I recently learned that the word “Autumn” comes from the Latin “auctum,” for “increase,” or “exalt.”
So fall goes by two names, which go in different directions: “Fall” speaks of loss (of leaves, and summer), “Autumn” of gain (harvest or other bounty).
In a sonnet, Shakespeare goes the second way: “Teeming Autumn,” he says, “big with rich increase.”
I tend to see fall more wistfully, so I liked these finds, and got the idea of searching the bookshelves for some more cheering references to the season.
I discovered a bunch, but also that they’re awkward to extract. Over and over, the two takes on the season appear in text very much together, not just adjacent but entwined.
As to “teeming Autumn,” for example, it’s nice to think that was fall to the Bard, recalling his rural boyhood. But the same sonnet takes a turn. Summer is gone, and with it a beloved — “thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year.” So the poet’s fall is a time of abundance and also absence.
Yeats too. In “The Wild Swans at Coole,” he’s pained by passing time — “All’s changed.” Yet he also sees splendor and permanence. “The trees are in their Autumn beauty,” and the migratory swans “have not grown old”: “Passion or conquest, wander where they will/Attend upon them still.”
Here in New England, Thoreau’s deathbed essay, “Autumnal Tints,” starts with fall as an ending — September as “sunset,” October as a “later twilight.” As the fading author forges on, though, fall becomes a beginning: leaves come down to “live in the soil,” and “in the forests that spring from it.” “They stoop to rise.”
Emily Dickinson wrote a gem about fall, two stanzas and two hues. “The mornings are meeker,” says the first, “the rose is out of town.” But then the second: “The maple wears a gayer scarf — The field a scarlet gown . . . ”
We see similar thinking in works for and about children. My 12-year-old recently performed in the stage version of Anne of Green Gables, which happens to have two songs about fall. In one the students regret the end of summer; in the other, they celebrate. “School Again!” is the exuberant refrain, sung by all except a boy who’s busy shooting secret spitballs at the schoolmaster.
Also, the final pages of the classic picture book Time of Wonder, about a family’s summer in Maine. When a hurricane sweeps the heat away, the children head home “a little bit sad about the place [they] are leaving, a little bit glad about the place [they] are going.”
In art, then, the season is ambiguous. Two names and two feelings, in the observations of the same writer, often in the same work. At least once, maybe even in the same word. Shakespeare also says “childing Autumn.” “Childing” is a botanical term for a plant giving rise to other plants — increasing. But a professor says this was a typesetting error, and Shakespeare really meant “chilling Autumn.” Which sentiment about the season, then — the warm or the cold? Or did Shakespeare, a facile fellow, intend to convey both — to say with a single fertile word that fall is one thing, flickering two meanings?
There’s a similar mixed message, I think, in the mechanics of fall. Leaves redden when trees pull chlorophyll to their roots. That’s an internal process, though it’s prompted by cold air; as a certain New Hampshire poet puts it, the leaves are “burnt with frost.”
So fall is a farewell in the sense that, just as some things expire with pallor, leaves expire with radiance. It’s summer’s sunset. Yet cold lights the spark, so the opposite also seems true — the dazzle announces winter, like a great bonfire. Which brings us to a final poet, Maine’s Edna St. Vincent Millay, who notices that the flames bend far forward: above fallen leaves, she writes, are the “russet” ones “which cling/all winter, even into spring.”
Thinking this way, fall’s essential nature is to point both ways. It salutes the past and heralds the future — a charged combination that we see and feel.
In the early 80s our summer vacations were one-week sailboat trips. The cabin was tight for a family of five, like one of those individual cigar tubes. While writing this I thought of the last afternoon of one of those trips, standing on a dock about to squeeze in for home. I remembered the great taste of Big Red chewing gum, but that’s standard in my memories of youth; I chewed that stuff a lot. More relevant to this article was something deeper — actually two things. The pang of nostalgia for summer, like one of those breezes with the tang of salt and September. And at the same time, like a radiance, the thrill of nervous excitement about the coming school year: crowded hallways, clamorous sports-fields, crisp world burgeoning with color.
Now it’s school again for my daughters, and all the youngsters. Stiff shoes not sandals, backpacks freighted with books not bug-spray, ice cream truck jingle fading in favor of a gathering rumble: yellow bus, windows ajar, brimming with bustle. What’s it like? They’d shrug if I asked, too busy for such matters. But I imagine they sense a certain something quite specific to the season — a chilly blaze, inside, and also on the hills.
David S. Clancy of Concord, Mass., is a part-time Vermont resident. He is a lawyer in Massachusetts.