Autumn in literature: Death and beauty

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Autumn in literature is often synonymous with the melancholic. Persuasion is Jane Austen’s final completed novel, and is often described as “autumnal.” The protagonist Anne Elliot is a lonely woman, taken for granted by her family, filled with regret for love lost and time passed. It also has a greater sense of the outside than Austen’s other works, as Anne takes long and reflective walks out in the grey, enjoying the “last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves, and withered hedges.” Society sees Anne as an ageing woman, probably condemned to the social wasteland of spinsterhood, so the season reflects Anne’s fear that her own “last smiles” are already behind her.

Autumn as an ending is a common trope. It is seen as the end of something beautiful and warm, with the plant-life that has been so recently verdant decaying and dying before our eyes. And then there is the darkness. The nights come earlier and earlier, squeezing and closing in on the weak daylight. There is the sense of gradual degradation: things will only get colder and darker from hereon in. If someone is described as being in the “autumn” of their years, it is understood that the next “season” of their life will be the eternal winter of death.

Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this in his uncharacteristically pessimistic poem Spring and Fall, where a little girl, for the first time, properly notices the leaves falling from the trees. She sees it and weeps. “Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?” But the speaker realises her sorrow is not so much for the tree as for the inevitable sense of her own mortality that it represents: “It is the blight man was born for / It is Margaret you mourn for.”

But there’s another side to this season. Before the name “autumn” was commonly used, it was simply referred to as “harvest.” There is a sense of fruitfulness in autumn that we may have lost the sense of in modern life, as the rural and agricultural rhythms of the past become more distant. This is what poetry can bring to us. It can bring the beauty back into our lives, written by people who weren’t too busy rushing around to be inspired by the nature around them. John Keats’ Ode to Autumn encourages us to notice and celebrate this season’s own particular ripe beauty. “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too”. The poem itself is full of lyrical images of what autumn is: a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.”

Indeed, autumn can seem like a fresh relief after the intense heat and sweat of the summer. It can have the feel of a season-long cool summer night. Yes, there is grey and decay, but it is also full of almost miraculously vibrant colour. The leaves can have a particular golden glow on bright mornings. John Clare’s poem Autumn is almost overpowered by the sense of such ecstatic light. “Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun / And the rivers we’re eyeing burn to gold as they run / Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air.” Whether you’re feeling low or feeling inspired by the change in the season, literature can help us feel autumn more fully.


 

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