Friday, October 16, 2015

`Mark How the Leaves Grow Sparsely Now'

“Of seasons of the year, the Autumn is most melancholy. Of peculiar times; old age, from which natural melancholy is almost an inseparable accident; but this artificial malady is more frequent in such as are of a middle age. Some assign forty years; Gariopontus, 30; Jubertus excepts neither young nor old from this adventitious.”

Even the experts can’t agree. In his Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton intuited SAD (seasonal affective disorder, now called “depressive disorder with seasonal pattern,” without the nifty acronym) nearly four centuries before the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) made it official. My emotional response to the turning of the seasons reverses Burton’s scheme (and the American Psychiatric Association’s). Autumn is the most bracing of seasons, spring the most – not sad, but discouraging. In fall, the air is cool, clear and dry. October is Poetry Month. Spring is muddy and too many Yahoos celebrate its coming. A friend in Kentucky who recently underwent cataract surgery might be describing the effect of autumn on vision: “Already the world is full of vibrant colors and sharply defined lines and angles that had become a memory.” The spring is muddy and the air blurry with rain and mist.

Without making it explicit, Burton hovers over a natural metaphor: Our lives are seasonal. If late middle age is autumnal, old age is winter, minus the seasonal turn into spring. C.H. Sisson makes the correspondence explicit in a sequence he wrote in his sixties titled “Autumn Poems” (Collected Poems, 1998). Here is the final Ovidian stanza:

“I am a tree: mark how the leaves grow
Sparsely now; here a bunch, there,
At the end of this thin twig, another
And the bark hardening, thickening. I am allowed
No respite from the wind, the long
Thorn trunk and branches stretching like a swan’s neck
In torment. And the hiss
My own malice makes of this wind
Gentle enough, in itself: I can imagine myself
As this tree but what consciousness
Should go with it—that,
Screeching neck, I am blind to.”

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