Blazing colors in the waning warm long summer days, the harvests leaving behind stubbled fields, the chilly air lashed by light drizzles, the turning leaves that gradually drop from tree limbs at the approach of winter, all herald a time when everything in nature combines to sensitize the heart to a variety of feelings and memories.
For poets and musicians this is the season that easily stirs up sensibility and inspiration. The passing of joyful summer days radiant with sunshine and the approach of nature's death makes the present moments precious. As if to compensate for the dreariness ahead, nature explodes in bountiful colors, the sun mellows its harshness, and the sky comes alive with migratory birds.
What is there in the fall season that inspires poems and songs in such great quantity and quality? Is there an autumn's mystique?
In its transitional role, autumn marks the end of a period of happy sunshine that fosters joy of living, and endless opportunities to see nature as it should be: bright, gay, warm, inviting, friendly, inclusive, benign, benevolent, and affectionate. Summer's heat engenders an outgoing attitude; it encourages the shedding of inhibitions; it invites the search for adventure in a world wide open for exploration and discovery.
Autumn also presages the arrival of the bleak world of winter, in which everything is just the antithesis of summer. Literature and music lament the passing of happiness, the transiency of the good things in human existence, and the short life of blissful moments. They bemoan the inevitability of winter's death-dealing hand, and its implacable rigors. They regret summer's fun, and look with sadness toward winter's mournful grip on the world, its heartless envelope of gloom, and its frigid cold that is the metaphor of death.
Between these two antipodal states, fall's redemptive value is in its evocative power, capable of conjuring up a romantic world from the gifts of nature. The incomparably beautiful hues of red, orange, and brown embellish the trees. The chilly and comfortable relief from the oppressive summer's heat is not quite the bitter frigidity of winter. Drizzles and gentle breezes are not yet winter's pelting rains and gusty winds. From their boughs hesitant leaves fall aimlessly as if grieving their own demise. Now that summer's adventures are over, the time has come to settle down and reminisce. About past escapades, about the native home left behind, about old relationships, about the good old days, or anything else the heart and mind can bring back. And inevitably feelings well up of fragile love that faces the threat of extinction, and the concomitant haste to grasp and hold on before it vanishes forever.
But autumn need not be looked upon through the lenses of apprehension for its fleetingness. This is also the season of fulfillment, when the harvests are brought in, and festivities celebrate the bounty reaped and months of hard work crowned with success. The harvested fields now covered with stubbles are symbolic of the abundance gained, and with the trees, the fruits, the birds, the insects, the sun, the clouds, can evoke thoughts of romance and tender feelings.
Here is a sampling of songs and poems in English, French, and Vietnamese that explore the multi-faceted dimensions of autumn, and each author's reaction to it. They cover a wide, though not exhaustive, range of moods that autumn creates. My translations into English or French are offered to aid in the appreciation of the original works.
In the dreamy song below, the lyrics are woven around a sensuous theme of love tinged with a delicate tenderness evoked by autumn in the melancholy mind of the author. It is the voice of a young woman in love who expresses the deep emotions she feels at the onset of the season as a reaffirmation of her commitment and faithfulness to her lover, of whom nothing is known.
Anh có nghe mùa thu mưa giăng lá đỗ,
Anh có hay mùa thu mưa bay gió nhẹ
Náng úa dệt mi em và mây xanh thay tóc rối.
Anh có mơ mùa thu cho ai nức nở
Anh có nghe mùa thu mưa giăng lá đỗ,
Anh có hay mùa thu mưa bay gió nhẹ
Náng úa dệt mi em và mây xanh thay tóc rối.
Anh có mơ mùa thu cho ai nức nở
An only child, spoiled and turbulent, Verlaine was placed in a boarding school. After graduation from high school he attempted law, quickly became bored, quit, and drifted from a job with an insurance company to one with the City of Paris. Soon he took to the bohemian lifestyle and alcohol, frequented cabarets and the literary circles. His Poèmes Saturniens, written at age 16 while still at the Lycée, were published in 1866 in Paris, to the critical acclaim of Anatole France et Mallarmé. But his addiction to absinthe caused one scandal after another. In 1870, the year of the publication of Les Fêtes Galantes, he married 17-year-old Mathilde Mauté, settled down, and even got involved in political events. During the Commune he joined the insurgents.
In September 1871, he met Arthur Rimbaud, who had sent him his poems, and now had come from Charleville to join him. Falling in love with the youth, he reverted to his cabaret ways. During bouts of drunkenness, he would quarrel with Mathilde or beat her. When the couple's son arrived in October, Rimbaud went back to Charleville. Verlaine's family enjoyed a period of relative calm. Before long Rimbaud and Verlaine got back together, and they fled to Belgium, where Mathilde failed to beg him to come back, then to London, where his mother tried in vain to bring him around.
With Rimbaud he drank, quarreled, and fought, until Rimbaud finally grew tired and left for Charleville, where Verlaine could not persuade him to resume their wanderings. In July 1873, for having shot Rimbaud in the arm Verlaine served a two-year sentence in Brussels, during which time he rediscovered the Christian faith of his childhood. Out of prison Verlaine went to London to teach French and drawing. Back in Paris in 1882, he returned to absinthe, forsaken by his wife, who finally divorced him. He tried to publish Rimbaud's work, wrote for magazines, and published his own poems, Jadis et Naguère (1884), and Parallèllement (1889). Refusing to belong to any literary schools and romantic that he was, he lived in bars surrounded by young women admirers.
He spent the income from his poems and articles on drinks. His friends pooled their resources to help him out with a monthly stipend. Afflicted by rheumatism and leg ulcers, he spent extended periods in the hospital, where he found a measure of tranquillity. Always a maverick, he submitted his candidacy to the Académie Française, but received no votes.
However, in 1894, he was elected "Prince of Poets" by his peers to succeed Leconte de Lisle. The only other accolade was bestowed at his funeral one day after his death on January 9, 1896. The Latin Quarter, whose every single bar and tavern he had patronized, became thick with mourners, who formed an honor guard all the way to the Clichy cemetery, to pay tribute to the inveterate drunkard who incarnates Poetry and has joined the ranks of the accursed poets.
Verlaine's art resides in the music of his poetry. It is this inebriating quality, combined with the finely wrought melancholy, the sadness of love and unattained happiness, the delicate and sentimental touch, that set him apart as a magician of the word.
In the short mood poem Chanson d'automne, which encapsulates his
Weltschmerz, taken from the Poèmes Saturniens, Verlaine at an early age
sees his spirit sink to its nadir. The star-crossed poet, whose tormented life
he was to live on the brink of perdition, lets autumn fill his soul with leaden
sadness. The languorous sobs of the violin rend his heart. He cries about
the past, and faces the future with the vulnerability of an autumn leaf at the
mercy of the evil wind. With just a few words in each verse in three six-line
stanzas, he creates a haunting lament that clings tenaciously to the psyche.
Let the musique verlainienne then begin. To submerge and transport us to
an autumn of melancholic heartbreak.
Orphaned at age six, when his father a defrocked priest turned civil servant died in his sixties, Charles Baudelaire took an aversion to his stepfather Aupick, an officer who was later promoted to general in command of the Paris area, that his mother married shortly after his father's death. Bored at the boarding school he dreamed of becoming sometimes a pope, sometimes a comedian.
After completion of high school he rejected a diplomatic career, which his stepfather supported. He frequented the literary youth of the Latin Quarter, and wanted to be a writer. A family council under General Aupick's pressure decided to send him to India in 1841. Baudelaire, having no taste for foreign adventure, jumped ship at the Isle of Reunion, and in time returned to Paris, where now a major he claimed his part of his father's estate.
He became involved with the actress Jeanne Duval, and through thick and thin remained her lover and support for the rest of his life. With his friends Théophile Gautier, Théodore de Banville, Sainte-Beuve et Gérard de Nerval, he plunged headlong into the Romantic movement. He led a dandy's life, and incurred heavy debts. His family was forced to put him under Court's supervision to rein in his eccentric high living.
Destitute and humiliated, Baudelaire was constantly moving to keep one step ahead of his creditors, hiding among his mistresses, and writing furiously for a living while working on his poems.
After a blotched suicide attempt he temporarily reconciled with his mother. In 1846 he discovered this other accursed and misunderstood kindred soul across the Atlantic, Edgar Allen Poe, and for the next seventeen years undertook to translate and reveal his works.
In the wake of the 1848 Revolution he worked as a journalist and critic. The publication of Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) in 1857, which was quickly judged obscene, forced him to pay a heavy fine. In spite of the support of Victor Hugo, Sainte-Beuve, Théophile Gautier and other young admiring poets Baudelaire isolated himself in bitterness.
His health began to deteriorate. To alleviate the pain caused by gastric problems, and the recurrence of syphilis after ten years, he smoked opium. In his self-imposed exile, he received the homage of two as yet unknown poets, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine. During his stay in Belgium in 1866 a stroke left him paralyzed and nearly speechless. For a year he hung on tenuously to life while his friends came to his bedside to play him Wagner to relieve his sufferings. In 1867 at age 46, Baudelaire expired in his mother's arms.
With just one book, Baudelaire blazed a trail for modern poetry, by the melody of his verse, the depth of his emotions, his response to the universality of evil, which his proud spirit transcends.
In his song of autumn, Baudelaire reveals a gloomy mood jaundiced by a presentiment of an impending departure from the world. The long bright summer days are gone, yielding to the ominous steps of the winter's death inexorably coming ever closer by the moment. He can hear it in the echo on the paving of the courtyard. He can feel it entering his being with all the force of anger, hatred, horrors to reduce his heart to an insensate block of ice.
His spirit is crumbling under the relentless assault of the battering ram of evil, and the monotonous blows seem like a hasty pounding of the nails into someone's coffin signifying a voyage of no return.
Baudelaire desperately clings to the love of a woman, to the fast disappearance of the summer sun, to the glorious but declining fall, even to the setting sun because they are his only hope of salvation in the bitter present that is slipping from his grasp. The end looms, and he wants to savor the modest pleasure of resting for just a fleeting moment on the sweet remaining rays of autumn.
Poignant lugubrious thoughts for a man who had ten years or so to live!
William Blake, son of a London haberdasher, studied art at a drawing school and later at the Royal Academy of Arts. An apprentice for seven years to the engraver James Basire, he read avidly in his free time, and began to write poetry. He married at twenty-four an illiterate woman, Catherine Boucher, whom he taught to read to help with his printing and engraving business.
Although their business was moderately prosperous, their domestic life must have been troubled. His writings reflected the torments of a possessive and jealous wife. He gave drawing lessons, illustrated books, and engraved designs. When the business slowed in 1800 they moved to Felpham on the Sussex coast to work for a wealthy amateur of the arts and biographer. In 1803, Blake had an altercation with John Schofield, a private in the Royal Dragoons, who accused him of sedition, a capital offense during this period of war with France. Blake was acquitted by the court, but the event embittered him against the sinister forces at work in the country, and radicalized his views on politics, religion and morality, which his poems reflected.
Shortly after the trial he returned to London to follow his "Divine Vision," a move that meant isolation and poverty. After his failure to gain public recognition in 1809, he sank into obscurity until well into his sixties, when he finally had a following among a group of young painters.
Blake's personification of Autumn in the following poem is fresh and
refreshing. It is a joyful song of autumn, a celebration of a season of
abundance and pleasing events. In spite of a difficult domestic life, and a
career shrouded in obscurity, Blake did not find autumn an excuse to vent
his bitterness or sadness. Quite the contrary, he paints a poetic image
of the personified Autumn and its sight, sound and smell.
A contemporary poet writing in her Paris suburban home at Bourg-La-Reine, Dã Thao was discovered by the Alabama poet Lý Lãng Nhân in unique circumstances. This spring Dã Thao presented Lý Lãng Nhân with a copy of her book of poems, The Loves of Wild Grass. In this anthology Lý Lãng Nhân found a poetic sensibility that is supremely delicate, a moving lyricism, a felicitous diction, and the candid voice of a suffering heart that touches him deeply.
The poem that Lý Lãng Nhân selected, I Give You Autumn, expresses the cries of a tormented heart, lamenting a love from which only memories of short happy moments of togetherness remain in the cruel present's separation. Autumn is the time of longing, of emotions bubbling in her wounded heart, and the resurgence of pain and anguish of the love that only brings bitterness and profound yearnings that she knows will forever remain unfulfilled.
To Dã Thao autumn does not symbolize the decline of life, but merely an
opportunity to send her messages to her lover in their multifarious
manifestations laden with a tapestry of emotions.
For his part this Alabama poet speaks about the deluge of feelings and reminiscences that engulfs him every time fall colors turn his universe into a magic kingdom in which he loses himself, never wishing to return. He speaks of the memories that re-emerge from the depths of his subconscious and the mythical power of autumnal nature at once to enchant and to sadden. When the chill breeze rises, it sets his heart aflutter. When the leaves fall, his longings soar. To him autumn is the creek's water as limpid as a beauty's eyes; the blue sky that is infinitely high, and the clouds that are infinitely white. The yellow leaves that fall to fly every which way on the wings of the gentle breeze. The foggy, foggy dew that sows pearls on the petals of flowers. And - how can he not mention? - the music of autumn that harmonizes the rustling of a brook, the twittering of the birds, and the inaudible leaves zigzagging their way to the forest floor. Above all, autumn brings back memories of years past, a profound nostalgia for what he left behind in space and time.
In his Autumn Nostalgia, he abstracts himself from the present and longs in nostalgic vignettes for the "summer's fire of yesteryear" in the same way that François Villon yearned for his "snows of yesteryear." And like Joachim du Bellay, whose Liré home in Anjou sets in motion a chain of memories about his native village, Ly yearns for an image of his native land that is now buried in the ashes of time.
Then his thoughts shifts to a close friend, whom he finally found again after long years of absence. But during those years life for him meant bearing the burden of emptiness that lasted through summers and autumns to the point of dulling his muse and silencing his music. This state of soul could only be alleviated by reuniting with his friend again.
Born in a provincial noble family at Milly in the Mâconnais, Alphone de Lamartine became enamored early in school of poetry and literature when one of his teachers read a passage from Chateaubriand. Handsome, bright, attractive, Lamartine had many amorous adventures, which whether happy or not left their marks in his many poems.
After his studies at a Jesuit school (1803-1807), he returned to Milly, where he steeped himself in reading and his nascent poetic vocation. In a trip to Italy (1811-1812) he met a young Neapolitan girl, whom he would recall as Graziella in his autobiographical writings. After a brief stint in the army during the Restoration, years spent in forging a career, literary disillusionment and disease deepened his experience. In September 1816 during a therapeutic trip to Aix-les-Bains he met Madame Julie Charles, with whom he fell passionately in love. He found her again in Paris that winter. The following year he went to Aix, waiting in vain to see her again. She had died of tuberculosis in the winter of 1817.
The experience deeply moved Lamartine, who found it a powerful source of inspiration. During the five years in which he lived through love, suffering, mourning and hope, he wrote a series of poems that reflected these stages of his life, and a deep religious sentiment. Thus appeared the Meditations in 1820, which assured his literary reputation. From the pains of love felt before Julie Charles's death, in The Lake and Immortality (1817), through the sufferings after her passing in Isolation to the subsequent resigned calm expressed in The Valley, and Autumn, Lamartine revealed a profound poetic sensibility, heart-felt lyrical expression and a capacity to touch a generation. The Meditations came at a time when the disenchanted youth, possessed by melancholy and reverie, was looking for internal experience, a rich emotional life, exaltation and mystical aspirations. He gave it an expression in which it recognized itself and a voice, that of Romanticism.
Following his marriage to a young English woman named Elizabeth Birch, Lamartine embarked on a diplomatic career (1820-1830), which brought him to Italy. In 1823 he published the New Meditations but failed to achieve the success of the first Meditations. Then came the Harmonies Politiques et Religieuses (1830), which reflected his religious zeal and his Christian faith.
After the revolution of 1830 Lamartine entered politics, and lost his first bid to the National Assembly in 1831. But 1833 saw him elected deputy of Bergues. His political career, marked by an above-the-fray policy of not belonging to any party, lasted until 1848, the year in which for a few weeks he was in effective control of France. During this period he published among other works Jocelyn (1836), an epic poem, interspersed with personal reminiscences, that recounts the inner life of the priest Jocelyn. From his Platonic love of Laurence, the adolescent daughter of a man condemned to death, who gave Lamartine the opportunity to remember sometimes his own deceased daughter Julia, sometimes Julie Charles, to his death working among the peasants, Jocelyn embodies human aspirations to Heaven by the purifying virtue of sacrifice.
The establishment of the Second Empire saw Lamartine's political career come to an end in 1851. In his ripe years the debt-ridden and defeated Lamartine turned into a prolific writer, condemned for life to the pen, to produce the histories of France, Turkey, and Russia, several novels, autobiographical sketches, and a literature text, all in a vain effort to escape penury. He was forced to sell his native home at Milly and to accept a lifetime pension from the Emperor. Thus ended his life in solitude and exhaustion in 1869.
The poem Autumn (1819) evokes the somber mood of a man who looks for consolation and hope as he mourns in the gloom of autumn the passing of a friend. Lonesome wanderer in the woods he laments the extinction of hope yet keeps hoping. Perhaps when life denies him its blessings, there may still be a soul out there that will find his, a drop of honey in the bittersweet cup of life he was drinking. But his doubts set in. The fallen flower rendered its fragrance as its parting message, and he, Lamartine, will too depart. But lover of beauty that he is, this romantic soul cannot fade without embellishing the world with the sad and melodious sound of his last breath.