As the sky turned dark at 4 p.m., I walked past the half-tree the winds took down the other night and contemplated all that is November. I was looking for the beauty – there, a sedum held its dignified head aloft – but in truth my pants and the dog were equally muddy and soggy, my nose was dripping and my hands were cold. I thought: This is the worst time of year.
Preferring to offer my readers – an upbeat lot of gardeners in general – a more positive note, I turned to some poets' and writers' views on autumn, and found many ways to consider it.
Many poets focused on the riot of color, the glories of the harvest – all the pretty parts. William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) named it, “Autumn, the year's last, loveliest smile.”
Samuel Coleridge, in a similar time period wrote:
Why is it that so many of us persist in thinking
that autumn is a sad season?
Nature has merely fallen asleep, and her
dreams must be beautiful
if we are to judge by her countenance.
Many wrote of the more subtle beauty of the season:
It is a joy to walk in the bare woods.
The moonlight is not broken by the heavy leaves.
The leaves are down, and touching the soaked earth,
Giving off the odors that partridges love.
– Robert Bly (1926-), from “Solitude Late at
Night in the Woods”
Nearly all refer to autumn as a period of transition, and connect the theme of our own life cycles, aging and death:
I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer,
but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn,
because its tone is mellower, its colours are richer,
and it is tinged with a little sorrow. Its golden
richness speaks not of ... but of the mellowness
and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows
the limitations of life and its content.
– Lin Yutang (1895-1976)
Autumn is the eternal corrective.
It is ripeness and color and a time of maturity;
but it is also breadth, and depth, and distance.
What man can stand with autumn on a hilltop
and fail to see the span of his world
and the meaning of the rolling hills that reach to
the far horizon?
– Hal Borland (1900-1978)
Some garden writers simply tell what they see:
All the cabbages in our garden are robust and
green to the core;
All the peppers are dead and black, not red anymore.
The onions are thriving, the tomatoes all gone,
The lettuce is rising, the pecans all stored;
It's wet now in Red Bluff, Winter's knocking at
– Mike Garofalo (1945-)
The dark, dreary, dismal face of November is described by so many (and I did feel like the beech tree):
... While November numbly collapses,
this beech tree, heavy as death
on the lawn, braces for throat-
cutting ice, bandaging snow.
– Edwin Honig, “November
Through a Giant Copper Beech”
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds
– Thomas Hood (1799-1845), “No!”
Deeplier, deeplier, loudier, loudier,
The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying.
– Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) “The Region
“The gloomy months of November, when the
people of England hang and drown themselves.”
– Joseph Addison (1672-1719)
Having wallowed in gloom with the people of England, let's consider a lighter view, this one from John Updike's “A Child's Calendar” (1932-2009):
The stripped and shapely
The ghosts of her
The ground is hard,
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown.
And yet the world,
In its distress,
Displays a certain
Finally, an excerpt from one of the most loved poems about autumn:
Besides, the autumn poets sing,
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the haze.
A few incisive mornings –
A few Ascetic eves –
Gone – Mr. Bryant's “Golden Rod” –
And Mr. Thomson's “sheaves” ...
... Perhaps a squirrel may remain –
My sentiments to share –
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind –
Thy windy will to bear!
– Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
The next morning, after the tree fell and the gloom descended, I awoke to a world of fluffy snow. The woods are exquisitely, cheeringly white – poetry for another day.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.