Dear John Keats,
I love you. I hope that doesn’t sound creepy, since you’re dead. I miss you. I hope that doesn’t sound unhinged, since I never met you. But every year when the walnut leaves begin to shower the ground with gold, I think of you and wonder what you would have become if you had not died in the summer of your life, but lived to see its autumn and winter.
Now that I have two sons, two wild and beautiful boys, I feel your loss even more. You were someone’s son. You died too soon. I wonder what your mother felt, how your sweetheart grieved. I hope that I will never mourn my own children. I pray that they will grow up and grow old, that they will relish the stillness of a hundred winters.
In my mind, for as long as I can remember, the year has always been a circle, with winter at the top. Every year, there’s the slow climb through autumn to January, and then the descent into the warmth and frantic growth of spring and summer, the riot of color and light.
But I love autumn best, your “season of mist and mellow fruitfulness.” The subtlety of autumn is lovelier to me than the luminous colors of spring or the luxuriance of summer. Spring and summer are young women trying a little too hard, their v-necks a little too low and their skirts a little too tight. They’re a little insecure, and working a little too hard to cover it up. Autumn is a woman who’s grown into herself, who’s comfortable in her own skin, and she’s all the more beautiful for the dusting of silver in her hair like the first frost, for the faint lines tracing years of smiles across her face like the veins of a leaf.
Is this why I love you, John Keats? Because, despite freezing us momentarily on an urn in the springtime of our youth, you turned around and offered women the incomparable beauty of age? I know “To Autumn” isn’t some kind of proto-feminist manifesto, but there’s something comforting for women in it about the idea that aging brings new beauties of its own.
I wonder how you knew autumn so well. You died so young. But I think yours was an old soul from the moment of birth–an autumn soul, a soul traversed by lines of geese heading south and pierced by the cries of blackbirds on cold mornings soaked with dew. On those mornings, our breath hangs before us like it does in those ancient Mayan paintings, reminding us that we are mortal, that like this middle earth each day we fail and fall.
Maybe this is why I love you. You faced the abyss, and where you could have found despair, you saw beauty. You were so brave. I am not as brave as you. I know you endured more than your share of long, dark nights, but your words blazed though them, traveling down across the years, across ocean and mountains, to strike a chord in my soul that resonates without ceasing.
In the end, as with all earthly love, perhaps it’s a little narcissistic, this autumnal obsession of mine. I love your words because they say the things I’m still struggling to articulate. I love them because they voice the preverbal yearnings of my own soul. I love you not because I think you Romantic poets are smokin’ hotties (no offense), but because I want to be you. Well, aside from the whole “dying tragically young” thing. That sucks.
But I want to be an autumn soul. I want to ripen slowly, to bring to fruition all these swirling, half-baked thoughts inside my head. When the birds fly south, my soul feels the heavenward tug, and I long for something unreachable, feel the pull of something I can’t yet name. Every year when autumn circles around again, I want to step out my front door and onto a road that might whisk me away to anywhere, everywhere, places as yet unseen and adventures as yet undreamt-of.
Maybe this old wanderlust isn’t really so much the desire to move through space as it is a desire to move forward in some deeper, quieter, subtler way. A journey of the heart or mind or soul. What’s the difference? Where does one end and the other begin? Did you know, John Keats? What did you discover when your soul at last took flight? I sift your words for meaning, seeking truth as well as beauty.
The year is circling back up again. That much I know. It is autumn again, and there is something in the air that beckons, that haunts me, that whispers lines of poetry from a hand long since turned to dust. But you are out there, John Keats, in the slant of afternoon sunlight across the stubbled fields, in the autumn song of the bees, in the leaves of trees that blaze as if on fire. Your words have burned themselves into my mind. I will never recover from the astonishing pain of so much beauty, beauty so powerful it wounds.
Every autumn my heart breaks a little–at the thought of loss, at the irrevocable passing of time, at the staggering beauty of this world. But you remind me, John Keats, that this too is a season of fruitfulness, that new beginnings spring from endings, and that it is in our power to glean from this life what we will.