Fall is the best. Depending on your autumnal regimen, there are pagan rituals to partake in, fanstasy football leagues to play in, fruits and gourds to be picked, knits and flannels to be worn, and way too many seasonal beverages to sample.
There’s also something ineffable about the fleeting transition from summer to winter, making this time of year strange, sacred, and irresistible to poets. As Rilke put it, “At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost.” Something of the grave, indeed. A time of culmination for plant life, preparation for the animals, and rumination for us humans, fall isn’t just pumpkin spice latte season and sweater weather — it’s the threshold between life and death.
1. 'The Death of Autumn' by Edna St. Vincent Millay
When reeds are dead and a straw to thatch the marshes,
And feathered pampas-grass rides into the wind
Like agèd warriors westward, tragic, thinned
Of half their tribe, and over the flattened rushes,
Stripped of its secret, open, stark and bleak,
Blackens afar the half-forgotten creek--
Then leans on me the weight of the year, and crushes
My heart. I know that Beauty must ail and die,
And will be born again--but ah, to see
Beauty stiffened, staring up at the sky!
Oh, Autumn! Autumn!--What is the Spring to me?
St. Vincent Millay had an appreciation for the darker things in life. Forget about April showers and whatever happens in May, Millay was more of a dead flowers and rigor mortis kind of girl: "But ah, to see Beauty stiffened, staring up at the sky!" Based on this gorgeous and creepy ode, she would have traded springtime for autumn any day.
2. 'Autumn' by Rainer Maria Rilke
The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning "no."
And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.
We're all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It's in them all.
And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.
Rilke was a poet concerned with the power of images in his writing, and spiritual potential in life. When he refers to leaves, he isn't describing them in a purely physical or visual sense, he treats them with an existential understanding. There is more to autumn than the turning of leaves on earth— "as if orchards were dying high in space." Rilke's meditation on seasonal change is a reflection on what lies beyond us, or perhaps deep within us — the falling feeling of loneliness and the gravity of life itself. But if this is a poem about gravity and resistance, it's also one of weightlessness and release. "We're all falling," he writes — the leaves, the stars, the earth — swirling out of control yet surrounded by something, or "Someone," of infinite calm.
3. 'October' by Edward Thomas
The green elm with the one great bough of gold
Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one, --
The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,
Harebell and scabious and tormentil,
That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,
Bow down to; and the wind travels too light
To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;
The gossamers wander at their own will.
At heavier steps than birds' the squirrels scold.
The rich scene has grown fresh again and new
As Spring and to the touch is not more cool
Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might
As happy be as earth is beautiful,
Were I some other or with earth could turn
In alternation of violet and rose,
Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,
And gorse that has no time not to be gay.
But if this be not happiness, -- who knows?
Some day I shall think this a happy day,
And this mood by the name of melancholy
Shall no more blackened and obscured be.
There's a hillside in France dedicated to Thomas, who was mortally wounded while rising to light his pipe during the Battle of Arras in WWI. Every year, millions of people gather on on unrelated hillsides in Munich — not to mention bars across the world — to celebrate Oktoberfest and all things German by guzzling beer and saurkraut. However "blackened and obscure" memories of swilling away the hours of remaining daylight in a beer garden might be, the true measure of successful binge-drinking is an ability to look back without regret, and "think this a happy day," regardless of the melancholy state you wake up in.
4. 'Sonnet 73' by William Shakespeare
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Fall is the best season but it's also the shortest. Before you know it, the last leaf is trembling on the branch and the birds have flown to their wintering grounds. Same goes for your life. If it's possible to get over what a downer this poem is and to read it as a reminder to love passionately every person and moment you encounter while you're alive and able, then ... No, nevermind. It's still depressing.
5. 'III. NATURE XXVIII. AUTUMN' by Emily Dickinson
The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry's cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I'll put a trinket on.
Compelled by the dazzling color palette of her native New England landscape, Emily Dickinson resolves to be fashionable by adding an ornament to her fall ensemble. Although one typically imagines Dickinson staying classy in basic black or all white, the poet wasn't too chic to ignore seasonal cues when it came to updating her wardrobe. Did she opt for a lacquered hair comb? A bright shawl? Chunky cuff bracelet? Forget Pinterest—take a walk down your nearest tree-lined street for inspiration.