Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how 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; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
The last few days may have been a bit overcast and cloudy, but Friday was a beautiful early autumn day in my little corner of west London. As I went about my business, the morning skies were that fading, mist-tinged blue that I associate with such early October days; the sun a little lower in the sky and the trees just on the turn. Give it a week or so, and the full colourful impact of the season will be revealed right across London – and there are plenty of green spaces in the city where you can see the most glorious displays of colour as the trees prepare for the changing seasons.
Despite the beauty, there is a sense of sadness about autumn and its status as a liminal space between the seasons. Summer, with its long, sun-drenched days (admittedly, that’s not always the case here in the UK!), often seems to go on forever, and winter seems a world away when the sun’s shining and the skies are a clear, cloudless blue. Autumn, by contrast, is that sinking feeling, that inevitable knowledge that colder, shorter days are on their way again. Nature’s one last big sigh of resignation before shutting down until spring reawakens it yet again.
The idea of autumn as a shutting-down of nature until the reawakening of spring links into the story of the ancient Greek goddess Persephone. She was the goddess of spring growth and was worshipped alongside her mother Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, grain and bread. When Persephone was kidnapped by Hades (the king of the underworld), Demeter was furious, especially when she discovered the involvement of Zeus (the king of the gods) in the abduction.
To show that she was a force to be reckoned with and would not back down, Demeter decreed that the earth would not fruit again until her daughter was restored to her. Zeus eventually agreed to Persephone’s return, but there was a problem. Because the kidnapped goddess had eaten during her time in the underworld, she was now obliged to spend part of each year there forever. So her annual trip to Hades’ kingdom marked the beginning of autumn and the dearth of winter, just as it had before, whereas the beginning of spring would mark her return.
A more scientific explanation for the start of the season shows that it very much depends on what discipline you study as to when autumn actually begins! For meteorologists, the first day of the season is always September 1st and it always ends in November (this allows them to log information and keep accurate climate records over a long period of time), but for those using astronomical data, autumn does not begin until the equinox on 22nd or 23rd September, when the night begins to become longer than the day.
Science aside, autumn also inspires art. Above, I’ve quoted the famous first stanza of John Keats’s Ode To Autumn, a poem I remember well from my childhood. But Keats was not the only poet to write about the changing seasons – searching any decent poetry website for ‘autumn’ will turn up many examples of verse inspired by this time of year from across many centuries. Visual artists of all kinds have been inspired by the season too; as are we, with our now ever-present cameras – a quick search on the photo-sharing site Flickr alone turns up millions of results for ‘autumn’ (even some of mine).
While writing this post, I started to wonder about exactly what the word ‘autumn’ really means and where it comes from, so I did some digging into its etymology. It seems it comes from the Latin word autumnus, via 13th century Old French, and perhaps means ‘drying-up season’, which seems quite apt. The word appears not to have been in common usage until the 16th century at the earliest, replacing the use of other, related words, including ‘harvest’, which we now use to indicate a specific event rather than an entire season.
And for those who bemoan the use of the dreaded word ‘Fall’ to denote autumn as a sign of the creeping Americanization of the English language, I have news for you. ‘Fall’, in that context, is actually of centuries-old English usage, dating back to the 16th century at least – which, if you know your history, very much suggests we gave it to America in the first place!