Bards have long glorified autumn in their writings, but there was always an underlying fear and foreboding of the forthcoming winter, writes Dr Terry Mabbett.

AUTUMN is a time of change when deciduous trees receive instructions on the redirection of life-preserving plant fluids, the re-assortment of foliar pigmentation and, ultimately, leaf senescence and abscission. Authors and poets were waxing lyrical about these aspects of autumn centuries before the science was understood.

Traditional autumns were a repertoire of ripening fruit in September, a crescendo in leaf colour during October and curtailed by frost in November.


Earth’s flaunting flower of passion fadeth fair

To ripening fruit in sunlit veils of the air …


On frosty morns with the woods aflame,

down, down

The golden spoils fall thick from the chestnut crown …


Sad mists have hid the sun, the land is


The plough is afield, the hunter windeth his horn …

From: ‘The Months’ (‘Basil and Edward’) by Robert Bridges (1844–1930)

Forestry Journal: Autumn’s last hurrah inside a mixed beech and hornbeam wood.Autumn’s last hurrah inside a mixed beech and hornbeam wood.

Not any more. September and October is our Indian summer, paving the way for chilly – though clear and glorious – days in early November. The trees are still brimming with leaves of yellow, orange, red, and brown under clear azure skies. Crisp leaves crackle underfoot and the cold evening sky explodes into the finest sunset of the year. The angle of the sun’s rays and the light intensity experienced in early autumn is similar to March and April. So when light falls on trees clad with early autumn leaves still green but in softer pastel shades it can trick the eye and mind into thinking it is springtime. This is apparently an age-old experience because William Wordsworth refers to same in the opening lines of his poem ‘September, 1819’.

Departing summer hath assumed

An aspect tenderly illumed,

The gentlest look of spring;

That calls from yonder leafy shade

Unfaded, yet prepared to fade,

A timely carolling.


Just as ageing people develop grey streaks in otherwise colourful heads of hair, so the lime tree (Tilia) develops the odd branch of yellow leaves during the last days of summer when the canopy is otherwise thick and green. The same is documented for mature English elms. As autumn approaches, these mighty trees display great growing patches of bright yellow foliage. Anglo-Welsh poet Edward Thomas penned his thoughts on this autumnal peculiarity before losing his life at Arras in France during the First World War.

The green elm with one great bough of gold

Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one

From: ‘October’ by Edward Thomas (1878–1917)

Forestry Journal: Horse chestnut leaf miner has ruined autumn for horse chestnut trees in southern England. This picture was taken in 2005 before the leaf miner overwhelmed the white-flowering horse chestnut.Horse chestnut leaf miner has ruined autumn for horse chestnut trees in southern England. This picture was taken in 2005 before the leaf miner overwhelmed the white-flowering horse chestnut.

Standing under a horse chestnut tree with early October sunshine filtering through the delicate, yellow and rich tanned hands of senescing leaflets was always a rare autumnal experience. Rarer still now, as the horse chestnut leaf miner tightens its grip, advances autumn into August and leaves tree canopies looking disfigured, as though scorched by fire.


Once on the ground the soft-textured leaves of lime and sycamore rot rapidly, while tannin-rich leaves of beech, oak and sweet chestnut are everlasting. John Evelyn (1620–1706) said dry beech leaves gathered before they became frostbitten made excellent stuffing for mattresses. They were tender, loosely packed, stayed sweet for eight years and, all in all, were superior to straw.

Vermilion-coloured leaf litter of the true wild pear is even tougher than beech. Indeed, so indestructible are the leaves that pear trees are totally unsuitable for lawns or where other plants of value, except spring bulbs, grow beneath.


Scientists pore over charts and graphs, but observations made by generations of poets as they saw and experienced autumn during their time are invariably more informative and refreshing. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Percy Bysshe Shelley had no doubts about the velocity and violence of autumn two centuries ago.

Thou comest, autumn, heralded by the rain,

With banners, by great gales incessant fanned,

Brighter than brightest silks of Samarcand,

And stately oxen harnessed to thy wain!

From: ‘Autumn’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–82)

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are drive, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing …

From: Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)

W.H. Hudson (1900) noted the startling suddenness of autumn across the South Downs, hitting the September landscape with days of whistling winds and driving rain, and night temperatures close to freezing. He considered there to be little difference between September and December on the South Downs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning concurs on the ferocity of autumn across hilly landscapes.

Go, sit upon the lofty hill,

And turn your eyes around,

Where waving woods and waters wild

Do hymn an autumn sound

From: ‘The Autumn’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61)

There appears to have been little time to appreciate the tints of autumn. Leaf colour started to change then in rushed the rain-laden south-westerly winds leaving foliage leaden with moisture and easily stripped from the trees.  And autumn arrived much earlier for trees in cities and towns than in the countryside, especially if the summer was dry. Kate M. Hall (Nature Rambles in London, 1908) noted how trees lining London’s streets, and especially limes and sycamores, were already yellow and drying up on her return from her summer holiday in September, when trees in the countryside were still dense and green. She describes leaf fall in the city as rapid and giving Londoners no chance to experience the joys of autumn.

READ MORE: Dying ash comes alive in poetry, pictures and prose

Forestry Journal: Japanese maple gives a flash of late autumn colour surrounded by abnormally early snowfall.Japanese maple gives a flash of late autumn colour surrounded by abnormally early snowfall.


Most classical poets have put pen to paper on autumn, but there is one literary giant not yet mentioned for whom autumn was a special time. His words inspired an artist to paint one of the most moving autumn scenes ever seen on a British canvas. Autumn was Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s time and his well-known melancholy shone through in hauntingly sad accounts of the season.

A spirit haunt’s the last year’s hours

Dwelling amid these yellowing bowers …

My very heart faints and my whole soul grieves

At the moist rich smell of the rotting leaves

From: ‘Song’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1830–65)

Tennyson did more for autumn trees and leaves than just writing poetry. He was the inspiration for ‘Autumn Leaves’ painted by Sir John Everett Millais (1829–96), founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite group of painters and writers. Millais visited Tennyson in 1854 and his experience in helping the poet to sweep up and burn dead leaves at Tennyson’s home on the Isle of Wight inspired the painting. According to experts on the period, Millais was reading Tennyson’s The Princess while working on the picture and the poet’s words via Millais’ thoughts come through.

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean.

Tears from the depth of some divine despair

Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes

In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,

And thinking on the days that are no more

From: ‘The Princess’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Like the bard’s poetry, Millais’ painting is mournfully melancholy with four young girls piling fallen leaves onto a heap, appropriately clad in black and sombre attire as if mourning summer as the night closes in. The only bright part is an orange sky with silhouettes of clouds and trees, so typical of cold twilights following bright autumn days, and the painting is accurate in detail for leaves on the heap.

Forestry Journal: Autumn beckons the sweet chestnut tree.Autumn beckons the sweet chestnut tree.


Old-time meteorologists and naturalists recognised St Luke’s Little Summer as a short period of glorious sunny weather centred on October 18, the Feast of St Luke the Evangelist and patron saint of physicians, and providing a welcome break between the turmoil of early autumn and the impending desolation and doom of winter.

G. Clarke Nuttall, writing just after the First World War, claimed the beech tree was at its very best at this time, and described how the copper-bronzed beech leaves looked as though they had been dipped in wine.

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