Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Autumn Days

An essay by George William Curtis

Autumn Days

Title:     Autumn Days
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" comes long before the maples are crimson and the birches yellow. The splendor of the summer is very brief. If it be really hot, July is not over before you may see the leaves slightly shrivelling, and the woods have a half-crisp, curdled aspect. The intense heat of the year gives a sense of violent and rapid struggle, as if all the natural processes were wonderfully accelerated by an access of fever, and the long cool repose of convalescence follows in the clear, bright autumn days.

The enjoyment of these things is a kind of test of character. If a man found himself ceasing to take pleasure in the moon and flowers and children--if the red leaf of the fall gave him the same emotion as the green leaf of the spring--he might well feel that he was old and his heart worn out.

The finest sight is the autumn of age, like that of the year. Some men shrivel and dry up as they grow old. Some become coarse, or cynical, or sad. Some, after a noble promise and even a full flowering, ripen no fruit at all, and leave only a few reluctant and blighted results. Some stand covered with "nurly" balls, hard, dry, and useless. Others are stripped and bare. But a genial, golden age has all the qualities of a warm October day. There is soft repose upon the landscape. No harsh winds blow, no sharp chills freeze. The distance on all sides is delicate and lost in luminous haze. Behind, it is romantic and fair; before, it is beautiful and alluring. On all the misty hill-tops visible summer seems to linger. The fields are crimson and yellow with the riches of the orchard; the purple grape glistens kindly, and the golden pumpkin lies comfortably under the stooks of dry corn. In the woods the light winds shake the trees and the dropping nuts patter upon the fallen leaves. Along the road the profuse golden-rod waves its bright spray, and the cool, scentless asters gleam like pallid stars. The heat is so honest that the round earth seems to bask in it with conscious joy. That shining sky hides no lightning. It hangs serenely over--a visible benediction. Night and day the barn doors stand wide open, and the great barn is bursting with its heaped treasures. The wagons come and go, and the beat of the flail begins. Bright and beautiful and abundant is the cheery scene, but there is a pervading sense of accomplishment. The cattle graze in the pastures, and in the meadows where the growth is over. The harvest fields will clearly do no more. The green of June has faded into the russet of October, and even the gorgeous leaves burn, a hectic hue, upon the landscape. The earth has done its work for the year, and there is a feeling of gathering in, of closing the doors, and of going to rest.

When the autumn of a man's life is thus sweet and fruitful and serene, we see how outward nature merely hints and foreshows its master. In great, visible, palpable operations and results it images the fine and unmarked processes that go on in man. And yet, by its unfailing method, its annual return, the regular spring and bud and flower and fruit, it is a ceaseless, silent monitor. Measured by our own lives, how touching the fidelity of the year! Who is not rebuked by the honest apple-tree in his own garden? The plums are more like us. They are almost infallibly stung by the curculio. But how many a man who fights the curculio with all his fortune is himself stung all over by selfishness and pride! We might well be ashamed to walk in the woods. The mute obedience of the trees ought to be too impressive for us. Yes, in the long autumn nights they wrestle and roar. Their mighty voice thunders out and smites the heart of the awakening sleeper. But will you claim that it is their protest against the inevitable law, that they too are rebellious and forgetful and disdainful as we are? It seems to me only piercingly sad in its wildest tumult. It is the blind king feeling for his peers and crying out when he does not find them. "Lords of the world" shout the autumn woods, tossing their branches and groping blindly in the air--"men and women who are the latest born, the Benjamins of heaven, who are set over us to subdue and govern, ye alone, in all the wide creation, are false and heedless! What man of you all is as true and noble for a man as the oak upon your hill-top for an oak? The oak obeys every law, regularly increases and develops, stretches its shady arms of blessing, proudly wears its leafy coronal, and drops abundant acorns for future oaks as faithful; but who of ye all does not violate the law of your life--so that we, if we follow you, would be so death-struck with dry-rot that the trees would fail upon every hand and the earth become a desert!"

So wail and roar the storm-swept autumn woods. In the late October nights you may awaken, when the world is lost in the mystery of darkness, and hear that appealing cry. Time and civilization have slain the dryads and sweet sylvan populace, as Herod slew the innocents. But although common-sense has buried them, the imagination will not let them die. They survive in other forms, and with other voices they speak to us--not as the spirits of the trees, but as their conscious life, they yet whisper, and our hearts listen. Let the hickories and pine-trees preach to us a little in these warm October afternoons. A stately elm is the archbishop of my green diocese. In full canonicals he stands sublime. His flowing robes fill the blithe air with sacred grace. The light west winds and watery south are his fresh young deacons, his ecclesiastical aides-de-camp. He rules the landscape round. And I--this penitent old Easy Chair--attend devoutly when I hear the eloquent rustling of his voice--as the neighbors of Saint George Herbert, of Bemerton, used to stop their ploughs in the furrow and bow, with uncovered head, while the sound of his chapel-bell tinkled in the air.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Autumn Days