'Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too -'
from To Autumn by John Keats
English poets have always been bewitched by autumn. Shakespeare, Keats, Browning and Blake, Clare and Rossetti, dozens of others - they have all turned their pens to sonnets and odes in honour of this most poetic of seasons. They have personified it, as Keats does above: 'Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;' They have found deep melancholy in its declining days, beneficence in its harvests, gothic frisson in its festivals and rituals. And, of course, they have mined it for countless metaphors of death.
Autumn is a long season and an extravagant one. It begins in abundance, the swelling coffers of the crop. It is fat and wealthy and dripping with gold. Keats' bees are duped into thinking warm days will never cease because 'Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells.' But plenty begets excess. Excess begets wastefulness which, in its turn, begets decay. By way of this profligate sequence Nature re-stocks the pot for a repeat showing. There is eternity in rottenness, the indestructibility of elemental matter.
Autumn is ripe for poetry because of the way it assaults our senses. Keats knew it and reaped it in some of the most concrete poetic lines he ever wrote. He makes us taste the plump hazel shells 'with a sweet kernel'; we watch with him the long autumn sunsets that 'touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue'; we hear the 'wailful choir' of gnats and the bleat of full-grown lambs, and we are there with him by the cider-press, patiently watching 'the last oozings hour by hour'. It is a rich pudding of a poem, every line as o'er-brimmed as the cells of his bees.
To Autumn is not a long poem by the standards of the romantic poets but, over a reading of its three stanzas, months have gone by. We are not told directly of the passing of time, it is more subtle than that. With each verse the temperature of the adjectives becomes colder. The industrious bees of the opening verse have, by the poem's close, given way to the gathering swallows, twittering in the skies. And there Keats breaks off, on the brink of the birds' departure. It is a master stroke on which to leave us. The laden apple trees under a 'maturing sun' have been harvested and in their place a winnowing wind stirs the chaff on the stubble fields.
I sat reading To Autumn on the waterfront in Dundee the other day. The sky was distinctly autumnal and a ragged mist snagged in the trees on the opposite shore. I know there are brambles and blackthorn bushes heavy with ripening sloes on that shore. As I read a sudden breeze brought a skittering of crisp sycamore leaves along the path, blotched yellow and black. They passed, the breeze vanished and the sun was once more warm. It was a little taste of what is to come. We are on the cusp.