“Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again.
And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away.”
It’s funny the particular things we remember and hold on to from our college classes. This time of year, when autumn leaves begin to fall, I always recall a day early in my Dante class in grad school. The brilliant professor, John Freccero, called our attention to a cartoon from The New Yorker. In it, an old man with a cane sits on a park bench. A single leaf falls to the ground in front of him. The caption reads, “Damn.”
For the original audience, I suspect the cartoon was meant to evoke a smile as one is reminded that the beauty of autumn is so closely and visibly associated with aging, decay and death. For our professor, it was an introduction to Dante’s take on the most famous Homeric (or epic) simile.
When Dante, early in his pilgrimage into hell comes to the river Acheron where the grim ferryman carries damned souls to their everlasting fate, he notes their eagerness to embark on the miserable journey:
As in autumn the leaves drop off one after the other till the branch sees all its spoils on the ground,
so the wicked seed of Adam fling themselves from that shore one by one. (Sinclair, trans.)
So, Dante draws not only on the familiar association of falling leaves with decay and death but emphasizes their sheer number, each single soul one of a countless multitude.
But my professor was drawing our attention to Dante’s guide, the Latin poet Virgil. Virgil is Dante’s literal guide through the Inferno, but also his literary forefather or mentor, whose famous description of Aeneas’s descent into the underworld is a literary precursor to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Virgil uses the same simile to describe crossing the river into the land of the dead:
…as many as the leaves that fall
in the woods at the first frost of autumn, as many as the birds
that flock to land from ocean deeps, when the cold of the year
drives them abroad and dispatches them to sunnier countries.
They stood there, pleading to be first to make the crossing,
stretching out their hands in longing for the far shore.
(A.S. Kline, trans.)
Virgil himself was nodding to his precursor Homer, whose underworld reference inspires similar echoes:
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves
across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again.
And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away. (Fagels, trans.)
Books are made from other books—certainly that is one of the fundamental lessons a literature student learns. The image of the falling leaves and the innumerable souls of the dead echoes from Homer (works committed to writing around 750 BCE) to Virgil (around 20 BCE) to Dante (1320). And we can detect later transfigurations of that image in Milton (1667), Coleridge (1797), Shelley (1819), and Wallace Stevens (1921).
And why not? Each of those thousands of years has had its leaves fall and inspired thoughts of beauty and death. Autumn is the season in which change (and thus transience) is most visible. Summer can often seem frozen in a hazy stillness. In spring, the morning may surprise us with a bloom not there the day before. But in autumn, the leaves fall before our eyes, singly or in multitudes.
So, as a student in my twenties, what did I know of aging and sadness, regret and longing—what could I know of what the old man on the bench felt? For that, we remember that literature both resonates with our experience and broadens it through contact with different consciousnesses and perspectives. Somehow, that younger me filed that chain of images away and it was there when I was older and felt those timeless emotions more acutely.
John Keats knew, even though he died at twenty-five. His description in his ode “To Autumn” emphasizes harvest richness—not falling leaves—as the season works to “bend with apples the moss’d cottage trees,/ And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.” Poets may prefer to write of spring, but to Autumn Keats acknowledges “thou hast thy music too.”
Wallace Stevens, deliberately evoking this Keats poem, writes “Death is the mother of beauty.” As Autumn colors remind us, beautiful things are all the more precious because they cannot last.
And that takes us back to the Shakespeare sonnet that also stuck with me as a rather carefree young man only to resonate more deeply with the years—Sonnet 73. In traditional Shakespearean sonnet form, it is made of three quatrains and a couplet. Each couplet offers a different metaphor for being old, and the first is an autumn tree:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
The following quatrains develop the same simple idea with the metaphors of twilight (night is “death’s second self”) and a fire going out. Each quatrain is equally summarized by the same blunt message of the speaker to his beloved; they say, essentially, “When you look at me, you see I’m old.”
The couplet focuses the consequence to end the poem, concluding with a remarkable line of ten single-syllable words:
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
My education was literary, so it’s hardly a surprise that my touchstones come from that realm. Yours may come from other forms of human imagination, discourse, reasoning and creation. What still surprises me is how the image of the falling leaves, or perhaps just the jazzy strains of “Autumn in New York,” so vividly bring to my mind not just Dante or Shakespeare, but my professor and his New Yorker cartoon.