Has the arrival of autumn made you feel anxious? For many of us, it’s a return to a more stressful life after the summer holidays when the living was easier. We may be mourning the arrival of shorter days and longer nights; the lack of sunshine and, with, it lower levels of feel good hormones such as serotonin and dopamine; and the feeling that Winter is on its way.
One answer to my own Autumnal low mood is poetry. Poets have furnished me with two new ways of thinking about this time of year. The first is that we need these seasonal changes. The cycle of the seasons brings the contrast that makes life interesting. We can dispel our worries by celebrating and embracing, in the moment, those falling leaves or shorter days – exactly those signs of autumn we might previously have dismissed. Poets can be at our side as we do so.
The second is that autumn can be a time for squirreling away ahead of Winter’s privations. For me, this means enjoying poems full of insight to see us through this time of transition. Let me share two poems which exemplify these approaches, and which will be my companions this autumn, and perhaps yours too.
‘Fall, Leaves, Fall’ by Emily Brontë is a poem which luxuriates in the arrival of autumn.
Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
Here Brontë orders nature about (as if it were alive and could respond to her instructions) with a child-like fierceness. We are instantly swept up by the urgency of her passion. Leaves are to fall, now! (the fall repeated twice); flowers must die. By the third line the poet’s tone softens and turns inward to her own emotional connection with the falling leaves, and her deeply personal use of that word ‘bliss’. Now each single leaf – so much more powerful than ‘leaves’ in the plural – is individually personified, communicating to Brontë. By the fourth line, the softening continues. ‘Fall’ has eased into the descriptive and gentle ‘fluttering’.
The poet continues to luxuriate in being at one with the turn of the seasons, smiling and singing at the arrival of what we might usually think of as the negative harbingers of Winter: snow, night’s decay, dreary days. Yet for Brontë these are things of beauty, exemplified by her image of ‘wreaths of snow’: what is so striking here is the way in which the language of Summer garlands is re-appropriated to describe Winter.
She uses language and rhyming couplets so simply that the sentiment that we should welcome autumnal decay, and indeed death, seems almost commonplace. This notion of the commonplace serves to reinforce the idea of the drearier day to which she looks forward. By the last line, the invitation is to us, the reader, to sing like her, instead of lamenting the coming of Autumn and Winter.
Like Brontë, we can accept, allow and embrace each present moment in the cycle of life, welcoming what we might previously have dismissed as sad or negative. All feelings can speak to us, just as they speak to Brontë.
My second poem is one I often reflect upon at this time of year, storing it away in my mind before the onslaught of darker days. ‘Autobiography in Five Short Chapters’ by Portia Nelson. It feels like a template for living when everything snaps into place. Just as the seasons change, so can we.
Chapter 1 I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in. I am lost ... I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter 2 I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter 3 I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there. I still fall in ... it’s a habit. My eyes are open I know where I am It is my fault I get out immediately. Chapter 4 I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it. Chapter 5 I walk down another street.
Change is possible. Nelson evokes this possibility by choosing something as simple as walking down a sidewalk (or pavement) as a metaphor for her journey through life. We all must walk down the street. The experience is universal, and so is change. However much we doubt our ability to act differently, Nelson shows that we can become more self-aware and take responsibility for our actions.
Whether she likes it or not, initially the poet keeps falling into the hole. There is comfort in this inevitability of learning, and the repetition is reassuring. The process is painful and takes time – we keep hurting ourselves by falling into holes; but Nelson is understanding, and we relate to her.
She knows about bad habits; she understands our frustration at repeatedly making the same mistakes – ‘I can’t believe I’m in the same place’. Her journey is our journey. Her ‘chapters’ become increasingly short as the repetitive cycle is broken. Finally, she can embark on a new path, with the single-line stanza, full of possibility: ‘I walk down another street’. This line is especially triumphant when we learn that Nelson wrote the poem in 1977, four years after recovering from breast cancer.
We need not stop walking. We need not move cities or continents or go travelling to learn from experience. We can keep doing what we routinely do, but with greater awareness and new perspective. It is not that Nelson stops walking; it is just that she chooses a different street. We finish the poem on a high, believing that we too can do things differently.
It's a good attitude with which to embrace Autumnal anxiety. However hard we’ve previously found this season, with Nelson and Bronte by our side, we may find Autumn a little bit easier and even – dare I say it – a season we will come to cherish.
You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs selected and introduced by Rachel Kelly is published by Yellow Kite.