MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríevingOver Goldengrove unleaving?Leáves, líke the things of man, youWith your fresh thoughts care for, can you?Áh! ás the heart grows olderIt will come to such sights colderBy and by, nor spare a sighThough worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;And yet you wíll weep and know why.Now no matter, child, the name:Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressedWhat heart heard of, ghost guessed:It ís the blight man was born for,It is Margaret you mourn for.
The scene is Autumn, but Matthew Arnold's long poem “Rugby Chapel” (November, 1857) is not about the season at all. A gloomy autumn evening in the grounds of Rugby school leads to a reverie about his father, the former headmaster; how he was one of those bright, heroic Victorian souls (like Tennyson's Ulysses) who helped round up the doubters and stragglers and keep them on the road to glory. The poem is stitched together from fragments of Thomas Arnold's sermons. I could imagine his earnest but skeptical son, like so many of his generation, looking back on this glowing and strenuous certainty with genuine nostalgia through the gathering darkness.
Coldly, sadly descends
The autumn evening. The Field
Strewn with its dank yellow drifts
Of wither’d leaves, and the elms,
Fade into dimness apace,
Silent;—hardly a shout
From a few boys late at their play!
The lights come out in the street,
In the school-room windows; but cold,
Solemn, unlighted, austere,
Through the gathering darkness, arise
The Chapel walls, in whose bound
Thou, my father! art laid.[...]
What is the course of the life
Of mortal men on the earth?—
Most men eddy about
Here and there—eat and drink,
Chatter and love and hate,
Gather and squander, are raised
Aloft, are hurl’d in the dust,
Striving blindly, achieving
Nothing; and, then they die—
Perish; and no one asks
Who or what they have been,
More than he asks what waves
In the moonlit solitudes mild
Of the midmost Ocean, have swell’d,
Foam’d for a moment, and gone.[...]
See! in the rocks of the world
Marches the host of mankind,
A feeble, wavering line.
Where are they tending?—A God
Marshall’d them, gave them their goal.—
Ah, but the way is so long!
Years they have been in the wild!
Sore thirst plagues them; the rocks,
Rising all round, overawe.
Factions divide them; their host
Threatens to break, to dissolve.
Ah, keep, keep them combined!
Else, of the myriads who fill
That army, not one shall arrive!
Sole they shall stray; in the rocks
Labour for ever in vain,
Die one by one in the waste.
Then, in such hour of need
Of your fainting, dispirited race,
Ye, like angels, appear,
Radiant with ardour divine.
Beacons of hope, ye appear!
Languor is not in your heart,
Weakness is not in your word,
Weariness not on your brow.
Ye alight in our van; at your voice,
Panic, despair, flee away.
Ye move through the ranks, recall
The stragglers, refresh the outworn,
Praise, re-inspire the brave.
Order, courage, return.
Eyes rekindling, and prayers,
Follow your steps as ye go.
Ye fill up the gaps in our files,
Strengthen the wavering line,
Stablish, continue our march,
On, to the bound of the waste,
On, to the City of God.
Read the whole poem, and an excellent short biography of Arnold here.
My favourite season has arrived, and since I've already posted plenty of Autumn poetry over the past five years (Herbert, Blake, Shelley, Keats, Rossetti, Logan, Frost) I wondered this year about descriptions of Autumn in prose. These are harder to find, but here are a couple to start with, both from Jane Austen. The first is Anne Elliot in Persuasion, trying to take her mind off Captain Wentworth by thinking about poetry.
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. She occupied her mind as much as possible in such like musings and quotations; 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; yet she caught little very remarkable.
And here is the unromantic Elinor Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, making fun of Marianne's romantic love of Autumn.
"And how does dear, dear Norland look?" cried Marianne.
"Dear, dear Norland," said Elinor, "probably looks much as it always does at this time of the year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves."
"Oh," cried Marianne, "with what transporting sensation have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight.”
“It is not every one," said Elinor, "who has your passion for dead leaves.”
In contrast to Rossetti’s melancholy vision of Autumn, Blake’s is buzzing with life, humming with the song of fruits and flowers. Autumn is not about sleep but rest and revelry; not about death but fulfilment and fertility, blossoming and blessing. It brings what Summer promised. This is “To Autumn” (1793).
O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain’d
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.
“The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.
The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.”
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat,
Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.
Know’st thou not at the fall of the leafHow the heart feels a languid griefLaid on it for a covering,And how sleep seems a goodly thingIn Autumn at the fall of the leaf?
And how the swift beat of the brainFalters because it is in vain,In Autumn at the fall of the leafKnowest thou not? and how the chiefOf joys seems—not to suffer pain?
Know’st thou not at the fall of the leafHow the soul feels like a dried sheafBound up at length for harvesting,And how death seems a comely thingIn Autumn at the fall of the leaf?