It’s early October, and out of the window I can see the spread of the garden. Only now and then, the light falls so that a string of spider’s web becomes visible, half-grasped by the air, a shining line. The leaves of the cherry reflected the golden-green of the late sunshine, and behind, after the soft, dusty dark sweep of the lawn, scattered with the first fallen leaves, the same golden light kindles the branches of the Copper Beach.
Lulled by the golden light, the feeling of the air as I step out onto the warm-coloured stone of the patio startles me.
The first sign of autumn is the change in the air. Many times, when the days are still long, the leaves still green, I know that a change is coming, because the air has changed to an earthy crisp, a smell that, like so many smells, brings back a rush of memories.
Because of the way our seasons pass and return, they are a powerful structure to hang memories upon. Autumn, at the close of the year, is the most reflective, backward-looking, and storytellers have been drawn to it to conjure this mood.
There is no fictional character I associate so strongly with Autumn as Jane Austen’s Anne Eliot.
Anne’s object was not to be in the way of anybody…Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves, and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling…but it was not possible, that when within reach of Captain Wentworth’s conversation with either of the Miss Musgroves, she should not try to hear it…Anne could not immediately fall into a quotation again. The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by, unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 might very well have been on Anne’s mind:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
The joy of autumn is inseparable from the sense of impending loss – love burns with the last leaves hung on the tree, kindled brighter by the wind that will bring them down. Our appreciation of the seasons is, by definition, an appreciation of temporality, of the fleeting – but the dawn flush on spring leaves promises renewal, whereas autumn, whose sunset colours intimate decay. Autumn brings home the poignance of the mutability of nature. Writers play on this familiar emotional chord.
In Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd Bathsheba Everdene, on a ‘Saturday evening in the month of October’ is just beginning to discover the real character of the man she has just married. Bathsheba’s voice is “painfully lowered from the fullness and vivacity of the previous summer”
‘Why, Bathsheba, you have lost all the pluck and sauciness you formerly had, and upon my life if I had known what a chicken-hearted creature you were under all your boldness, I’d never have — I know what.’
A flash of indignation might have been seen in Bathsheba’s dark eyes as she looked resolutely ahead after this reply. They moved on without further speech, some early-withered leaves from the trees which hooded the road at this spot occasionally spinning downward across their path to the earth.
Bathsheba’s story is ironically echoed by the folk song she sings earlier in the book. The heroine of the song, who (as in so many ballads) has been disappointed in love by a false soldier, fades with the fading year:
By the banks of Allan Water
When the sweet springtime did fall
There I saw the miller’s lovely daughter
Fairest of them all
For his wife, a soldier sought her
And a winning tongue had he
On the banks of Allan Water, none so gay as she
On the banks of Allan Water
When brown autumn spread its store
There I saw the miller’s daughter
But she smiled no more
For the summer, grief had brought her
And a soldier false was he
On the banks of Allan Water, none so sad as she
Hardy plays upon the fact that Bathsheba’s experience of loss is perennial, an old story, like autumn itself, but the more, rather than the less, moving for that.
For Anne and Bathsheba the time of year reflects their own wrecked lives. But for George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, autumn mingles with ‘the girl’s vision of a possible future for herself to which she looked forward with trembling hope’.
It was three o’clock in the beautiful breezy autumn day when…Dorothea, who had on her bonnet and shawl, hurried along the shrubbery and across the park that she might wander through the bordering wood… There had risen before her the girl’s vision of a possible future for herself to which she looked forward with trembling hope, and she wanted to wander on in that visionary future without interruption. She walked briskly in the brisk air, the colour rose in her cheeks… she looked before her, not consciously seeing, but absorbing into the intensity of her mood, the solemn glory of the afternoon with its long swathes of light between the far-off rows of limes, whose shadows touched each other.
Perhaps the autumnal setting of Dorothea’s walk betrays the fact that what she thinks is a new beginning is in fact a dead end. But, if so, the ‘long swathes of light between the far-off rows of limes, whose shadows touched each other’ suggests that even in such dead-ends there is a transcendent affirmation – the gentle contact between the shadows recalls the ‘tenderness’ of communion of feeling beings, even across time and death itself, in which Anne finds comfort.
As for me, I say along with Emily Brontë:
Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
The ambiguity of that honey-sweet sadness that lies in the still air when the sun and the year are sinking into golden beams is nevertheless a definite pleasure, a reminder of the tender potential for feeling in our animal nature.
John Everett Millais wrote:
‘“Is there any sensation more delicious than that awakened by the odour of burning leaves? To me nothing brings back sweeter memories of the days that are gone; it is the incense offered by departing summer to the sky, and it brings one a happy conviction that Time puts a peaceful seal on all that has gone.”
His painting Autumn Leaves is a very concrete. You can almost feel the chill of the Autumn air, hear the crinkle of the kindling leaves. The contrast between the rising cold of darkness and falling, glowing warmth structures the painting – in the sunset sky, in the clothes and hair of the girls, and between the foreground and the outer darkness. Despite his ‘happy convictions’, the joy of Millais’s scene trembles in the face of loss like the last leaf on the branch.
Almost a month since I first smelt Autumn. Winter is coming now.
A flock of birds, their white under-wings catching the light, cross the sky above me. A sky of piercing frosty blue, clear as a cold blade, tempered by the licking flames of the beech branches. Above the blaze, the ghost of a tissue paper moon seems carried high by the heat.
The faint silver of frost pales the lawn, melting in the long streaks of morning sunshine. A squirrel hurries here and there, and up above, I see that a little movement that might have been made by falling leaves is in fact the stir of little tits, darting here and there in the frosty air, in between the gold.
THE trees are undressing, and fling in many places—
On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill—
Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces;
A leaf each second so is flung at will,
Here, there, another and another, still and still.