Wednesday, September 2, 2015
Johan Huizinga (1872-1945)
The seasons rarely follow the commands of the calendar. Over the past weekend, with a good three weeks of calendrical summer still ahead, fall arrived. Suddenly the air was drier and the sky bluer. Suddenly a half hour of dawn light had vanished. Our granddaughters, their minds already now captured by the pleasures and the problems of their school year in New York, packed up and departed in a big rented vehicle with their parents, leaving us in a house that suddenly seemed large, quiet, and empty. With the quiet came also a vague disquiet. As usual I face writing deadlines, and I need to get ready for what I can now legitimately call our annual September trip to England. Without the delightful juvenile distractions that have served me so well all summer long I actually have to turn my mind to practicalities and obligations.
The distinctiveness and change of the seasons are among our great poetic themes. Though nursery rhymes were a memorable part of my infancy, the first piece I remember consciously thinking of as a poem, which I found in R. L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, was “Bed in Summer". Its subject is a young boy’s regret that in summer he must go to bed while the day is still light and the sounds of the world’s busy life can still be heard through his window.
In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day…
I “got” it, or thought I did. Even as a child I found it wonderful that someone else could express my own complex feelings in carefully chosen words and elegant rhythm. But there was more to grasp as I discovered only much later, when I arrived in Oxford in the autumn of 1958 at the age of twenty-two. Oxford is about fifty-two degrees north, roughly level with the southern tip of Hudson’s Bay. It started getting dark about four in the afternoon. Edinburgh, where Stevenson was born, is about fifty-five degrees north. The episode fixed in my mind an important principle of literary study, the need to attend to the interplay between the spiritual world of literature and the physical world in which it exists. Later I ran across a passage in C. S. Lewis in which he says that Shakespeare’s great sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” would be meaningless to an Eskimo—words to that effect.
In the part of the world in which I live Indian Summer, an indefinite “season” with Labor Day and Thanksgiving at its extremities, is my favorite time of the year. The jungle ceases to rage, and the yard work becomes easier. The cut-back creeper rebounds only feebly. There are beautiful walks to be taken along the canal towpath beneath “pleached alleys” of russet and yellow leaves. Yet in a certain sense one knows that the beauty is born of exhaustion.
In 1919 the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga published a book, destined for scholarly fame, called Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen. Being a Dutchman was a pretty lame excuse for publishing an important book in the Dutch language, and he was justly punished when the English translation appeared under the title The Waning of the Middle Ages. The Waning of the Middle Ages was a “cross-over” book, a serious and erudite academic study that developed a large audience among general educated readers. Many thousands have read it under that title, which nicely catches its author’s gloomy view of the late Middle Ages. But herfsttij actually means “harvest time”, i.e., autumn (German Herbst). The book, which is now nearly a century old, continues to be sold and read. A more recent English translation has corrected the translation to The Autumn of the Middle Ages.
One arrives at an autumnal point in one’s life—probably around the age of fifty--when the question becomes slightly more urgent than an issue of linguistic precision. Is life’s autumn a “harvest”—an ingathering of the fruits of careful and patient cultivation—or is it a waning, a diminishing, an inescapable emblem of finitude and mortality? Even as I pose the question as either/or I know in my heart that it is another one of those damned both/ands.
The last time I wrote on this theme, already four years ago, I invoked Keats’s “Ode to Autumn”. It is perhaps the one indispensable “autumn” poem in our tongue: Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun. We have been enjoying the mellow fruitfulness part as rarely before. We are practically drowning in tomatoes, and we have to keep a hawk eye on the squash. They can turn from succulence to gigantism in a period of forty-eight hours. But Keats knew too about the year’s surrender to oblivion, drowsed with the fume of poppies. “Except the grain of wheat falling into the ground die,” writes Paul in another autumnal meditation, “it abides alone; but if it die, it bears much fruit." It would be self-indulgent of me to wax too plangent about these things. After all, one does slog and blog on. Keats was dead at twenty-five within a year and a half of writing his “Ode to Autumn”.