Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reading the Leaves

It seems to be generally true that people in the autumn of life respond with sharpening attention to the annual coming of the autumn of the year.   Such at least is my own experience and that of others with whom I have spoken.  What might be called the incremental poignancy of the autumnal is neither surprising nor necessarily lugubrious, but it is somber and arresting.  It demands its high seriousness.  Keats wrote his famous “Ode to Autumn” when he was, I think, twenty-four years old.  Can one imagine how much richer yet it might have been could he have written it at seventy-four?  But of course for Keats twenty-four was autumn, and late autumn at that.  He knew it.  That is why he could say in another great poem that he had “been half in love with easeful death,” even as in this one he can eroticize Autumn herself as a woman in the willing oblivion of a narcotic sleep, death’s simulacrum:
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-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies….

            Read the whole of the Ode to Autumn.  You will find in it a remarkable density of perfectly chosen images, with one strange lacuna.  Keats says nothing about leaves.  In the parts of the world I know best, Autumn is all about leaves.  The Fall of the Year is a leaf-fall.  But the fall is preceded by the turn—the transformation of the green of life into the yellow and red hues of a slow-motion immolation.  Dante envisioned the Beatific Vision as an ocean of photons.  But by then he had been strenuously prepared by Beatrice.  Most of us would find that sea of light impossible to bear, but I can imagine walking on a leaf-strew path in the waning autumnal sunlight filtered through the glowing canopy of a deciduous copse.

 The path from the back of our house: without Beatrice, the best you can hope for

            A scholar is likely to have another wistful association with leaves.  The Latin word for leaf was folium, from which we get our English foliage.  But long ago that word folium took on an extended meaning.  It meant a piece of writing material, a sheet of paper or of parchment, a page of a book.  When one leafs through a book, one is idly turning its pages.  To turn over a new leaf is to make a new beginning.  Chaucer in a mock warning to prudes that they might be shocked by the Miller’s Tale, advises them thus: “Turne over the leef and chese another tale…”  (This is advice, however, to be followed only by those who are willing to miss the second funniest line in world literature.)

            In the early periods of printing, important books were made from large sheets of paper folded a single time in the center to make a signature of four pages, two on the front and two on the back of the sheet.  That was called printing in folio.  Think Gutenberg Bible or the First Folio of Shakespeare.  (If you are slow off the mark, think Second Folio of Shakespeare).  Fold the sheet again; the pages will be smaller but you will have twice as many of them.  That was printing in quarto, and it was still plenty big.  Most books you have read will have been printed in octavo—three folds of the big sheet, sixteen pages of text.  No matter what the format the printing was always done on single large sheets, meaning that the printer had to take care to get the pages in the right place.  The reader had some work to do, too, cutting the pages open so they could be turned one at a time.

            The folium as writing surface was not entirely metaphorical.  At the dawn of written history all sorts of materials were used—bones, bark, wood, animal membrane, and of course leaves.  One leaf-writer of note was the all-knowing Cumaean Sybil, among the most famous prophetesses of ancient legend.  Her leaf of choice, Varro tells us, was the fibrous palm.  Her sooth-saying gift was honored by the later Christians, for whom she was the precursor of the prophet-king of Israel.    The great Latin poem about the Last Day, probably written by Thomas of Celano, biographer of Saint Francis, begins thus:

Dies iræ! Dies illa                                    [Day of wrath!  That day
Solvet sæclum in favilla:                        will dissolve the world in ashes,
Teste David cum Sibylla!                        as David testifies along with the Sibyl!]

Michaelangelo's Sibyl: Oh, sweet mama, treetop tall, won't you kindly turn your damper down.

The Sibyl knew everything there was to know, and she wrote it all down on her leaves.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that as a librarian—excuse me, I meant of course Information Technology person—she was a nightmare.  Neither storage nor retrieval was her thing.  She simply tossed her prophecies down anywhere in her vast and drafty cave, where Nature soon enough did to them what she does to all fallen, brittle leaves—blew and beat them into powdered compost.  The search for a needle in a haystack is child’s play compared with the search for truth in a pile of leaf mold.

This is why Helenus, the friend of Æneas, has advised the hero to seek the Sybil’s revelation in spoken rather than in written form.  And so he wisely does.
                                          Foliis tantum e carmina manda,
                                    Ne turbata volent rapidis ludibria ventis;
                                    Ipsa canas oro. [Æneid, vi. 74-76]
“Only do not commit your verses to the leaves, lest they fly about, the sport of strong winds.  I beg you to speak them yourself.”
Jan Breughel's Sibyl: The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind...

A scholar spends a lifetime raking up neat piles of leaves, but don’t count on the Sibyl to guard them for posterity.  She is too heedless, too oblivious.  She, too, is drowsed with the fume of poppies.


  1. That "dies irae" poem has meant a lot more to me since 9/11. I was listening to the Mozart Requiem around that time, and it was amazing how that poem and song fit the circumstances so perfectly, down to the image of the world dissolving into ashes. I thought about all those little bits or leaves of paper that floated around lower Manhattan and even over into Brooklyn, like falling leaves. And all that ash.

  2. John, another fine piece of writing on fall/leaves is "Autumnal Tints" by Henry D. Thoreau.

    As I have written elsewhere....In his 1862 essay "Autumnal Tints," Thoreau salutes the unique colors of a North American fall, a seasonal rite that teaches sacrifice and transcendence.

    As philosopher and naturalist, he admires aspen, hickory, maple, elm, but takes greatest pleasure in the enduring scarlet oak, whose colors are last to ripen, last to fade. Each leaf is "borrowed fire...a late and unexpected glory worth waiting for."

    Thanks for a brilliant essay in cultural history and iconography.

    Will Howarth

  3. once a freshman seminar student, always a fan.

  4. Wonderful piece, John! It's not entirely on-point but here's a recent article that you might, well, not enjoy but find interesting:

  5. My strategy for my autumnal years will be to move to the tropics, where the leaves never fall off of the trees, freeing one from this painful annual metaphor.