The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
It’s you, it’s you, must go and I must bide.
So, it’s September 1st, the summer’s gone, Danny Boy is back off to Scotland again and believe it or not he still hasn’t proposed. All the same, he’ll visit my grave I’m sure and I might meet him in heaven one day, if he isn’t getting up to too much carry-on over there that is.
It’s raining in Dublin today, but yesterday I was able to walk up the Royal Canal from the tenth to the eleventh lock and back. It was pleasantly cooler than of late, though there were still a lot of small flies. A very few stray dead leaves blew towards me along the ground in the easterly breeze on my way back, though the fine, tall trees were showing little enough sign of colour change. But today it’s the first of September, so it’s autumn.
“Seasons result from the yearly orbit of the Earth around the Sun and the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis relative to the plane of the orbit,” my scientific adviser (Wikipedia) tells me. It’s March/April/May; June/July/August; September/October/November and December/January/February. Or alternatively, from March equinox to June solstice to September equinox to December solstice. But if four seasons isn’t good enough for you, you can have six: prevernal, vernal, estival, serotinal (where we are now), autumnal and hibernal.
Though there is of course a real physical basis for our talk of seasons (the orbit of the Earth around the Sun), much of the schematising, the division into fixed seasons, months, weeks, days, stems from the human desire to name, place and confer order on the flux in which we – for a short while ‑ live. Deities, pagan and Christian, tended to be freer spirits, prone to anger and caprice and often using weather as a weapon, at least until the seventeenth or eighteenth century, when it was discovered that everything in Nature’s workings had been ordained by the Divine Watchmaker for our maximum benefit and convenience. Earthquakes of course were a particularly challenging phenomenon to explain, but human ingenuity is boundless.
As most of us know, Irish seasons are a little different, spring beginning on February 1st, St Brigid’s Day, a month before everyone else’s. A month after might have been more appropriate in my view: leaves began to appear on the chestnut trees in Dublin’s Phoenix Park only in the second week of April this year, and on the other trees even later. But look on the bright side, autumn, and its attendant sadness, began on August 1st and you’ll surely be used to it by now.
Actually I was a little surprised to read, in Alexandra Harris’s wonderful Weatherland: Writers and artists under English skies, that autumn has been frequently regarded as a sad season. One can guess why (decay, principally), but for me it is far from sad: it is apples, blackberries, damsons, mushrooms, beautiful, mild and often sunny days in October walking through blazing woodland, coming in from very slight cold to domestic warmth and, when I was a student long ago, a fattish grant cheque meant to stretch until Christmas, which alas might not last much beyond mid-November, but still provisioned a merry autumn.
One can see, in the context of a society more closely and vitally dependent on the agricultural success of a particular year than ours is now, why certain seasons were welcomed and others feared. How would the harvest be? Would it be enough to take us through the winter? And when would the winter end? Coleridge wrote, in “Christabel”:
’Tis a month before the month of May
And the Spring comes slowly up this way.
Often this was not, in peasant society, a matter of mild seasonal affective disorder but one of children dying. Spring had to come. Dr Johnson thought that is was a moral failing for a man to be too much emotionally affected by the weather and, unsurprisingly, he let everyone know. Boswell eventually realised that this was, yet again, bluster. The great sage was hugely affected by bad or dull weather or lack of sunlight but ashamed of himself for so feeling. One’s heart goes out to him, but not, perhaps, to the fearsome William and Dorothy Wordsworth, who insisted that bad weather was good and good bad. They would stride for hours through the rain and driving wind, in Cumberland, the rainiest county in England, and commit their great thoughts about the configurations of the clouds and the phases and peculiar slants of the rain to their journals, including their deprecation of the boring “cerulean” of the inferior skies of the Mediterranean.
Alexandra Harris’s book will tell you very intelligently and very charmingly everything you have ever wanted to know about weather and English poets’, writers’ and painters’ reaction to it. Autumn is certainly my favourite season in Ireland (better than the overcast, humid summer), though I am often absent for a short while in September when I visit southern Europe and the Mediterranean where I tend, normally, to wake up each morning and look out the window with enormous pleasure on the (boring) cerulean. Sorry William.
Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland is published by Thames and Hudson at £9.99.
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is this blog post from 2014 on the charms of the Mediterranean south, “In Love with Europe”. Here is an extract:
In a recent article in Le Monde, German sociologist and philosopher Ulrich Beck sets out his views of the kind of Europe we need (we’ll undoubtedly be getting a lot of this kind of thing fairly soon here too from our European Parliament candidates and their house intellectuals). The piece is titled “Oui à l’Europe des citronniers!” (Yes to the Europe of the lemon trees!), a reference to a poem (later set to music) by Goethe known as “Kennst du das Land?”, which, full of longing (Sehnsucht), is a good example of Northern romanticisation of the perceived charms of the South. These charms still have their appeal, and are more immediately accessible today than they were for Goethe: from Klagenfurt in Austria to beautiful Grado on the Adriatic is a mere two-hour drive roaring down the fast lane of the motorway in one’s Audi. The Austrians leave their houses, shivering just a little, after a good breakfast on a Friday morning and are sitting at an outside table on the Viale del Sole by one o’clock, sipping Friulian wine and gorging on the small fishes of the lagoon. The waiters are very polite …
Do you know the land where the lemon-trees grow,
In darkened leaves the gold-oranges glow,
A soft wind blows from the pure blue sky,
The myrtle stands mute, and the bay tree high?
Do you know it well? It’s there I’d be gone,
To be there with you, O, my beloved one!