Autumn: “the small gnats mourn”

HeadeMartinJohnsonSunlightAndShadow

“Sunlight and Shadow” by Martin Johnson Heade (American 1819-1904, National Gallery, Washington, D. C.). The artist depicts “the tides, meteorological phenomena, and other natural forces that shaped the appearance of the swamp and showed how the land was used for hunting, fishing, and the harvesting of naturally occurring salt hay” (quote from National Gallery description). The apple tree is full of fruit  and the haystack  half in sun and half in shadow. I saw this painting a few weeks ago at the National Gallery and felt it captured the warmth of the harvest season portrayed in Keats’ ‘To Autumn.’ (This photograph is courtesy of wiki commons. My photograph cut off the apple tree.)

Autumn: it’s time again to walk the long good-bye among the fallen leaves and the last flowers of summer and think about Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn,’ a poem I cannot forget. For a number of years on an especially fine October day I would take my Writing as a Naturalist class at Ithaca College outside. We would read Keats’ poem aloud together and then I would ask them to choose their favorite line. Though many students of the 21st century seem to be occasionally more interested in science fiction and epic fantasy, they responded wholeheartedly to this classic Romantic poem. It never failed to awaken their notice and appreciation of the day and the season. Every line had a champion.

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Keats’ “Autumn” has been called by some the most perfect poem in the English language, and many readers and critics have observed that it is a celebration of our ecosystem and interconnectedness. Which is perhaps the reason for its perfection, in that its many references to nonhuman species awaken a remembrance of how our own biology connects us to all the fruits and birds and insects and weather of the Earth. We feel nourished after reading the poem, more aware of the blessings of harvest. Keats composed the poem, in 1819, two years before his death. Scholar Jonathan Bate writes in his essay “The Ode ‘To Autumn’ as Ecosystem” that when doctors in Rome opened up his body after death “they thought it was the worst possible Consumption—the lungs were intirely destroyed—the cells were quite gone’” (p. 258 in The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism). Keats died when he was 26.

My copy of Keats' Letters.

My copy of Keats’ Letters.

Bates quotes from one of Keats’ famous letters about a walk he took in 1819:

How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—that struck me so much in my sunday’s walk that I composed upon it. (p. 258)

Bates says that “To Autumn” is a weather poem, as were many other major Romantic poems.  Weather has always influenced our moods and especially now, in this time of climate change, our sense of the fragility of life. Keats in his letter talks about the stubble appearing warm to him, and in the poem he shows it turning rosy in the setting sun. Bates writes:

… the poem itself is an image of ecological wholeness which may grant to the attentive and receptive reader a sense of being-at-home-in-the-world….the movement through the poem…is not one which divides the culture from the nature. There is no sense of river, hill, and sky as the opposite of house and garden. Rather, what Keats seems to be saying is that to achieve being-at-home-in-the-world you have to begin from your own dwelling-place. Think globally, act locally….

Bates sees the “thee” in the poem as thoroughly female, and I have always imagined the person with “soft-lifted hair” as a woman, though much older than Winslow Homer’s “Autumn,” but perhaps with red hair as well, while Carol Rumens in her rumination on the poem, which she writes is “marked by sensuous profusion and artistic control,” sees a male Dionysian figure  becoming at some points androgynous. The students always end our Keats’ Autumn class talking about how they love Ithaca’s Apple Festival and drinking cider and eating apple cider donuts, where they connect with farmers and growers and craftspeople, many distant from academic circles the rest of the year, through the sharing of harvest.

Winslow Homer's

Winslow Homer’s “Autumn” seen at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago.

I also walk in autumn, saying a  good-bye to the ecosystem before its winter’s nap. Devoid of the kind of “artistic control” that Keats possessed,  I wish to include here all that I see.

Wild apples:

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY).

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY). So delicious!

Autumn crocus, always a surprise when it pops up unexpectedly because you forget that its leaves were ever there in the spring:

Autumn crocus arising out of myrtle. The large (some call them ungainly) leaves of the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnal) appear in the spring. After the leaves have died down, the flowers appear in the fall.

Autumn crocus and myrtle. The large (some call them ungainly) leaves of the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) appear in the spring. After the leaves have died down, and much later  the flowers appear in the fall.

Beechdrops:

Beechdrop arising out of leaf litter.

Beechdrop (a parasitic plant, Epifagus virginiana) arising out of leaf litter. It carpets the forest floor at this time of year in Enfield, NY.

Looking down at the whorled form of a beech drop, showing the reddish purple flower.

A view looking down at the whorled form of a beechdrop, showing the reddish purple flower. The beechdrop lacks chlorophyll and so must gain its sustenance from the roots of beech trees.

Delicate grasses:

The grace of grasses.

The grace of grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Some plants only become exuberant in fall, like the bur cucumber:

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Where is the bird now who nested here in the spring?

The nests are empty.

An empty nest dangles in my path.

As Keats’ suggests, the bees have their own harvesting to do:

Apple and bees.

Apple and bees or are they wasps that look like bees? I must consult my cousin for an identification.

I have my own “later flowers for the bees” —Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’:

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

The autumn day portrayed in Keats’ poem is gracious and benevolent, but we know there are also days of cool mists and grey skies and shriveled plants. Yet, they are beautiful too:

Horse browsing in Keats'

Horse browsing in Keats’ “mellow mists” (Enfield, NY).

The only descriptive word Keats repeats in the poem is “soft” as in “thy hair soft-lifted” and “soft-dying day.” He’s right. When the sun shines, autumn days are so soft, because some mists are warm.

My favorite line is “Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn.” It’s a line that is both romantic and unromantic. I find it moving that Keats gives the burden and honor of mourning, the short good-bye because gnats do not live very long, to the insignificant gnat.

Every day that I walk I find new autumn stories. The hedgerows of my husband’s tree nursery are blessed with hickories–particularly shagbark hickories. The nuts cause my feet to bobble. Soon I pick up the offending spheres, sniff them, and put them in my pocket for further aromatherapy. Sometimes I see an ecosystem story, like this one about the hickories and ants.

Shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore.

A shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore caught my attention.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

IMG_0889

Ants in close contact as they explore the inside of the shell.

Ants in close contact as they explore the inside of the shell.

I am sure this is a story that E. O. Wilson, the great ant biologist, could decipher, or perhaps Darwin had notes on such an interaction because he observed almost everything. It seems that Autumn is a time when members of an Ecosystem exhibit their last behaviors of interconnectedness before the Big Rest.

Goldenrod and woodpile.

The golden and the grey: goldenrod ornamenting woodpile constructed by busy human.

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