Burns and Language: Autumn

It’s getting colder this time of year as Autumn has us firmly in its grasp. There is a noticeable change in the atmosphere, from the great summer we have had, when we venture outdoors.

This change is one that Burns also noticed. He wrote in a letter to Thomson in August 1793 that “Autumn is my propitious season; I make more verses in it than all the year else.”

And he does seem to have been quite prolific in autumn. In fact Burns mentions the season 27 times, mainly in poetry or song. Let’s have a look at a couple of uses Burns had for the season:

               The sober laverock, warbling wild,

                Shall to the skies aspire;

               The gowdspink, music’s gayest child,

               Shall sweetly join the choir:

               The blackbird strong, the lintwhite clear,

                The mavis mild and mellow;

               The robin pensive autumn cheer,

                   In all her locks of yellow.

Perhaps most obviously, Burns uses “autumn” to help invoke scenes of nature as shown here. This is an excerpt from Burns’s poem ‘The Humble Petition of Bruar Water to the Noble Duke of Athole’, which, it would appear is a plea to the Duke to introduce forests to his estate. In this stanza, Burns makes use of his knowledge of birds to highlight how the wildlife would benefit from such an action, all year round. The natural scene is one at which Burns excelled, and is one of the main reasons why Burns has a reputation of being a precursor to the Romantic era. This stanza is a good example of Burns’s skill as a ‘nature poet.’

Here’s an example of Burns using “autumn” in a song:

               The lazy mist hangs from the brow of the hill,

               Concealing the course of the dark winding rill;

               How languid the scenes, late so sprightly, appear!

               As Autumn to Winter resigns the pale year.

               The forests are leafless, the meadows are brown,

               And all the gay foppery of summer is flown:

               Apart let me wander, apart let me muse,

              How quick Time is flying, how keen Fate pursues!

So we can see that Burns also uses the seasonal term in the sense of a more common metaphor for the passage of time. We can also see however, that Burns was also adept at describing the not-so-beautiful natural scene. The “leafless” forests and “brown” meadows do not invoke scenes of joy. But Burns is using this song to make a philosophical comment on the nature of life: The older we get, the keener “fate pursues.”

Burns did say he wrote more verses in autumn than in any other time of year. But I just checked his uses of the word “winter.” He uses it over 100 times. I think I’ll leave that for when the even colder nights draw in.

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