Those autumn leaves (turn, turn, turn!)

(Henry Robinson Hall, Coniston Lake from Lake Bank: The Dock Museum, Barrow-in-Furness)

As early as 1 August, John Ruskin at Coniston Lake declared that, ‘The summer is ended. Autumn begun.’ Gilbert White, though, also a close watcher of the seasons, the natural world and everything in it that occurred before his eyes, wrote on 9 September 1781: ‘Red-breasts whistle agreeably on the tops of hop-poles etc., but are prognostic of autumn.’[1] We tend to associate that word now with the progress of a disease but it means only ‘knowing before’ and a prognosticator, my dictionary assures me, means a predictor, especially a weather prophet. Looking forward to autumn, anyway.

On this same day in 1767, White had looked back to the previous summer and feeding his tame bat, which would take flies out of a person’s hand. He added that: ‘Insects seemed to be most acceptable, though it did not refuse raw flesh when offered: so that the notion, that bats go down chimnies and gnaw men’s bacon, seems no improbable story.’[2]

Momentarily, ‘raw flesh’ offers to my suggestible mind the ‘person’s hand’ just mentioned (biting the hand that feeds you, I suppose); while ‘gnaw men’s bacon’ is also oddly disturbing, probably traceable to the word ‘gnaw’. It tends to recall to me the image of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, though, when I look at the painting again (it was first a mural, then transferred to canvas), it’s not what I think of as ‘gnawing’. Werner Hofmann distinguishes Goya’s Saturn from that of Rubens, because there is no delight here: Goya’s cannibal ‘horrifies the observer because he himself is horrified.’ Hofmann also notes that madness has driven him to his crime, ‘like Ugolino devouring his sons in the tower of Gualandi.’[3]

(Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring his Son: Museo Nacional del Prado)

This is from Dante’s Inferno, the penultimate canto (which T. S. Eliot cites in his notes to The Waste Land). Count Ugolino was head of the Guelf government in Pisa for a time until overthrown by a Ghibelline uprising initiated by the Archbishop Ruggieri, in what John Sinclair refers to as ‘this competition of mutual knavery and intrigue’. Locked in a tower with his children and left without food, he watches his sons die one after another and, deranged by grief, eats them. Now, in Dante’s Hell, he gnaws on the skull of the Archbishop (the word occurs in a reference to a tale from ancient history—one of the seven kings who besieged Thebes, mortally wounded by an assailant whom he killed ‘and gnawed the head with rage’). Having told his story, Ugolino ‘with eyes askance took hold of the wretched skull again with his teeth, which were strong on the bone like a dog’s.’[4] Yes, that to me is gnawing – with a vengeance, you might say.

On 9 September 1929, Sylvia Townsend Warner lay under London plane-trees and experienced a moment of extreme joy. ‘There like a bird I sat and sang. An antediluvian old lady with a bow streaming from the back of her hat sat sketching nearby, two little girls played dodge round a tree, and I heard the swish-swish of dead leaves sweeping. It was a moment for ever. Spring cannot bring me the same ravishment. Spring is strictly sentimental, self-regarding; but I burn more careless in the autumn bonfire.’[5]


(John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves: Manchester City Art Gallery)

Yes, if I had to choose, I might well come down on the side of autumn (eschewing all references to the seasons of a life as opposed to the life of the seasons), though why choose? The pleasures of spring are just a little too obvious, perhaps. Here, in autumnal mode, is young Olive Garnett (sister of the more famous Edward), author and diarist, to whom we’re indebted for some of the earliest glimpses of Ford Madox Ford, his wife Elsie, Conrad, James and others of the period. She’s on Hampstead Heath, skirting the heath in fact, ‘gathering blackberries the while & arrived at that delightful little footpath to the Finchley Road. In the field behind the paling were two haystacks, a pig & some cows.’[6]

(What do you do in the autumn? I do this).

And now the rain has stopped, started again, stopped again. Tiring weather. My sympathies stray towards Elizabeth Bishop, who writes to her friend, the writer and editor Pearl Kazin, 9 September 1959. ‘And—oh well, we read and read and read, all the time, and the books pile up, and I remember a little here and there, and the magazines are snowing us under, and what good it all does drifting around in this aging brain I don’t know!’[7]

We are waiting for a gap in the clouds.



Notes


[1] Ruskin, 1884 diary entry and White quoted by Geoffrey Grigson, The English Year: From Diaries and Letters (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 103, 122.

[2] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 39.

[3] Werner Hofmann, Goya: ‘To every story there belongs another’, translated by David H. Wilson (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003), 243.

[4] Dante, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. I: Inferno, Italian text with translation and comment by John D. Sinclair (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), Canto XXXIII, 405-409; Tydeus, one of the leaders of expedition of the ‘Seven against Thebes’, mentioned 402.

[5] Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman (London: Virago Press, 1995), 43.

[6] Diary entry, Tuesday 9 September: Tea and Anarchy! The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1890-1893, edited by Barry C. Johnson (London: Bartletts Press, 1989), 46.

[7] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 376.

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