Saturday, November 30, 2019

'To You the Sad Account I Bring'

There’s more to autumn than John Keats. I know two seasoned readers who name “To Autumn” as their favorite poem of all time, and why not? Keats’ poem is ravishing but retrospective. Autumn is a time of bounty, of “ripeness to the core.” The harvest is in. His autumn is the culmination of summer, summer in a minor key. Two of his poetic forebears turned in the other direction. For them, autumn was winter’s rehearsal. Take this:  

“The verdant leaves that play’d on high,
And wanton’d on the western breeze,
Now trod in dust neglected lie,
As Boreas strips the bending trees.”

That’s from Dr. Johnson’s “Autumn. An Ode.” Wanton as a verb is good, a little gift that has fled the language. On Thursday, while my son and I were walking the battlefield here in Fredericksburg, another Boreas was pushing vast drifts of oak and beech leaves across the path like advancing armies. Johnson’s autumn is more literal than Keats’, and more metaphorical. Those of us who grew up in zones with four distinct seasons have internalized the natural calendar. It’s hard to separate the metaphor from the tilt of Earth’s axis. Some of us inhabit the autumn of our years. Here is some seasonal morale-boosting from Jonathan Swift’s “Fontinella To Florinda”:

“To you the sad account I bring,
Life’s autumn has no second spring.”

We can count on Swift to supply a splash of cold water and we can be autumnally grateful for that too. Swift was born on this date, Nov. 30, in 1667.

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