Exploring autumn’s last gasp and its impact on the country’s trees through poetic verse.

NOVEMBER is the third and final month of the calendar autumn, but our forebears could have been forgiven for thinking this eleventh month of the year was the start of winter rather than the tail-end of autumn. There’s an early precedent for such thinking, because November was the ninth month of the Roman calendar with November 11th earmarked as the beginning of winter. Either way, November has always been one of the less-loved months of the year, particularly with authors, poets and painters, who apparently struggled to put pen to paper or brush to canvas in its memory. 

Joseph Addison (1672–1719), essayist, poet and playwright, said “the gloomy months of November, when the people of England hang and drown themselves”, and who could blame them? After a September which seemed like never-ending summer and a kaleidoscope of leaf colour in October, winter would have seemed far away.

But perhaps they were depressed from reading too much Tennyson.

A spirit haunts 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 rotting leaves.

From ‘Song’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)

My early memories of November are not particularly pleasant, with October mists deepening into thick fog and dressing any leaves still hanging on with a furry coat of frost. 

I distinctly recall a freezing fog-bound morning on the edge of North London after I had just returned from a long stint in the tropics. The place was Hadley Common, a peculiar site on very acid soil with trees and ground cover you might more reasonably expect to find hundreds of miles to the north and west of London. 

Pine trees, stunted by the sodden and shallow soil, peered through the fog to epitomise November, presenting a desolate scene captured in few words by the owner of the petrol station where I was filling up: “Filthy old morning.”

Forestry Journal: Pine trees peer through the fog to epitomise November.Pine trees peer through the fog to epitomise November. (Image: FJ)

At least the evergreen pines bore leaves, unlike the deciduous trees all around which were already looking threadbare. 

October is the month when deciduous trees colour up, but not until November do the leaves all fall down. The transition from October into November was always one of the most abrupt changes on the English landscape, captured perfectly (you might think) in the following lines by the 19th-century poet E.A. Robinson.

And slowly, through the Tilbury mist,
The stillness of October gold,
Went out like beauty from a face.

From ‘Llewellyn and the Tree’ by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869– 1935)

But this was not the ancient town of Tilbury on the Thames Estuary, where 4,000 men assembled in 1588 to confront an expected invasion from the Spanish Armada, but a ‘make-believe’ village dreamed up by the North American poet. 

The final act of autumn in Robinson’s native Maine appears to mirror the same quick-fire, soulless changes seen in ‘Old England’. Changes made all the more malign by three consecutive days – Halloween (31st October), All Saints’ Day (1st November) and All Souls’ Day (2nd November), 72 hours in succession dedicated to the dead.

I will never forget All Souls’ Day on 2nd November 1971 as a postgraduate student at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine on the Island of Trinidad, a country with a strong Spanish and French Catholic tradition. As the light started to fade I accompanied the family I lodged with to the Catholic cemetery at Arima in East Trinidad to celebrate All Souls’ Day in memory of the father of the household who had passed away some years earlier. We sat around his grave and ate and drank. For someone of Anglo-Saxon heritage, not even familiar with All Souls’ Day let alone its celebrations, the experience was surreal. 


The hillsides were dotted with hundreds of flickering lights from the flambeaux (oil lamps) of mourning families. Fireflies and crickets added to the atmosphere under swaying fronds of coconut and cocorite palm trees, illuminated in the night sky by hundreds of oil lamps. I can’t remember if the obligatory rum bottle was passed around, but being Trinidad it almost certainly was. ‘Old Oak Rum’, as the name suggests, was still being matured in oak barrels imported from England, done that way since colonial times. A strange and perverse custom, since Trinidad grows a wide a selection of hardwoods that would do the job equally well.


Forestry Journal: A large field maple getting ready to lose its entire load of yellow autumn leaves.A large field maple getting ready to lose its entire load of yellow autumn leaves. (Image: FJ)

November’s final act on autumn’s trees and leaves clearly preoccupied Shelley, one of England’s classic romantic poets, when he wrote the introductory lines of his ‘Ode to the West Wind’.

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead,
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.

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

Sara Coleridge, author and daughter of iconic English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, summed up November in just two lines.

Dull November brings the blast,
Then the leaves are whirling fast

From ‘The Months’ by Sara Coleridge (1802–1852)

Keeping it in the family was yet another Coleridge, this time Hartley, son of Samuel Taylor, who was inspired to rhyme around November.

The mellow year is hastening to its close...
Hangs, a pale mourner for its past...
The russet leaves obstruct the straggling way...
And the gaunt woods, in ragged, scant array,
Wrap their old limbs with sombre ivy vine.

From ‘November’ by Hartley Coleridge (1796–1849)

Finally I searched ‘The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’, written by Edith Holden, to see if I could find an entry that matched these lines around a century on. And there it was, for 15th November 1906, which Edith Holden described as: “Stormy day with a gale of wind and rain from the west. I walked home from Solihull [Warwickshire] in the afternoon. All the way along, the leaves were whirling down from the trees in hundreds and dancing along the road before me”.


Forestry Journal: Autumn finally catches up with this veteran sweet chestnut.Autumn finally catches up with this veteran sweet chestnut. (Image: FJ)

W.C. Bryant, famous poet, journalist and nature lover, sums up all there is to say about November – wailing wind and failing foliage, bare trees, skeletal woodlands, and despair, despondency and desolation for man and beast alike. There was no hint that it was his native New England in the American poet’s mind when he wrote ‘Death of Flowers’, perhaps showing we have a lot more in common than a shared language.

The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,
Of wailing winds and naked woods and meadows brown and sere,
Heaped in the hollows of the grove, the autumn leaves lie dead,
They rustle to the eddying gust, and to the rabbit’s tread;
The robin and the wren are flown, and from the shrubs the jay,
And from the wood-top calls the crow through all the gloomy day.

From ‘The Death of Flowers’ by William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878)

Key words that set the scene for different months crop up time and again across the whole spectrum of Britain’s poetry and prose. A classic example is the preceding month of October, which gave ‘gossamer, glinting and gorse’ as popular perceptions of the landscape. Spiders apparently become more active as the temperature drops in autumn. Webs of gossamer spun by an association of arachnids, glinting in the low-angled October sun, suddenly become visible on leafless trees and shrubs.

Forestry Journal: November’s sky is chill and drear, November’s leaf is red and sear. Red November leaf on ornamental Pyrus (pear) tree.November’s sky is chill and drear, November’s leaf is red and sear. Red November leaf on ornamental Pyrus (pear) tree. (Image: FJ)

Gorse hosts gorse spider mites, which feed on the foliage and cover these spiky evergreen shrubs with their webbing in the process. Moreover, gorse has a second shot at flowering in autumn, which may be the only bright spark on the landscape at this time of the year, as recognised by Anglo-Welsh poet Edward Thomas.

Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,
And gorse that has no time not to be gay.

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

There is nothing to match the grimness of November, but a couple of homophones (a word that sounds the same as another word but has a different meaning and/or spelling) are worth mentioning, if for no other reason than they are seldom used today. The word ‘sere’ in the second line of W.C. Bryant’s ‘The Death of Flowers’, implying withered vegetation, is clearly tailor-made for ‘November’, much like its homophone ‘sear’ (scorch, burn, char) used by Scottish historian, poet and playwright Sir Walter Scott when writing about his beloved Scottish Borders.

November’s sky is chill and drear,
November’s leaf is red and sear.

From ‘Ettrick Forest in November’ by Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832)

Britain is not well blessed with red leaves in autumn, but some trees and shrubs, including blackberry (bramble), rowan and whitebeam, sport a sprinkling of scarlet leaves that glow on an otherwise bare and brown November landscape.


What past communities thought about November differed between town and country, more so than it would today. November in the country was an active time full of anticipation, with stubble fields under the plough and the first sounds of the hunter’s horn as the fox-hunting season got underway.

November – Sad mists have hid the sun, the land is forlorn. The plough is afield, the hunter windeth his horn....
From: ‘The Months’ by Robert Bridges (1844–1930)

Cornfields harvested in September were already under the plough in November, turning the sod over to hard frosts to break up the soil and kill pests ready for the spring sowing of wheat, barley and oats. Fields that were much smaller than those of today were bounded by hedgerows and hedgerow trees of oak and elm, supplying timber for horse-drawn ploughs made from oak (share beam) and elm (draught beam). You can reasonably imagine how the ploughman relied on the sentinel elms spaced around the perimeter of the field as markers to plough a straight furrow. 

Rooks which built colonies of nests in the English elms continued to live together throughout the year. As the darkening November days drew to a close, huge numbers of rooks would gather in late afternoon, and from a wide area, getting ready to fly off to the roosting wood where they would spend the hours of darkness.

Go back far enough (circa 500 years) and there was another rural activity closely associated with the month of November. Beaver hunting was carried out in November because that was the time beavers were especially active, building their dams in preparation for winter. Hunting parties equipped with dogs moved stealthily along alder- and willow-lined riparian strips, hunting beavers for their meat, fur and most of all their anal glands and the highly perfumed castoreum contained therein. This was all carried out under the particularly bright full November moon, appropriately called the ‘Beaver Moon’.

Almost 100 years on from the passing of the poet Robert Bridges, November is an altogether quieter month in the countryside. Autumn cereals sown in September are already inches high, ready to brave the winter months. English elm was destroyed by Dutch elm disease, leaving the landscape leaner, meaner and largely without its traditional rookeries, which dispersed into other tree species and situations. November 1st was first day of the fox-hunting season and it would have been the same today if the unnecessarily cruel sport had not been banned by law some two decades ago. 

November in the city today is probably as grim and gaunt as it always was, when English poet Thomas Hood put pen to paper about November in London.

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –

From ‘November’ by Thomas Hood (1799-1845)