Recollections of November

IN the green country it is often hard to say, unprejudiced, what the season is ; and if a revenant noted such things, he would find that many days belied the calendar. Indeed, on first going afield after a long imprisonment by illness, I have detected autumnal savors in a stagnant February day, and mistaken the bravery of October for the nuptial splendor of the spring. Seen afar off, the poplars seem to be on fire with blossoms instead of dying foliage in September. In April the young creeper leaves have a look of autumn in their bronzed luxuriance. I have known many a beaming day with “June in her eyes,” as Thomas Carew says, —

“ June in her eyes, in her heart January,” —

with a drear wind that kills the budding roses. But in my suburban street every season, almost every month, is marked as it were in heavy black letter at its entrance. Nature here uses a brief language, like the hand at Belshazzar’s feast, and I know that it is November by the dull, sad trampling of the hooves and feet; by that testy wind among the chimneys (the mere body of the wind ; its sold it left among the hills) ; by the light, as of an unsnuffed candle, of the sun, that scarcely at midday surmounts the tallest housetops; by the barren morning twilight, broken by no jolly sound of boys whistling or balladsinging on their errands. The fire should rightly grow pale toward noon, and I detest its continual brightness, which cannot check a shudder as I read the lines on November by a Welsh poet of four or five centuries back. In his Novembers pigs became fat and men dreamed of Christmas. The minstrels began to appear, making a second spring. The barns were full, — a pleasant thought, that made the bread taste sweet. The butcher was hard at work. The sea, he says, was joyful, and “ marrowy the contents of every pot.” The nights were “long to sprightly prisoners,” which I take to refer to the delicious evenings the old Welsh spent, exchanging by the fireside proverbs and tales, —

“ Sad stories chancéd in the times of old.”

He ends characteristically : “ There are three classes that are not often contented, — the sorrowful, the ill-tempered, the miserly.” As if hardly these, in his day, could resist the balm and oil of festal tables, good fires, and minstrelsy! Oh, happy days !

And yet I have joys he never dreamed of, in this mean street. How shall I say with what thoughts I spy a sea gull from my window ?—spreading her great wings in flight at altitudes whence perhaps she beholds the sea, — an emblem of that liberty I boast, but do not feel. Sometimes an autumn leaf of vermeil or of gold is blown into my study, and such a feeble knocking will throw open many doors of memory. At night, too, there is often a moon. I do not think the moon is anywhere half so wonderful as in the town. We see “the other side” of her, as a half-wise rustic once said to me. How like to some pale lady of pity she will arise, softly, as if she feared to wake us, out of yonder dismal chimneys ! In summer she seems to pass from house to house, low down, a celestial watchman, blessing the doors and windows. Sometimes, more like Aphrodite than Hecate, she comes up all rosy warm. Sometimes, in November, she sits aloft like a halcyon brooding over the strange and lethal calm of London, her face expressing undecipherable things, like La Joconde. Sometimes, white and frostbit, she flies across the mighty dark blue spaces as if she were hurrying to Actæon’s fate, and those hungry clouds were the hounds pursuing.

There has been but one sunset since I came hither, and in the cold succeeding light, so countercharged with darkness, great clouds began to troop toward the west, sombre, stealthy, noiseless ; hastening and yet steadfast, as if some fate marshaled their jetty columns, — hushing all that lay beneath, — all moving in one path, yet never jostling, like hooded priests. To what weird banquet, to what mysterious shrine, were they advancing, — to what shrine among the firs of an unseen horizon, with the crow and the bat? Or were they retreating, dejected guests, from some palace in the leaden east ? In the west, just above the roofs, hung the white evening star. As the clouds approached she seemed to be a maiden, — Una, perhaps, encircled by a crew of satyrs. Anon she seemed to be a witch alluring them.

The moon is my closest neighbor, but there is also close at hand a superb laborer, who, if he were of stone, and not of gnarled brown flesh, might stand in a temple of fame as Cincinnatus. At times I drink a cup of tea — or something stronger — with him. Even without a cup, he sits, as it were, “ with his feet by the fire, his stomach at the board,” so genial is he, and would shake Alexander by the hand, with a greeting like the old French bacchanal’s, bon vieux drôle Anacréon. I feel warmer in my bed as I hear him shouting good-day, in the shrewd early morning, long before dawn. His bad jokes are more laughable than the very best of good ones. Like all good men, he is an assiduous smoker ; his pipe is to him a temple of Vesta, and he a goodly stoker; out of his nostrils goeth smoke, and his wife calls him Leviathan. When I remarked that I thought he had no difficulty in stopping smoking, if he liked, “ No,” he answered, “ but the difficulty is in the liking.” I would rather live a day such as he lives than have written The Tempest.

The only other neighbors with whom I am on calling terms are certain tall poplars, half a mile away. There the calendar is observed less slavishly, and though it be November I go to see a fine yellow sunlight slanting among the only half-denuded branches, hardly touched until yesterday’s rainy tempest broke up forever the sibylline summer meanings of their leaves. But they ought to be visited by night. By day they may appear insignificant among the houses that have risen around. They seem exotic, out of place, — Heliades, daughters of the Sun indeed, condemned to weep amber tears, — horribly slender, unprotected, naked to the world. In the night, however, they seem to have grown by magical increase. They have a solemn look in the evenfall of these sad-fading days. The place is too mournful. There is usually one empty house, and the withering foliage whips the panes. I have spent many an evening inside, listening to the wind. But I could not live there ; I should be bound to open the window at that piteous sound, as if to let in a stormstricken bird, and expect to find the dryad wringing her hands in sorrow. The poplars contrive in summer to look cheerful, yet I think they love the autumn best. They are in love with their own decay, like old and widowed ladies that have lived on into these flat, unprofitable times.

On another side, and farther still, lies a common, beautiful with gorse, though in the main a mournful place. I sometimes walk there in the morning, between eleven and noon, and meet a number of odd people, in this hour when the prosperous are at their work. They stare at me, and I at them, wondering what the shabby raiment hides. For they — I might say we — are usually illdressed, eccentrically-groomed, dreamy, self-conscious people, evidently with secrets. I surmise that they are such as have failed in the world for some vices of honesty, or strangeness, or carelessness of opinion. Laudatur et alget. One seems to be a cadet of some grand fallen house, with no insignia left save a gold snuffbox (sans snuff) and a pair of ivory hands. Another is perhaps an author, stately, uncomplaining, morose withal, whose nonsense did not suit the times.

“ The world is all before him, where to choose
His place of rest,”

but at his garret the duns are in occupation. Another, though singularly jaded, is evidently an old beau, once, no doubt, a Fastidious Brisk, “ a good property to perfume the boot of a coach,” using delicate oaths ; with soiled necktie scrupulously folded, his trousers turned up (only to display their threadbare edges and a pair of leanest shanks) ; brought to the dust by the law and some indignant plotter for his hand. One is a man of eighty, who wears a stock, — probably a superannuated clerk, one who has seen his master’s failure (it may be), and refuses another place. I see him conning the law news, — though he seems too blind to read, — always with a knowing smile or frown. They are always solitary. They regard one another with suspicion, seem to fear lest questions be asked, and never exchange greetings. They give themselves airs, as hoping to draw toward them the respect they once commanded. And for the most part they are men. One lady I remember, a venerable but grim and unapproachable dame, — the relict, perhaps, of a gentleman, an insolvent rake. I have heard her mutter, in a temper out of keeping with her gentility, and shake her slender staff, as if she cried, like Lear : —

“ I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion
I would have made them skip : I am old now.”

She is a great reader, in sunny intervals, on a seat overhung, but not shaded, by hawthorn, and I love to see her poring, with tears in her eyes, over a book which I have purposely left there as she approached. In this way she has read George Herbert’s Temple, The Worldling’s Looking Glass, and many more. . . . It would be easy to laugh when she and three or four of these poor souls are sheltered under the same tree from the rain, — never speaking, and looking unconcerned, but all the time nervously anxious to impress, and the beau arranging his tie.

In the evenings I could almost love these brand-new streets, so nimbly do they set the mind working to find anodynes and fantasies “to batter the walls of melancholy.” My books seem to be fond of the night, — poor ghosts of buried minds, — and are never so apt as in the faint candlelight to be taken down and read, or perhaps merely glanced at as I turn the pages, which I think they best enjoy. The portrait of Andrea del Sarto, by his own censorious hand, hangs near, and loves the twilight. If ever, he seems now to smile. ’T is such a light that in it fancy can without apparent falseness weave suitable environment for all the ghostly lords and ladies. Proserpina, with the pomegranate, may now have Enna within sight. Beatrice d’ Este, with passion long subdued, gazes upon the pageantry of Milan, and cares no more for Sforza and the Sanseverini, — does not even hate Lucrezia and Cecilia. . . .

I recall November holidays in a tangled wood, having all the perfume and sequestered sense of virgin forest, that lay in the hollows of some undulating upland, whence, with “ morning souls ” alert, we used to be able to see the dawn, a rust-red smoke waving along the horizon, and presently turned to saffron ; then a sky of pearl, with a faint bloom of the night blue upon it; and one by one the stars went out, so slowly that we fancied they would never disappear if we watched them vigilantly ; the consumptive moon went down, having outlived her light, as the first blackbird awakened with a cornet call; the sparrows, like schoolboys, on those cold mornings, chattered and fluttered, but dared not leave the eaves; and all the cold of the windy dawn seemed to be in the starling’s thin piping. Sometimes on the lawny interspaces of the wood we saw fallen leaves and fruit, gold and silver, like sheddings from Hesperidian gardens, in the noonday sun. And oh for the tang of acorns eaten for wantonness in sunshine from which we never missed the heat! Not until nightfall did we return, and then, “ happy, happy livers,” laughed as our feet scattered into a myriad prisms the grim jewelry of frost.

But to-night, as I take the selfsame walk, under the flying rags of a majestic sunset, the gray and silent landscape of few trees and many houses seems a deserted camp (which I startle when I tread among the fallen leaves), or a Canaan from which the happy savage, childhood, has been banished. I long to gather a few sad flowers from the grave of buried time. High up on a blank wall lingers one pure white rose. White with cold, and flickering as if the powerful wind might blow them out, a few stars shine. Far away the leafless branches of an elm grove look like old print against the sky. Though I cannot wallow naked in December’s snow by thinking on fantastic summer’s heat, yet my study fire is more delicious dreamed of in these misty streets.

And now, by the hearthside, I like best among books the faint perfumes of those old forgotten things that claim a little pity along with my love. I had rather the Emblems of Quarles than mightier books where there is too much of the fever and the fret of real passionate life. Odd books of devotion, of church music, the happy or peevish fancies of religious souls, please me well. I plead guilty to liking a thing because ’t is old. I believe, were I alive two hundred years hence, I should like silk hats. As George Herbert says of two words he set great store by : —

“ As amber-gris leaves a rich scent
Unto the taster,
So do these words a sweet content,
An oriental fragrancy. . . .
With these all day I do perfume my mind,
My mind e’en thrust into them both;
That I might find
What cordials make this curious broth,
This broth of smells, that feeds and fats my mind.”

Were it always evening I could live ever thus, and find in it a pleasing substitute for Arcadia, in which, as the bricks mellowed around me and all things took a deep autumnal tone, I should be as much in love with the life as Charles Cotton with his, and capable of a vanity like his, and I hope as pardonable. How delicious are those execrable “ irregular stanzas ” of his, where he seems to expect to go to heaven, because

“ Good Lord! how sweet are all things here,
How cleanly do we feed and lie.
Lord ! what good temperate Hours we keep !
How quietly we sleep !
How innocent from the lewd Fashion
Is all our Business, all our Recreation! ”

Perhaps, indeed, of such is the kingdom of heaven.

It has been observed that we “ devour ” a book, and “ discuss ” a turkey or chine ; in Lilly I find a good fellow who wants to “ confer ” certain liquor : and with the help of these metaphors I have often dined well, though I have eaten little. I have meditated, indeed, a new cookery book “ for the library,” or “every bookman his own cook,” but the tradesmen’s dissuasions have prevailed. But out upon them ! I had hoped by this means to record those messes of old calf and dog’s-ears that so reduced our bills at -. Many a time and oft have I seen a guest’s lips glorified, as if he tasted ambrosia, after reading Greek, — Euripides, perhaps, or something solemn from Callimachus. A Welshman of the company declared that in speaking his own fine tongue he seemed to taste buttermilk and fruit at some mountain farm, a mile nearer heaven than one commonly lives. Corydon used to say he would never read Shelley save at midnight, because he could not bear to eat soon after the taste of those melodious syllables. Give me that man whose mind is, in a better sense than Terence intended, always among the pots and pans. And I think, on this humming midnight, I could sleep well, even supperless, after reading Ben Jonson’s lusty lines Inviting a Friend to Supper; —

“ To - night, grave sir, both my poor house and I
Do equally desire your company ;
Not that we think us worthy such a guest,
But that your worth will dignify our feast,
With those that come ; whose grace may make that seem
Something, which else could hope for no esteem.
It is the fair acceptance, sir, creates
The entertainment perfect, not the cates.
Yet shall you have, to rectify your palate,
An olive, capers, or some better salad
Ushering the mutton. . . .
I ’ll tell you of more, and lie, so you will come,
Of partridge, pheasant, woodcock, of which some
May yet be there ; and god wit, if we can;
Knat, rail, and ruff, too. Howsoe’er, my man
Shall read a piece of Virgil, Tacitus,
Livy, or of some better book to us,
Of which we ’ll speak our minds, amidst our meat.
Nor shall our cups make any guilty men ;
But at our parting, we will be, as when
We innocently met. No simple word
That shall be uttered at our mirthful board,
Shall make us sad next morning ; or affright
The liberty that we ’ll enjoy to-night.”

Edward Thomas.