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Fall Poetry: Why Thoreau Adored Autumn

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Every season has its admirers. "Summer's lease hath all too short a date" say the landlords of Cape Cod (and Shakespeare). "Where are the snows of yesteryear?" asked the poet Francois Villon. And where, asks John Keats, "are the songs of spring?" But autumn holds the deepest warmest appeal for many of us despite, or perhaps precisely because it brings the winter, the end of the year, and the falling leaves. "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" Keats called it. And Henry Thoreau, our finest writer on autumn, once noted in his journal after a stretch of ten glorious October days in 1857, how October in New England would, by itself, "make the reputation of any climate."

This is not just loose talk. Keats's great ode "To Autumn," is a statement about fall not as the season of death and decay, but as the season of fruit, of ripeness, of harvest--the richly satisfying culmination of the farmer's year. But there is only one small small speck of color in Keats's poem. The glorious heat-generating scarlets and light-gathering yellows of the New England fall are not matched at all in England, and are matched almost nowhere else except in Japan. The color we take for granted in the Eastern hardwood forest is just not there in most of the rest of the world. When Mathew Arnold visited America one autumn, he asked his host, "What is wrong with your trees? Are they sick?" It is therefore all the more remarkable that Henry Thoreau's take on fall, which puts huge emphasis on color, has become the greatest expression of Fall in our literature. "We love to see any redness in the vegetation of the temperate zone," Thoreau writes, apropos the Pokeberry bushes. "It asks a bright sun on it to make it show to best advantage, and it must be seen at this season of the year."

Thoreau's enthusiasm blazes on the page like the sugar maples he loved to look at. "The large ones on our common are particularly beautiful. A delicate, but warmer than golden yellow is now the prevailing color," [He is talking about mid-October.] "Yet standing on the east side of the Commons just before sundown, when the western light is transmitted through them, I can see that their yellow even, compared with the pale lemon yellow of an elm close by, amounts to a scarlet, without noticing the bright scarlet portions. Generally they [the sugar maples] are great regular oval masses of yellow and scarlet. All the sunny warmth of the season seems to be absorbed in their leaves."

The fall scene Thoreau gives us is achingly beautiful and astonishingly immediate. Thoreau always treats the reader as his walking companion of the moment, so that you feel as though you were there with him. And beyond the gorgeous description and the flattering intimacy with the author, Thoreau gives us, in his autumn essay, a great statement about perception itself, not as an abstract subject, but with Concord's fall color as the ever present, sensuous, concrete example. Not really an essay on perception, Thoreau's piece is a how to manual. Its subject is how to see more.

Like Zorba the Greek, Thoreau saw every thing every day as though for the first time. We all walk out into the same multitudinous world, but who among us sees as much as Thoreau did? John Ruskin, from whom Thoreau learned so much about not just how to see but how to actively look, this Ruskin once said, "the worst of me is that the desire of my eyes is so much to me! Ever so much more than the desire of my mind." On every walk, Thoreau threw himself into every observation with an ebullience rivaling Whitman's. "How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun! What more remarkable object can there be in a landscape?

Visible for miles, too fair to be believed. If such a phenomenon occurred but once, it would be handed down by tradition to posterity, and get into the mythology at last."

Thoreau is a first-class noticer, and he is our most articulate observer. He understood the power of and the need for directed attention carried out with the utmost intensity. He understood that we are what we give our attention to, and, long before William James put it in words, Thoreau understood that "attention and belief are the same fact." Finally, Thoreau doesn't just give you one autumn, he gives you the way to see every autumn.

Robert Richardson is the author of the introduction to Henry David Thoreau's "October, or Autumnal Tints" [W.W. Norton, $17.95].