Green and Seasonal

Autumn is descending upon this city: suddenly, my long runs have ended in dusk, while they begin hued in gold, as if all plants and objects have become especially receptive to these last rays. As I ran around a bend yesterday, at once freed from lines of trees, the sun struck my eyes without blinding, and in the few wisps of cloud beside it, I saw a tiny rainbow.
It seems particularly intelligent or inspiring to write about the seasons, it is also to step in that river that is the past. There are Virgil's Georgics; seasons as metaphors in Ovid's Metamorphoses (e.g. the line I now relate to: "Autumn comes, when the ardour of youth has gone, ripe and mellow, between youth and age, a scattering of grey on its forehead."); Petrarch's sonnet to Laura.
British poets to address the seasons include Chaucer and Shakespeare, of course, but perhaps most significantly, James Thomson, whose The Seasons straddles the age marking perhaps the (temporary?) end of formal metaphysical, encyclopedic poetry and the beginning of something more subjective. He predates Romantics like Keats and Wordsworth.
The poem is at once located "in the tradition of idealized epic encyclopedism" for its implications of Newtonian physics, Spenserian romance, Miltonic epic, geology, but, because of its "subordination of an individualized poetic vision and the exclusion of conventional organizational mechanisms", it sought a different kind of complete knowledge (Seth Rudy, Literature and Encyclopedism in Enlightenment Britain, 78). The poem includes even political themes: questions of human rights, liberty on the national as well as individual level, patriotism, the historical role of Scotland, which had been unified with England during his lifetime. The book remained popular for decades, in part because booksellers were able to repackage it given its Romantic appeal by playing down the multiple levels of meaning the poem contains (Rudy, 80).
Samuel Johnson's criticism of the work, that it was lacking a clear method that would synthesize its disparate parts, seems to have been part of the reason for its continued popularity. And it is this lack of "proper arrangement" allowing ready absorption of diverse elements (ibid.) that brings us to the colour green.




And so we reach our final book of poems about seasons, The Book of the Green Man, by Ronald Johnson (via). The blurb by the publisher's reads: "Ronald Johnson described The Book of the Green Man as his 'attempt, as a brash American, to make new the traditional British long seasonal poem.' This Poundian endeavor to 'make it new' stemmed from a visit that he ... made to the UK in the autumn of 1962, in search of all things 'most rich, most glittering, most strange.'"
Perhaps more exciting, we learn that he walked the landscapes - as well as gardens and grottoes, and, most notably to me at least, Gilbert White's Selborne. White is best known for his The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, written just a few years after Thomson's death, and a model for natural historians and writers. As a bird-lover, I find his ornithological description movingly astute, and who does not love the phrase "birds of passage" - observed throughout.
Part of one of Johnson's August poems reads: "'August is by much the most mute month', yet, the air may be so strongly electric that bells may ring & sparks be discharged in their clappers: ... Gilbert White quotes from the Latin: He preferred the sounds of birds to those of men..." In these lines, similarities can be seen with Thomson: individualized poetic visions, breadth over formal unity, emphasis on eye and ear.
Scope can be seen in Johnson's lines above where he writes of White, who indeed quotes from the Latin, in Letter LVI. The passage is by French philosopher, mathematician and astronomer (connected to Kepler, Galileo, Descartes) Pierre Gassendi, whose The Life of Peiresc immortalized his patron. White identifies with Peiresc: "This curious quotation [of preferring birdsong] strikes me much by so well representing my own case ... When I hear fine music I am haunted with passages ... elegant lessons still tease my imagination, and recur irresistibly to my recollection at seasons, and even when I am desirous of thinking of more serious matters."
The British Library offers a recording of birdsong rivalling instrumental music, so we might recollect it at seasons, have our imaginations teased, and contemplate what it means to be "green" - infused with nature? But seeing that Johnson also wrote a cookbook that I'd love to get my hands on, The American Table, any lack of unity encountered while walking through, writing of, and eating greens, is at least individualized: the individual being modernity's season of man.
This post (like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) was inspired by Susannah Conway's August Break.


Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idees;
brush: misprinted type, via Pugly Pixel (we will be sad to see go).

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