Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Abraham Janssen: Personification of Autumn
Today is distinctly transitional. For starters it is the birthday of Louis XIV, supposed herald of one of the world’s more dramatic transitions (“Après moi, le deluge!”) that, so far as I can tell from the tenor of our political conventions, is still in progress. Yes, I know it was actually Louis XV who didn’t say that, but history is much better as servant than as master. Further transition: I have just delivered my latest opus (The Dark Side of the Enlightenment) to W. W. Norton in New York, where it will begin the copy-editing process. Further yet, I am also preparing—or rather avoiding preparing by writing this blog essay instead--to fly off in the morning to London. There we have before us a couple of weeks of R&R in the delightful form of visiting family and friends and simply knocking about.
But the most conspicuous sense of transition is simply calendrical. So much of what we think of as cultural or spiritual experience is actually climate controlled. Somewhere C. S. Lewis points out that Shakespeare’s sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” might really be meaningless to an Eskimo.
The current essay of my friend Kathy Taylor, a fine writer and the proprietor of the admirable blog “In 999 Words…or less,” deals with the disturbing suddenness of September. She was writing from Cape Cod, but there seems to have been something particularly definitive about the last day of August widely through the northeast. It was not particularly cool, but for a day the mugginess disappeared. We certainly experienced it in the New York area, even though for me the day was blighted by an automotive disaster that preoccupied my attention for several hours.
Growing up as I did mainly in the South, I always found the poetic iconography of autumn (as in the justly famous ode of John Keats) strangely artificial. That is because it derives from the fifty-first latitude north as it crosses England and not the thirty-sixth as it passes across America. One of the major images in Keats’s “To Autumn” is that of the stubble field. We know something of the genesis of the poem’s composition from a letter written by Keats to his friend Reynolds in September of 1819. “How beautiful the season is now--How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather--Dian skies--I never liked stubble-fields so much as now--Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm--in the same way that some pictures look warm.” Warm might serve for the south downs of England, but it would be a distinct understatement for Arkansas. Often enough some of the hottest days of the year came in September.
So also did some of the hottest and sweatiest work—particularly haymaking, which might also be called “making stubble fields.”. So rapid is the pace of technological change that many of the experiences of my youth are more than forgotten. They have actually vanished from the earth. I go back a ways, certainly to a time before hay-balers. On our Ozark farm we did have a mechanical mower and a hay-rake—essentially unchanged from their prototypes of the 1870s. They were horse-drawn, though a tractor did appear in my teen-age years.
The hay-raker first made long rows of the sun-dried grass, then cut them up as best he could into roughly similar shocks or piles. Among these piles the horse (or tractor) pulled a large, makeshift wagon. One man stood on the wagon and tried to distribute as evenly as possible the hay that was being pitched up by the men on the ground. It would not be easy to say which was the harder job. The idea was to get as much hay onto the cart as possible without risking the disaster of its tipping over on the way to the barn, where, incidentally, it was always at least ten degrees hotter than in the hayfield itself. There still exists, somewhere, one of the few “candid” photographs depicting my teen-aged years. I am atop a huge load of hay at least the size of that in Bosch’s “Haywain”. The local population depicted by Bosch is vaguely reminiscent of the Ozarks too.
All that is gone—part of a large transition. Tomorrow night when I step out of the plane at Heathrow, I hope to accomplish a somewhat smaller one. I hope to to recover something approximating Keatsian autumn. I cannot guarantee that I will find her “on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, drows’d with the fume of poppies”; but the experience is likely to be somnolent enough to make the blog schedule for the next two weeks a little casual.