Autumn Thoughts

By Edward Thomas
MOVEMENT I: SLEEP

On that October day, nothing was visible at first save yellow flowers, and sometimes a bee's quiet shadow crossing the petals: a sombre river, noiselessly sauntering seaward, far away dropped with a murmur, among leaves, into a pool. That sound alone made tremble the glassy dome of silence that extended miles on miles. All things were lightly powdered with gold, by a lustre that seemed to have been sifted through gauze. The hazy sky, striving to be blue, was reflected as purple in the waters. There, too, sunken and motionless, lay amber willow leaves; some floated down. Between the sailing leaves, against the false sky, hung the willow shadows,—shadows of willows overhead, with waving foliage, like the train of a bird of paradise. One standing on a bridge was seized by a Hylean shock, and wondered as he saw his face, death-pale, among the ghostly leaves below. Everywhere the languid perfumes of corruption. Brown leaves laid their fingers on the cheek as they fell; and here and there the hoary reverse of a willow leaf gleamed in the crannied bases of the trees.

One lonely poplar, in a space of refulgent lawn, was shedding its leaves as if it scattered largess among a crowd. Nothing that it gave it lost; for each leaf lay sparkling upon the turf, casting a splendor upwards. A maiden unwreathing her bridal garlands would cast them off with a grace as pensive as when the poplar shed its leaf.

One could not walk as slowly as the river flowed; yet that seemed the true pace to move in life, and so reach the great gray sea. Hand in hand with the river wound the path, and that way lay our journey.

In one place slender coils of honey-suckle tried to veil the naked cottage stone, or in another the subtle handiwork of centuries had covered the walls with lichen. And it was in the years when Nature said

"incipient magni procedere menses,"

when a day meant twenty miles of sunlit forest, field, and water,

"Oh! moments as big as years,"

years of sane pleasure, glorified in later reveries of remembrance....Near a reedy, cooty backwater of that river ended our walk.

The day had been as an august and pompous festival. Burning like an angry flame until noon, and afterward sinking peacefully into the soundless deeps of vesperal tranquillity as the light grew old, on that day life seemed in retrospect like the well-told story of a rounded, melodious existence, such as one could wish one's self....How mild, dimly golden, the comfortable dawn! Then the canvas of a boat creeping like a spider down the glassy river pouted feebly. The slumberous afternoon sent the willow shadows to sleep and the aspens to feverish repose, in a landscape without horizon. Evening chilled the fiery cloud; and a gray and level barrier, like the jetsam of a vast upheaval, but still and silent, lay alone across the west. Thereafter a light wind knitted the willow branches against a silver sky with a crescent moon. Against that sky, also, one could not but scan the listless grasses bowing on the wall top. For a little while, troubled tenderly by autumnal maladies of soul, it was sweet and suitable to follow the path toward our place of rest,—a gray immemorial house with innumerable windows.

The house, in that wizard light "sent from beyond the sky,"—for the moon cast no beams through her prison of oak forest,—seemed to be one not made with hands. Was it empty? The shutters of the plain, square windows remained unwhitened, flapped ajar. Up to the door ran a yellow path, leveled by moss, where a blackbird left a worm half swallowed, as he watched our coming. Some one had recently let fall a large red rose, that, divided and spilt by birds, petal by petal, lay as beautiful as blood, upon the ground. This path and its fellow carved the lawn into three triangles; and in each an elm rose up, laying forth auburn foliage against the house, in November even.

The leaves that had dropped earlier lay, crisp and curled, in little ripples upon the grass. There is a perfect moment for coming upon autumn leaves, as for gathering fruit. The full, flawless color, the false, hectic well-being of decay, and the elasticity are attained at the same time in certain favored leaves, and dying is but a refinement of life.

In one corner of the garden stood a yew tree and its shadow; and the shadow was more real than the tree,—the shadow carved upon the sparkling verdure in ebony. In the branches the wind made a low note of incantation, especially if a weird moon of blood hung giddily over it in tossing cloud. To noonday the ebony shadow was as lightning to night. Toward this tree the many front windows guided the sight; and beyond, a deep valley was brimmed with haze that just spared the treetops for the play of the sunset's last, random fires. To the left, the stubborn leaves of an oak wood soberly burned like rust, among accumulated shadow. To the right, the woods on a higher slope here and there crept out of the haze, like cloud, and received a glory, so that the hill was by this touch of the heavens exaggerated. And still the sound of dropping waters, "buried deep in trees."

Quite another scene was discovered by an ivy-hidden oriel, lit by ancient light, immortal light traveling freely from the sunset, and from the unearthly splendor that succeeds. There the leaves were golden for half a year upon the untempestuous clouds. Rain never fell, or fell innocently, in sheaves of perpendicular diamond. Snow faded usually into glistening gray as it dropped, or flew in prismatic dust before the dispersing feet of wayfarers. Nevertheless, the tranquillity, the fairiness, the unseasonable hues, were triste: that is to say, joy was here under strange skies; sadness was fading into joy, joy into sadness, especially when one looked upon this gold, and heard the dark sayings of the wind in far-off woods, while these were still. Many a time and oft was the forest to be seen, when the chillest rain descended, fine and hissing,—seen standing like enchanted towers, amidst it all, untouched and aloof, as in a picture. But when the sun had just disappeared red-hot in the warm, gray, still eventide, and left in the west a fiery tissue of wasting cloud, when the gold of the leaves had a freshness like April greenery, in a walk through the sedate old elms there was "a fallacy of high content."

Several roses nodded against the gray brick, as if all that olden austerity were expounded by the white blossoms that emerged from it, like water magically struck from the rock of the wilderness. In the twilight silence the rose petals flew down. So tender was the air, they lay perfect on the grass, and caught the moonlight.

In ways such as these the mansion speaks. For the house has a characteristic personality. Strangely out of keeping with the trees, it grows incorporate with them, by night. Behold it, as oft we did, early in the morning, when a fiery day is being born in frost, and neither wing nor foot is abroad, and it is clothed still in something of midnight; then its shadows are homes of awful thoughts; you surmise who dwells therein. Long after the sun was gay, the house was sombre, unresponsive to the sky, with a Satanic gloom.

The forest and meadow flowers were rooted airily in the old walls. The wildest and daintiest birds had alighted on the trees.

Things inside the house were contrasted with the lugubrious wall as with things without. The hangings indeed were sad, with a design of pomegranates; but the elaborate silver candelabra dealt wonderfully with every thread of light entering contraband. One braided silver candlestick threw white flame into the polished oaken furniture, and thence by rapid transit to the mirror. An opening door would light the apartment as lightning. Under the lights at night, the shadowy concaves of the candelabra caught streaked reflections from the whorls of silver below, and the Holy Grail might have been floating into the room when a white linen cloth was unfolded, dazzling the eyes.

In the upper rooms, the beds (and especially that one which commanded the falcon's eye of an oriel)—the beds, with their rounded balmy pillows, and unfathomable eider down that cost hours of curious architecture to shape into a trap for weary limbs, were famous in half a county. All the opiate influence of the forest was there. Perhaps the pillow was daily filled with blossoms that whisper softliest of sleep. There were perfumes in the room quite inexplicable. Perhaps they had outlived the flowers that bare them ages back, flowers now passed away from the woods. The walls were faded blue; the furniture snowed upon by white lace; the bed canopy a combination of three gold and scarlet flags crossed by a device in scarlet and gold, "Blest is he that sleepeth well, but he that sleeps here is twice blest;" of which the explanation was—at the midday breakfast, every one told the dream he had dreamed (or would have dreamed), and he who, by a majority of suffrages (each lady having two), dreamed best had the great tankard full of Amontillado, and left his name and a device upon it. The tankard was downstairs, deeply worn, with a few surviving inscriptions, some of them which were remarkably applicable both to wine and life: ...The Old is Better; and Menteries Joyeuses.

The whole room was like an apse with altar, and pure, hieratic ornament. To sleep there was a sacramental thing. Sleep there and die! one reflected. Such dreams one had, and yet one forwandered soul had left his lament upon the oriel glass:—

"EHEU!
VITA
SPLENDIDIOR VITRO
FRAGILIOR VITRO
EHEU!"

Against that window were flowers whose odor the breeze carried to one's nostrils when it puffed at dawn. If excuses could be found, it was pleasant to be early abed, in summer, for the sake of that melancholy western prospect, when the songs of the lark and nightingale arose together. One fell suddenly asleep, with a faint rush of the scent of juniper in the room, and the light still fingering your eyelashes. Or, if one closed the window, in that chamber—

"That chamber deaf of noise and blind of sight,"

one could hear one's own thoughts. Moreover, there was a graceful usage, that was almost a custom, of making music while the owl hooted vespers; for a bed without music is a sty, the host used to say,—as the philosopher called a table without it a manger.

Alongside the bed, and within reach of the laziest hand, ran two shelves of books. One shelf held an old Montaigne; the Lyrical Ballades; the Morte Darthur; The Compleat Angler; Lord Edward Herbert's Autobiography; George Herbert's Temple; Browne's Urn Burial; Cowper's Letters. The other shelf was filled by copies, in a fine feminine hand and charmingly misspelt, of the long-dead hostess's favorites, all bound according to her fancy by herself: Keats's Odes; Twelfth Night; L'Allegro and Il Penseroso; the twenty-first chapter of St. John and the twenty-third Psalm; Virgil's Eclogues; Shelley's Adonais; part ii. section ii. member 4, of the Anatomy of Melancholy, called Exercise rectified of body and mind; Lord Clarendon's eulogy of Falkland, in the History of the Great Rebellion; and Walter Pater's Child in the House and Leonardo da Vinci, added by a younger but almost equally beautiful hand.

What healing slumbers had here been slept, what ravelled sleave of care knit up! Ancient room that hadst learned peacefulness in centuries,—to them whose hunger bread made of wheat doth not assuage, to those that are weary beyond the help of crutches, thou, ancient room in that gray immemorial house, heldst sweet food and refuge.

Rest for the weary, for the hungry cheer. To the bereaved one, sleeping here, thou redeemedst the step that is soundless forever, the eyes that are among the moles, the accents that no subtlest hearing shall ever hear again; bringest the child bemoaned,—

"Thou bringest the child, too, to its mother's breast."

You, ancient bed, full of the magic mightier than "powerfullest lithomancy," hadst blessings greater than St. Hillary's bed, on which distracted men were laid, with prayer and ceremonial, and in the morning rose restored. With you, perhaps, was Sleep herself. Sleep that sits, more august than Solomon or Minos, in a court of ultimate appeal, whither move the footsteps of those who have mourned for justice at human courts, and mourned in vain. Sleep, by whose equity divine the cuffed and dungeoned innocent roams again emparadised in the fields of home, under the belgard of familiar skies. Sleep, whose mercy is not bounded, but

"droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,"

even upon the beasts; for the hound in his dream breathes hot upon the scent of his prey. Sleep soothes the hand of poverty with gold, and pleases with the ache of long stolen coronets the brows of fallen kings. Had Tantalus dropped his eyelids, sleep had ministered to his lips. The firman of sleep goes forth: the peasant is enthroned, and accomplished in the superb appurtenances of empire; the monarch finds himself among the placid fireside blisses of light at eventide; and those in cities pent sleep beguiles with the low summons,

"Ad claras Asiae volemus urbes."

Because sleep clothes the feet of sorrow with leaden sandals and fastens eagles' wings upon the heels of joy, I wonder that some ask at nightfall what the morrow shall see concluded: I would rather ask what sleep shall bring forth, and whither I shall travel in my dreams. It seems indeed to me that to sleep is owed a portion of the deliberation given to death. If life is an apprenticeship to death, waking may be an education for sleep. We are not thoughtful enough about sleep; yet it is more than half of that great portion of life spent really in solitude. "Nous sommes tous dans le desert! Personne ne comprend personne." In the hermitage what then shall we do? One truly ought to enter upon sleep as into a strange, fair chapel. Fragrant and melodious antechamber of the unseen, sleep is a novitiate for the beyond. Nevertheless, it is likely that those who compose themselves carefully for sleep are few as those who die holily; and most are ignorant of an art of sleeping (as of dying), that clamors for its episcopal head. The surmises, the ticking of the heart, of an anxious child,—the awful expectation of Columbus spying the fringes of a world,—such are my emotions, as I go to rest. I know not whether before the morrow I shall not pass by the stars of heaven and behold the "pale chambers of the west," returning before dawn. To many something like Jacob's dream oft happens. The angels rising are the souls of the dreamers dignified by the insignia of sleep. Without vanity, I think in my boyhood, in my sleep, I was often in heaven. Since then, I have gone dreaming by another path, and heard the sights and chatterings of the underworld; have gone from my pleasant bed to a fearful neighborhood, like the fifth Emperor Henry, who, for penance, when lights were out, the watch fast asleep, walked abroad barefoot, leaving his imperial habiliments, leaving Matilda the Empress. And when the world is too much with me, when the past is a reproach harrying me with dreadful faces, the present a fierce mockery, the future an open grave, it is sweet to sleep. It is a luxury at times, and many times have I closed a well-loved book, ere the candle began to fail, that I might sleep, and let the soul take her pleasure in the deeps of eternity. It may be that the light of morning is ever cold, when it breaks in upon my sleep and disarrays the palaces of my dreams.

"Each matin bell...
Knells us back to a world of death."

The earth then seems but the fragments of my dream that was so high, fallen to earth; yet is it worth while to rouse myself, for if it be June, while that same lark is singing I shall sleep again.

MOVEMENT II: FALLINGS FROM US: VANISHINGS
"Nous ne nous verrons plus, les portes sont fermees."—ALLADINE ET CALORNIDES.

One day I was playing with similes, rather contemptuously, perhaps. Comparisons of human life to visible things, comparisons which, by elaboration, became the whole matter of a poem, came to mind. The trick seemed very easy. Life was like—it was like a score of objects thought of in as many seconds. But finally this became a little serious, as pastimes will; I was in the trap I laughed at. Life, said I, is like a cord weighted at both ends, thrown across a beam. The weight at one end is pleasure; the other pain. Now this, now that, worries the cord: both fall together: and such is death. Just then a straw in my hand was snapped. For a moment I stared vacantly at the gap between the halves. Then a gap was opened in my heart; the reverie was shattered.

That snapping of the straw was a symbol to me of many a parting, of many an eternal cessation, of the interruption of the epic rhythm of the breath by death.

Sharp sorrows, rankling and poisonous regrets, born of the death of the sound of a bell; sorrows at the passing of a year in the still night, even if it have been a hapless year; sorrow at the death, the annihilation, of anything!

Ah! surely nothing dies, but something mourns; for what is death but the sublimest of separations?—separation from the temple of the body, from the touches and smiles of friends, from the sight of the sun. Like a gale that unburthens buttercups of their dew, musically, entered the snapping of the straw among my thoughts, and stirred these sorrows.

For it was then autumn.

At that season there often shines a red moon, hanging close to earth, flushing deeplier as night darkens, until it throbs with heat, as though it would burn itself out. It is an enchanter's moon. Indeed, all things now seem to be frail and transitory as the work of an alchemist,—real and imposing at first, true gold, but fading before the eyes,—the golden disk changing to a withered leaf. Yet for a time reigns a deep, sweet tranquillity, filled with odors like embalmers' sanctities in Eastern tombs; the odor of flowers is no more....The west wind comes and sweeps a new melody out of branches and leaves. The west wind, that was in April their nurse and cherished them, is now become their ghostly father and weaves their shroud. In thousands they are torn from the tree, and the sighs that spring from the depths of the heart at this season are only a fraction of their imperial obsequies, in which red, turbulent sunsets and the west wind's "mighty harmonies" take parts. Number the leaves in Saurnaka, number the curled leaves that pleadingly tap at the doors of London, number the leaves "that strew the brooks in Vallombrosa;" even so many, and more also, are the sighs, the tears, the ah me's of despairing hearts. Leaf is torn from branch; later on, bough from bough. And a moan seems to go up. It is heard in the plaintive silence of unfooted valleys. The wind itself creeps like a scolded child into the remoter corners of houses long ago deserted, there to comfort itself with a threnody that startles him who is light-hearted as he passes by....

For the earth has clothed itself in lustrous green, pranked with flowers of purple and the color of gold. Over this it has raised a dome of divinest blue, swept in daytime by fleeces and moving mountains of white, at dawn and sunset by wings of rose and daffodil, and at night illumined by the moon, by flying splendors of lightning and comet and aurora, and by the glorious company of the stars of heaven. In the midst of these it has tuned the voices of a thousand birds and streams, and winds among the leaves and waters. So it has added beauty to beauty, until one September day, douce and golden, you think all this can never know death or change, and you lie down as if to doze forever, and demand solitude—solitude to think,—

"To think oneself the only being alive."

No, this can never die, you say; and if glancing from theme to theme in delicious abandonment, the grim jewelry of winter be once remembered, you think it not merely passed, but dead,

"obiisse hiemem, nonabiise putans,"

as the monkish verse run. But the sun goes down, and that night the leaves itch with an evil breeze: in the morning a sinister band lies athwart the perfect gold of one leaf....Why tell the rest? As you gaze upon the landscape, you have the sense of a great loss, a supreme passing away, a calamity irremediable. Summer will never come again! In sober truth, you yourself may never see it. The thrones and dominations of summer are overthrown,—ceciditque superblum Ilium; and the earth is in ashes.

But all partings have a sting, even partings from an acquaintance or a very foe. I know not why. A void, however short, follows close upon; and the heart cannot away with a void. The uncertainties of which parting forces a fresh sense upon you are so great. How many of us are like Lot's wife, and look back! So with partings from one's self: I never do anything habitual for the last time without an inward trouble, even though it have been painful.

There comes a horror as at a dooming trumpet when a door is shut between us and one we love; the very sound is full of tragedy. And who has not felt the pang, when, idling afield at the close of a summer twilight, he has heard a distant gate shut loudly and the last footsteps in all the world die away?

Some of the stormiest sadnesses of childhood are of this kind....We sit reading,—Crusoe or Marmion, perhaps,—when suddenly a window opposite begins to glimmer with light reflected from the sunset, and casts over our shoulders a long ghostly finger of light. We are touched only by the feebler, outer eddies of London, and these hardly move at such an hour. For one moment, or the interval between two moments, they sleep altogether. The last wagon rolls away. Then what a tumult of the soul as the silence sweeps over us like a great music, and catches us and all things into its bosom!...Long after nightfall, it needs the softest of maternal summonses to call us back from the land in which we have been traveling. By a generous chance, it happens that no line is drawn clearly between the ages of our life; between childhood, maturity, and youth, old age and maturity. Thus the agony of the unretraceable footstep is not felt, or not until time has hedged it round with a charm that is not to be put by.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1902/09/autumn-thoughts/306387/