: “Autumn” by artist William Stott of Oldham (1857-1900), circa 1898

The sounds of autumn

In writing this series of articles during lockdown, I have come to understand the pure companionship of poetry. Poems one has loved and known through a lifetime are trusted friends in the face of such uncertainty and adversity.

I have set them out, season by season. In so doing, I have sought to contrast the atmosphere of an English season as it struck the poet, with an impression of the same season here. I wonder whether, as well as a mother tongue, we have a mother seasonal appreciation! Perhaps the emotions learnt young in poetry are similar to those of religion. As we grow up, we still remember in part the acorn from which our adult perceptions have sprung; both poetic and religious.

Expats may have a double pleasure here. In their mind’s eye, they still see “the moss’d cottage trees”, bent with apples, in an English country cottage. They people this imagined garden with Dahlias and Michaelmas daisies come the autumn. They burn off the early morning mists to uncover the brilliant colours of the flowers. They know, in their hearts, the extravaganza will fade and be replaced by brown and black and frozen ground; but that is tomorrow’s problem.

Here in the Algarve, we live in a different landscape; often having to shelter from the “maturing sun”; as we watch vines, loaded and blessed with fruit.
Something of a bifocal autumn for expat eyes. We share the invitation of “the later flowers for the bees, until they think warm days will never cease”. Whether in the UK or the Algarve, an “Indian summer” is always an added bonus.

We have seen how Stevens, Kipling and now Keats, when seeking to evoke the wind on the sea shore at Key West, the fresh forest undergrowth in Sussex, or here Autumn, personify it as a woman. Keats sees Autumn “sitting careless on a granary floor, thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind … or by a cyder-press”, watching “the last oozings hours by hours”.

I started by commending the companionship of poetry. Is it not a miracle that 210 years after it was written, one can share so immediately with the poet, as if seated beside him, such an experience? What was in his mind as he wrote is now in our mind as we read his words. Few art forms allow this. Through the magic of the internet, we can even see the page with the corrections he made to the poem.

The third stanza is a wakeup call from such autumnal reverie. It introduces the impending reality of winter. It suggests the redemptive quality of a life to be lived next year and for succeeding springs; it does so through noting the sounds of autumn.

“Where are the songs of spring”, “think not of them, thou hast thy music too”. Here Keats is more optimistic than MacNeice in the “Mayfly”. “Full grown lambs bleat … hedge crickets sing … the red-breast whistles from a garden croft; And gathering swallows twitter in the skies”.

The music of our continuing existence is sung by creatures great and small. Over our Algarvian skies, the main migration routes pass. The seasons are changing now.

We will remember 2020 for the rest of our lives; it was then that the nullity and frigidity of a sudden economic winter blighted the year’s spring, summer and autumn. Keats, as a romantic poet, pauses at the gate of autumn, looks around and observes, but knows he must continue his journey towards the upcoming year.

We could take a leaf out of his poetry book and decide to do likewise; now might be as opportune a time as ever so to do.

To Autumn
By John Keats

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-eves 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 twined 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 barred 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.

By Anthony Slingsby

: “Autumn” by artist William Stott of Oldham (1857-1900), circa 1898
John Keats’ “To Autumn” manuscript