Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Autumn Landscapes, Poetry, the Romantics

Every year at this time I feel the need to “capture” autumn—in words, in photographs, in the reading of autumn stories. 
It’s no easy task.  The mood of autumn is—by definition—transitional, brief, fleeting, yet intimate.   And, though I love the clear skies and soft low sun that awakes the fires latent in the leaves, even more I’m attracted to “secret” autumn, the season touched by rain or twilight, wet leaves clogging the paths, houses hidden in descending darkness with jack-o-lanterns and pumpkin-lights lonely and desolate when they’re meant to be festive.  Autumn landscapes are thus ambiguous.  They tune up in order to tone down.  They show vivid colors of life in withdrawal, sensations in retreat, like a fading watercolor on darkening parchment—nostalgic, furtive, mysterious, cloud-wrapped. 

Once, while teaching a course in Western Cultural Traditions, I used European history to find fitting metaphors for a poem about autumn:

Spring’s Elizabethan, summer is Greek, 
Winter’s a Medieval Romanesque.    
But autumn?  Darkly Romantic is fall.   

And the poem went on to make comparisons between the season and the age:

Gothic cathedrals, tumbled in ruin,
Seem perfect for autumn’s brief tinted shades.
Leaves wheel down like angels in exile
From stark-blue heaven to yellow-red earth:
Gilt dreams, ripped skins, drops of blood, tears,
Scarred little Satans in flames of descent.

Paradise Lost obviously got in there too, but it’s appropriate since the Romantics (well, Blake at least) often felt that Satan was the real hero of that poem. 

The season’s gray mists and cool colored steam,
Under bare limbs and bleak Lovecraftian stars
 (Stars threaten and stare only in autumn;
In winter, they’re candles—in summer, lamps),
Make settings wearied of life’s high demands.

I felt compelled to bring in Lovecraft, though I could have pointed to Bradbury’s many Halloween stories too.   And I really believe that the stars in autumn pack a greater punch.  “The Colour Out of Space” didn’t take place in fall but everything else about that story fits.  

In general, the many landscapes of fall are those

That weep, that shed, strip their colors and die,
Burned-up, burnt out, in landfalls of decay.
Crepe-paper droppings, faded wrappers . . . leaves. 

Oh, those brooding Romantics would have loved it, as they looked at trees but saw deteroriated church-like halls where shards of stained glass, like decadent gems, flung their testaments to departed life in a macabre excess of colored debris, falling rose-windows, careening galaxies.  They’d be sullen, solitary, yet ecstatic at what they saw,
That in slow-tinted autumn comes
The fall.  

(The two photographs were taken on a glorious day in Erie National Wildlife Refuge last fall, where the light, the clouds, and the colors were perfect.)  

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