By Gerardo Garcia
One of the first times I traveled out of state, I visited North Carolina during my high school’s fall break. I had just seen Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and the expectation of a quirky, golden-brown dreamscape (from what I technically counted as the east coast) was especially fueling my excitement. I wasn’t disappointed, either. I was there for a campus tour, donned in my finest plaid button-up; the sun shined differently in the brisk Greensboro air, and the colorful leaves seemed to come straight out of Anderson’s elaborate set—yet, despite seeing it for the first time in person, my visceral reaction to the season felt familiar. Even in the unwavering heat of south Texas, the fall would make me feel pensive, more wistful—downright “fuzzy.”
Cultural and literary depictions of autumn go back centuries, but the concern is always the same—how can we engage with an experience that is so dependent on climate and location?
It may be slightly harder to discern through the lingering summer heat, but whether it be media, capitalism, or a breeze on campus, we’ve all unknowingly experienced a collective-subconscious impression of fall. The Rise of Pumpkin-Spice in particular has made the feeling of a 60 degree season more accessible than ever. Sipping our lattes in t-shirts and cargo shorts, we in Austin can indulge in some fuzziness while we wait for the cold weather to come—and although I’ll try anything pumpkin-spice, this new-wave of autumnal seasonal marketing isn’t our first, or best attempt at encapsulating the peculiar vibe of the fall. Cultural and literary depictions of autumn go back centuries, but the concern is always the same—how can we engage with an experience that is so dependent on climate and location?
Take Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, for example. In the last movement of Autumn, passages representing horns, animal calls, and gunfire recreate a European atmosphere of hunting in the woods. Or Van Gogh’s Autumn Landscape, emphasizing fall’s distinct manifestations in nature—full of wilting trees and their leaves, rich in earthy and radiant oranges, we know for a fact that he’s not in Texas. Generally portraying harvest, change, and approaching mortality, these sensory depictions allow us to imagine a traditional idea of fall; however, here in Austin, Texas, we are too much in the sun for some of these pieces to land.
Then what does autumn mean to us here, anyways? Is it the promising start of a new school year and the inevitable end of a glorious summer, or is it the feeling of living in a post-pandemic grey space, anywhere between online and in-person? Maybe it’s being able to wear long sleeves by November. Although autumnal tropes allow us to experience the lush environments most commonly associated with fall, the effect, however mesmerizing, is somewhat isolating. Cider, overcast, and brittle leaves have merely been superimposed on me as concrete images to guide my impression of a “true” fall, seldom experienced, but when in conjunction with the abstract, the pull of these images becomes much more universal.
Dickinson’s speakers, individualists through and through, are not reborn in the rain, but, with just as much exaltation, recognize their communion with nature.
Austin can’t reliably provide us with this ideal vision of fall, yet some common sentiment remains as our autumnal angst yearns for expression. To remedy this, let us look no further than the poems of Emily Dickinson and the haunting beauty of Amherst, Massachusetts. The distinction of the seasons would’ve been especially pronounced to the observant poet; however, although heavily structured around observations of nature, Dickson’s poems tend to subvert the pastoral. Her interwoven use of abstraction and concrete imagery strike at our universal experiences of time, death, and personhood that transcend the specificity of her landscape. Defining and illustrating ideas through nature, Dickinson allows us to more clearly understand our obscure emotional response towards it.
In fiction we’re often told that setting may reflect a character’s state of being—as within, so without. Dickinson’s speakers, individualists through and through, are not reborn in the rain, but, with just as much exaltation, recognize their communion with nature. Much greater than us, nature is untamed and often capable of dictating our moods entirely. Regardless of the lack of spectacle, a semisoft falling leaf on campus still manages to make me acutely aware, if only for a moment, of the liminal space my dreamlike twenty-some-year-old existence lies in—between life and death, past and future, summer and winter. But what if nature’s not working with me on a hot, windless afternoon?
Dickinson’s fall poems often draw from the typical sights emblematic of where she lived. Though these motifs are prevalent, concrete images intertwined with abstractions—often personified or idealized with capitalization—add a level of description that goes beyond mere trope. Physical descriptions of nature are original yet familiar, complimented by an intellectual dimension (sometimes playful, other times—not so much) that begins to elucidate the philosophy of our fuzziness. Throughout the span of Dickinson’s 1,800 poems (only ten of which were published during her lifetime), are images of summer’s Vitality, winter’s Oppression, and the Robins of spring, but in her depictions of autumn, the eccentricities of form, subject, and voice—perhaps of the poet herself—coincide in harmony to emulate the curious allure of the season. Balancing the concrete and the abstract, Dickinson transports us to a sensual and colorful Amherst fall while defining the universal peculiarity we feel with the winding down of a year. Small like the wren, bold like the chestnut burr, here are three poems to get us staring out the window in transcendental repose.
What does all this mean? That the season itself is experiencing the phenomenon of “sweater-weather,” of course.
The morns are meeker than they were –
The nuts are getting brown –
The berry’s cheek is plumper –
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf –
The field a scarlet gown –
Lest I sh’d be old-fashioned
I’ll put a trinket on.
Dickinson was born into a distinguished family of the Amherst community. Her father, a lawyer, was a pillar of that community and a staunch church goer. In the early 1850s, Dickinson would renounce her regular church-going after refusing to make a formal profession of her faith. However, the reverence and simplicity of hymns would become one of the defining characteristics of her poetry, adding a spiritual layer to the secular subjects of nature, self, and death, ubiquitous in her work. “The morns are meeker than they were,” takes a steady inventory of changes during the fall and ends with a final reflection from the speaker, seemingly disjointed. The first stanza is exclusively focused on image and isolated by a full stop. The second stanza becomes increasingly overt in its personification of nature, unifying the correlation between speaker and subject by the end.
What does all this mean? That the season itself is experiencing the phenomenon of “sweater-weather,” of course. We can see the effects of autumn on the world in parallel to our changing sense of fashion and demeanor. These changes however, are difficult to describe as either good or bad: the mornings are waning, the nuts are ripening, the berry is full, the rose is not in season. By the second stanza, the language becomes more playful and insistent in its depiction of a fashion-forward fall, ending the poem with an unassuming carpe diem—a fashion statement. Ultimately, Dickinson’s portrayal of autumn is a liminal space both rich and foreboding as it offers a respite to the intensity of the summer while increasingly reflecting the decay of the coming winter. So, yes: you should wear that cardigan.
A combination is
Of Crickets — Crows — and Retrospects
And a dissembling Breeze
That hints without assuming —
An Innuendo sear
That makes the Heart put up its Fun
And turn Philosopher.
It’s difficult to attribute dates to Dickinson’s work. Written in solitude and unbeknownst to her family, the poems were copied by Dickinson herself on to several hand-sewn books, commonly referred to as “fascicles.” Dickinson scholars estimate that in her most creative period (1858-1865) she composed nearly 1,100 poems. A prime example of Dickinson’s poetic convention, “September’s Baccalaureate” is most likely from this period, divided into two stanzas that strictly adhere to the alternating meters of the iambic hymn. Enjambment marks the shift in the poem’s second half, the Dickinson’s characteristic aphorism structure delineated by stanzas (“____ is a ____ / that ____”).
The subject of September ending coincides with the autumnal equinox, a period of transition and the first day of fall. Dickinson begins describing “September’s Baccalaureate,” a personified abstraction, with concrete, ordinary images. Deceptively literal—a combination of crickets and crows—the poem delves further into abstraction and metaphor. The first stanza presents us with an idea of fall that isn’t wholly unbelievable to us Texans. There is a stillness in the air—like sitting on the lawn after most classes have ended—where all we can hear are crickets, crows, the wind, and our thoughts. The coolness of the breeze marks the beginning of fall and reminds us of the passage of time (nostalgia ensues—“Retrospect”). The “Breeze” however, is also a personified abstraction—it “hints” at some vague yearning for the past, “dissembling,” appearing to be merely the wind, only to induce an unexpected moment of self reflection. Dickinson continues with the abstractions—Innuendo, Heart, Fun, and Philosopher. The effect is open-ended, paradoxically providing definitions that expand rather than pinpoint meaning.
More than scarlet leaves, or the corduroy of fantastic foxes, fall is a reminder that time passes—the tropes associated with it serve to represent that.
This visceral feeling Dickinson describes—nebulous, hazy, and introspective—is what I believe to be especially characteristic of the season: a universal experience not entirely dependent on the grandeur of an ideal fall-scape. It feels almost reductive to attempt to define such an inarticulate emotion—so what better way to describe it than with equally obscure metaphors? The “Innuendo sear” is exactly that—only a suggestion of some longing in the air. The past is done, the future looms over us, and for a moment, we take our lives a little more seriously than usual to make sense of where we are in the present. The joys of the summer are gone, unattainable as we drift further away from the past. Foliage aside—how often do we find ourselves jolted into reflection as the year progresses towards its end? It suddenly becomes harder to go out to 6th, the nights chillier, reminding you of the lack of arms you once had around you, that maybe you’ll never have around you again—you call an Uber.
Besides the Autumn poets sing,
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze –
A few incisive mornings –
A few Ascetic eves –
Gone – Mr Bryant’s “Golden Rod” –
And Mr Thomson’s “sheaves.”
Still, is the bustle in the brook –
Sealed are the spicy valves –
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many Elves –
Perhaps a squirrel may remain –
My sentiments to share –
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind –
Thy windy will to bear!
In 1862, Dickinson wrote a letter to literary critic Thomas Higginson in response to his article, “Letter to a Young Contributor.” Seeking the advice of whom she considered to be a professional, Dickinson is ambivalent towards her own poetry. “The Mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly – and I have none to ask –,” she humbly entreats. Higginson, though intrigued, ultimately deemed her work unsuitable for publication. In “Besides the Autumn poets sing,” Dickinson describes the fall through the meta perspective of an aspiring autumn poet. Dickinson establishes the ironic tone immediately. “Beside the Autumn,” is what one expects, the image of the poet singing next to their muse—something traditional straight out of the romantic poems of William Bryant, or the blank verse pastorals of James Tomson. “Besides,” however, is flippant, playful, and conversational. She describes “prosaic” days that lie between Haze and snow then, in the next stanza, their piercing mornings and reclusive evenings. The structure itself reflects the threshold fall lies in—the rhyme scheme (“abcb”, “defe”, etc.) is only apparent by the end of the stanza; the diction is casual, yet evocative; and the syntax is seemingly inconsistent—“prosaic,” falling somewhere between prose and poetry with the disruption of Dickinson’s iconic dashes conveying inflection, parenthetical, and end stop. The two quotes in this stanza not only suggest the death of flowers and the approaching end of the harvest season, but also draw attention to the pastoral tropes coined by other poets. When we’ve seen it all before—pumpkin-spice, bushels of wheat, orange leaves—what’s left? Dickinson answers that in the next stanza: stillness, stagnancy, and the transitory dreaminess of twilight. Hopefully, there’ll at least be a squirrel left to write about. Despite a hint of meekness in the voice, the speaker has accomplished writing something besides the typical autumn tropes, whether they know it—or not.
So, as the trees turn a little redder on my drive down Lamar, the moments to myself become that much more intense, wandering through the Haze. Amherst—what was once to me an unreal village of perpetual autumn—felt a little closer to Austin. More than scarlet leaves, or the corduroy of fantastic foxes, fall is a reminder that time passes—the tropes associated with it serve to represent that. We are consumed by the ardor of the summer, not realizing these days will end until we see it tangibly—a colder morning, a semester ending, a seasonal menu—footprints of Change. But while we observe, our minds can’t help but attempt to grasp at some meaning, to seek some connection between the world and ourselves. You don’t need a tree tunnel of gently falling leaves, either—it can be something ordinary—that you can find in Texas—that reminds you—everything comes to an end.