Featured Poem: To Autumn by John Clare

We’re moving ever swiftly into the final furlong of the year, with just over a quarter left to complete. To pinpoint this fact, last Friday was the autumnal equinox – officially the first day of Autumn – so Autumn hasn’t so much swept in on a breeze but been blown in by a gale. However you’ve spent your first autumnal weekend – whether conker collecting, ushering in the annual apple season that coincides by baking an apple pie or two or spending the entire time sweeping the sudden deluge of leaves that have descended upon the earth from your path – hopefully you’ll have been embracing the initial stages of the season with open arms and will continue to do so for its entirety (even if it does get rather nippy at times, but that’s nothing a woolly jumper won’t solve).

I think a call for an all-out celebration of Autumn is in order, not just because we might as well see it in in style now that it’s here but more specifically because I’ve noticed that a considerable amount of poems showcasing the season are less than celebratory, discounting the burnished glow of the crimson, amber and ochre tipped trees meeting the fire of an autumnal evening sunset (what an image – that’s the one time I would actively welcome being caught up in a metaphorical crossfire) or the cool but comforting crispness of the air counterbalanced with a swift rush indoors to warm the cockles for an altogether more melancholy and mournful tone. While poets are on the whole unanimous about the joys of spring, its corresponding cousin is met with a certain amount of unease and not so much foreboding than outright dread; obvious examples of the negative poetic view of autumn being Shelley’s Autumn: A Dirge (somewhat clear from the outset that that one won’t be a jubilant skip through the heaps of fallen leaves), Rossetti’s sorrowful Autumn Song and Autumn by Thomas Hood, which after lamenting the loss of the spring and summer closes by proclaiming the autumn to be a ‘cloudy prison for the soul’ – if that isn’t a phrase to dampen your spirits and leave you more than a touch dejected, I don’t know what is. Picking out the wild winds, fading light, dying leaves and a general withering of the world as the defining aspects of autumn – as more than a few poets have been quick to do – does give the season a definite downbeat demeanour.

Thankfully, the poetic picture of autumn is not one of outright doom and gloom; arguably the most famous Ode to Autumn, the poem with the very same title by John Keats bursts forth with a fruitful feast, marvelling in all its ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’, while our plea for a celebratory commemoration is duly answered by Paul Laurence Dunbar in his Merry Autumn, who also can’t see why the season should be tinged with such overwhelming solemnity. Yet perhaps the biggest advocate of the autumn days and evenings amongst the classic poets is John Clare, who has penned several poems in honour of the season, including two which share the same name: the title of the season itself – an epic written in 1821, filled with unabridged delight of its many positive features, and another written during his confinement at Northampton County Asylum, a slightly more chaotic presentation of the season yet made all the more poignant by his view of the outside, autumnal world as a heavenly Eternity. This is another of his love notes to autumn, one which takes into account the pensive mood observed by others before – and after – him, but construes it in much more optimistic, uplifting terms. Here’s raising a glass of something warming to autumn; it really isn’t so bad after all.

To Autumn

Come, pensive Autumn, with thy clouds and storms
And falling leaves and pastures lost to flowers;
A luscious charm hangs on thy faded forms,
More sweet than Summer in her loveliest hours,
Who in her blooming uniform of green
Delights with samely and continued joy:
But give me, Autumn, where thy hand hath been,
For there is wildness that can never cloy –
The russet hue of fields left bare, and all
The tints of leaves and blossoms ere they fall.
In thy dull days of clouds a pleasure comes,
Wild music softens in thy hollow winds;
And in thy fading woods a beauty blooms
That’s more than dear to melancholy minds.

John Clare (1793-1864)

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