” Brawne fans his Muse, and the sad lad gathers his Spenserian soul into voluptuous stanzas to write “The Eve of St Agnes,” one of his greatest harvests. How quickly this fledging poet—and “bosom companion”—of the English literary tradition becomes a maturing son! How does one intuit autumn so early? How much does one have to suffer to become so beautiful (as Nietzsche might say)? What other kinds of fruit do literary dialectics bear?

HB: If the poor man’s ripening breast itself were discharging memento moris, then perhaps ‘autumn’ (from which I fear half its store is robbed, when it is used thus, as only an emblem of death and decay), might have been rather more certain than an intuition. But as for how much suffering, I confess myself a Pelagian to that doctrine of Romanticism: though many who have had more time and comfort than Keats have written worse poetry, yet why might he not have improved on himself, had his circumstances done so? If his so potent art, as it seems, was, at least in part, urgent medicine to melancholy–and sure, no more antibiotics without disease, than Ponte Vecchio without our inability to walk on water–then could not joyful ease, like shaken champagne, have overflown with a beauty as energetic as suffering made languid?

JS: That’s a literary counterfactual: what if Keats had lived another decade or two and matured? It is worth noting that both Wordsworth and Byron—who could agree on nothing and were deeply antipathetic to each other—could agree that Keats was a puerile stylist trying too hard to impress, probably in an effort to transcend his Cockney origins. Having heard young Keats read a bit of his own verse, Wordsworth dismissed it to his face as “a very pretty piece of paganism.” Not impressed with Keats’s oozing lyrics, Byron called them “the very onanism of poetry.” We moderns have largely ignored these contemporary depreciations of Keats’s handful of poems because he has become a fetishized figure of Romanticism: the impoverished, tragic, lovelorn poet who died young. Indeed, Keats might have become another Spenser if he had lived. Instead, he produces Spenserian stanzas that are, like the heated Porphyro hovering over his Madeleine, “ethereal, flushed, and like a throbbing star.” 

Autumn came prematurely for Keats. And it shows. But his leaves are still worth turning over and over.

HB: Yet it is not Fall, but the Springtime that tries so prettily to impress; what season is more onanistic: so warm and fruitless, so prodigal and so poor? Not the indolic and sultry depth of July; not November’s austerity and splendour: but April, with its petals, like pheasants: flushed from the ground – and palpitating in the breeze as hotly and as coldly as stars. Though his themes may have been Autumnal, his life, and his criticised-style, was surely vernal: Philomelan, even, and Persephonean. Keats wrote Autumn in his Spring. And yet it was a weighted, loaded Spring, its Fall foreshadowed even in its flight. 

I am put in mind of a certain passage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Bursting into Camelot on New Year’s Eve, the Green Knight brings an incredible proposition: he will suffer his own head to be cut off, provided that the man who does so, face the blow be returned him, next New Year’s day. Gawain accepts, beheads the mad stranger; but to his amazement, unharmed, the Green Knight takes up his bleeding head, and rides off boisterously, leaving Gawain, bound by oaths of chivalry, a year and a day to seek him and his death. Then comes a lengthy description of the changing seasons that ensue: Christmas-time, and crabbed-lenten; ‘showers ful warme’; blossoms, birds – and then:

After the sesoun of somer with the soft wyndes,
When Zeferus syfles himself on sedes and erbes[…]
When the donkande dewe dropes of the leves,
To bide a blisful blusch of the bryght sunne,
[…] then hyes harvest, and hardenes hym sone,
Warnes hym for the wynter to wax ful rype

The dreadful joy of this summer prefaced by its own epilogue is mirrored in the syntax – by the ‘after’, which subordinates all that seasons beauties, even before it begins, to that which is to come. That ‘after’ is Autumn: which itself does likewise – a preposition reaching back all the way to Spring, lending it a breath and inflection which wait, as beautiful as it is, to be resolved in October’s matrix: for Autumn is the womb of its own ancestry; and the universal predicate, without which all subjects would be senseless.

How different had Prospero’s cloud-capp’d towers been, had their dissolution not been foretold, their sentence thus:

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve.

But, premised as they are, on that mortal simile patterning their predicate, with how much more life do they seem to be informed!

These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve.

JS: I imagine being a poet means knowing how to spring into autumn—on fleet metrical feet—no matter what the season, to be a lyricist for all seasons, foreshadowing and then echoing one’s mortal condition in one image after another. That is how poets keep the harvest ready-to-hand: by presenting themselves with “mist and mellow fruitfulness” before everything melts and dissolves, and where plentitude was, there is thin air.