Despite it being unseasonably warm here in London right now, the nights are drawing in and today I stepped on a conker, so I’ve decided officially that autumn is here. I love autumn: the colours of the trees, the crispness of the air, the crispness of the apples…
Usually I try and make my choices not too obvious, but I’m going totally obvious with my first choice this week, Keats’ Ode to Autumn (1819). You can read the whole poem here. It begins with one of the most famous lines in English literature:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
[… ]to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel…
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a really a fan of the Romantics, and while this is an idealised, bucolic portrait of autumn, the beauty of the writing is undeniable. I love the fecund imagery: loading, bending, filling, swelling, plumping. It gives a dynamism to the imagery but also a heady sense of autumnal bounty. Keats builds on this headiness in the next stanza, personifying autumn as a soporific state:
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies,
[…]by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
This is such a brilliant piece of writing, I feel quite sleepy just reading it. “soft-lifted”, “drows’d” and “oozing” layer dreamy, slow motion action to great effect. In the next stanza this motion is slowed down further, as autumn moves into winter, effectively dying:
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
The sound of the grasshoppers (“hedge-crickets”), robins and swallows heralding the coming winter is in keeping with the gentle imagery that has gone before, and creates an effective sense of how the death of a season is a slow fade, not a sudden change. Keats takes us through the whole season, and while he may present an autumn that doesn’t really exist, it is still immediately recogniseable. And it makes me want to drink scrumpy…
For my second choice I thought I’d choose a book based around academia, as for lots of people this is what the change in season at this time of year symbolises. On Beauty by Zadie Smith (Penguin, 2005) is set in a fictional New England university town, Wellington. It follows two families, the Belsey’s and the Kipps, and their impact on each other’s lives, in a loose reworking of Howard’s End by EM Forster. Howard Belsey is a liberal art history professor, his nemesis the conservative Sir Monty Kipps. When Sir Monty is given a visiting post at Wellington, the two families collide; the wives becoming friends, the children already romantically intertwined. I’ll be honest, I didn’t much rate Smith’s first novel, the much-hyped White Teeth, but by On Beauty (despite the verging-on-pretentious title) she’s really getting into her stride. She captures perfectly the pragmatism that constantly invades the high-minded idealism of academia:
“by next Tuesday these kids would have already sifted through the academic wares on display in the form of courses across the Humanities Faculty, and performed a comparative assessment in their own minds, drawing on multiple variables including the relative academic fame of the professor; his previous publications up to that point; his intellectual kudos; the uses of his class; whether his class really meant anything to their permanent records or their grad school potential; the likelihood of the professor in question having any real-world power that might translate into an actual capacity to write that letter that would effectively place them – three years from now – on an internship at the New Yorker or in the Pentagon or in Clinton’s Harlem offices or at French Vogue…”
However, the novel is not just a satire on academia. Smith uses the setting to consider themes of identity, race, art, aging, love, all bound together by a strong intellect and comic sensibility:
“At this distance, walking past them all, thus itemizing them, not having to talk to any of them, flaneur Howard was able to the love them and, more than this, to feel himself, in his own romantic fashion, to be one of them. We scum, we happy scum! From people like this he had come. To people like this he would always belong. It was an ancestry he referred to proudly at Marxist conferences and in print; it was a communion he occasionally felt on the streets of New York and in the urban outskirts of Paris. For the most part, however, Howard liked to keep his ‘working class roots’ where they flourished best: in his imagination.”
As Howard’s life unravels around him, the various members of the two families are each going on their own journeys towards realising who they are and who they will become. On Beauty is a big novel that considers big themes, I hope Smith’s observation of “a sprinkle of mirthless intellectual laughter, the kind one hears at bookshop readings” is not a proleptic reference to the reception the novel received – I somehow doubt it.
Just a little footnote point of interest: On Beauty is a family affair, with Smith’s husband, Nick Laird, providing the poetry, her brother Doc Brown, MCing a spoken word night some characters attend, and Smith herself appearing briefly as a “feckless novelist on a visiting fellowship”. For intelligent rap/comedy with something to say, I highly recommend Doc Brown’s YouTube channel.
To end, here is a photo that ties the two together, New England in autumn: