Friday, 2 October 2020

DEPARTURES AND ARRIVALS

A jay is gorging on acorns under the old oak tree - Autumn is here.  

Hawthorn bushes are beaded with red haws.  Bracken is turning rust brown.  On Monday (28 September) the last of the swallows were gathering over the field, flying low and rapidly, as if agitated by a mixture of excitement and anxiety as they set off from Penllyn for Africa.  On the same day a friend tweeted a sighting of newly arrived redwings in Cumbria.  

The swallows reminded me of Keats' ode 'To Autumn': 'and gathering swallows twitter in the skies'.  Keats wrote the poem in September 1819.  He was celebrating a bumper harvest after the first decent summer since 1815 when the huge Tambora volcano eruption in Indonesia affected the world's weather and caused widespread crop failures.

Keats personifies Autumn as a female figure.  He sees her 'sitting careless on a granary floor', her hair 'soft-lifted by the winnowing wind'.  Or she is sleeping on 'a half-reaped furrow', while her 'hook' [sickle] 'spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers.'  Or she is like a gleaner, carrying a heavily laden basket of grain on her head.

A romantic pastoral figure, created by an idealistic city-dwelling young man?  But Keats' Autumn is also a farm labourer (if a rather dilatory one!).  The labour-intensive process of harvesting had not changed much for thousands of years - cutting with a sickle, winnowing in a drafty barn, poor people gleaning the remaining grains in the field.

During the later 19th century the process would become increasingly mechanised with the invention of the reaper and binder (which cut and bound the corn into sheaves) and the steam threshing machine which did away with the laborious winnowing.  In Tess of the D'Urbevilles Hardy describes the labourers feeding the relentless threshing machine - it is like a scene from hell.

These machines have now become quaint agricultural relics with a romance of their own.  Though as a child I do remember one farmer on Penllyn who still used a reaper and binder up to about 1970.

Amy Clampitt in 'Stacking the Straw' (published 1983) writes about a more mechanised harvest than Keats, but the repeated 'in those days' emphasises that it is a looking-back poem, pre-combine harvester.  The poem is full of Amy Clampitt's original and exuberant use of language.  The threshing machine is powered by 'the stoked dinosaur of a steam engine'.  The 'strawstacks' beveled loaves' are 'a shape that's now extinct'.  The imagery of metal flows through the poem - oatfields are 'vats of running platinum', wheat and barley are a 'yellower alloy', grain is 'winnowed ore'.  As the machine spews out the straw 'a lone man with a pitch fork' crafts 'a kind of mountain'.  He has 'the aura of a hero' and ends the day 'black with the baser residue of that discarded gold.'  The last four lines of the poem are a most unexpected take on the straw theme (no spoiler - see below). *

In the field next to my house the monoculture maize crop is taller than me.  The cobs swell on the stalks.  Soon a forage harvester will shred the lot into heavy trailors and it will be carted away to be stored as maize sileage to feed cows on an intensive dairy farm.

It's far from the 'twinèd flowers' growing in the corn and the sound of 'hedge crickets' in Keats' ode 'To Autumn'.

*  Read Amy Clampitt's poem here:
https://www.blueridgejournal.com/poems/ac-stack.htm
It was published in her collection The Kingfisher (1983) and in her Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1998) 

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