October 2011


Celebrating The Turning Of The Earth With Keats, Whittier, Dickens, Piaf, Durante and Washington (Dinah, That Is)


To Autumn

By John Keats

Composed 19 September 1819

keatsOn September 21, 1819, two days after he had composed "To Autumn," John Keats wrote to his writer friend John Hamilton Reynolds. In addition to telling Reynolds of his decision to abandon his epic poem-in-progress, "Hyperion" ("There were too many Miltonic inversions in it--Miltonic verse cannot be written but in an artful or rather artist's humour. I wish to give myself up to other sensations."), he spoke with rapture about the onset of Autumn and how it had inspired him to craft new verse: "How beautiful the season is now--How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather--Dian skies--I never lik'd stubble fields so much as now--Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm--in the same way that some pictures look warm--this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it. I hope you are better employed than in gaping after weather."

Harold Bloom declares "To Autumn" "the most perfect shorter poem in the English language." Keats's Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Walter Jackson Bate opines: "Each generation has found it one of the most nearly perfect poems in English." Its timelessness has made "To Autumn" the most anthologized poem in the English language.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


One of the true autumn evergreens, if you will, is the song 'Autumn Leaves.' Titled 'Les Feuilles mortes' ('The Dead Leaves'), the song was composed in 1945 by Joseph Kosma (music) and poet Jacques Prevert (lyrics) and introduced a year later, 1946, by Yves Montand in the film Les Portes de la Nuit. The English language version was written by Johnny Mercer in 1947 and first popularized on these shores by Jo Stafford. It caught on immediately and has since been covered by a host of jazz and pop artists in both vocal and instrumental versions. On December 24, 1950, one of those artists, Edith Piaf, performed 'Autumn Leaves' in both English and French on The Big Show's Christmas Eve radio show, as heard here. During this segment the Little Sparrow chats with host Tallulah Bankhead, and guests Margaret O'Brien and Ed Wynn also make appearances.


Thoughts of Autumn by Yann Okada

Autumn Thoughts
By John Greenleaf Whittier, 1849

whittierQuaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier (December 17, 1807-September 7, 1892) belonged to a group of 19th Century American poets from New England dubbed The Fireside Poets. Their numbers included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and William Cullen Bryant. Though the Fireside Poets were concerned primarily with politics, domestic life and mythology, Whittier also wrote a substantial number of poems about nature, including a book, Poems of Nature, from which the following, "Autumn Thoughts," is drawn.

Gone hath the Spring, with all its flowers,
And gone the Summer's pomp and show,
And Autumn, in his leafless bowers,
Is waiting for the Winter's snow.

I said to Earth, so cold and gray,
"An emblem of myself thou art."
"Not so," the Earth did seem to say,
"For Spring shall warm my frozen heart."
 I soothe my wintry sleep with dreams
 Of warmer sun and softer rain,
 And wait to hear the sound of streams
 And songs of merry birds again.

 But thou, from whom the Spring hath gone,
 For whom the flowers no longer blow,
 Who standest blighted and forlorn,
 Like Autumn waiting for the snow;

 No hope is thine of sunnier hours,
 Thy Winter shall no more depart;
  No Spring revive thy wasted flowers,
  Nor Summer warm thy frozen heart.


Of the many artists who have recorded 'September Song,' a classic expression of late-life melancholy co-written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, few have delivered it with soulful conviction to compare to Jimmy Durante's. The song was originally introduced in the 1938 Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday, and has since been recorded by artists ranging from Billy Eckstine to Jo Stafford to Maurice Chevalier to Eartha Kitt to James Brown to Willie Nelson--even Lou Reed has taken a run at it. Durante's version was the title song of an album he recorded for Warner Bros. in 1963. Schnozzola knocks it out of the park.


‘Hail To The Merry Autumn Days!’

Love conquers all in a Charles Dickens comic opera

dickensAt age 23 Charles Dickens’s first play, a comic opera in two acts (with John Hullah supplying music for Dickens’s libretto) titled The Village Coquettes, was accepted for production a week prior to the publication of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Owing to scheduling problems, Coquettes followed a second Dickens play, The Strange Gentleman, in being staged for the public. Gentleman (adapted from Dickens’s Sketches by Boz) was a hit in its first run of 50 performances. On its final night, Tuesday, December 6, 1836, Gentleman shared the bill with the premiere of The Village Coquettes. A historical romance, deliberately written in the style of the minor popular plays of the time, Coquettes did not catch the public’s fancy. Reviews were mostly negative, scording the opera as derivative, and not appropriate for nor worthy of Boz’s talents. Thus Coquettes had only a limited success, and closed its first run after seventeen performances (24 Dec 1836). Revived the following year, its producer was soon begging Dickens to give away plenty of free passes, in order to fill empty seats in a drafty house. On April 7, Dickens asked to have his name removed from the playbills. Coquettes ended its run with a total of 27 performances (17 May 1837). The story does have a happy ending, though. For the last few performances of Coquettes, the lead role of Squire Norton was taken over by Henry Burnett, a star of the Royal Academy concerts and a long standing friend of one of the show’s other stars, Dickens’s sister Fanny. Henry and Fanny fell in love, became engaged and were married on September 13, 1837.

Set in an English village in the Autumn of 1729, The Village Coquettes includes two specifically seasonal songs. The first opens the production and is sung by a chorus of laborers and the character of John Maddox as they enter in a cart laden with corn sheaves. Untitled, this song, sung as a round, is an enthusiastic celebration of a “time of rich and bounteous crops, rejoicing and good cheer.”

Hail to the merry Autumn days, when yellow cornfields shine,
Far brighter than the costly cup that holds the monarch’s wine!
Hail to the merry harvest time, the gayest of the year,
The time of rich and bounteous crops, rejoicing, and good cheer!

‘Tis pleasant on a fine Spring morn to see the buds expand,
‘Tis pleasant in the Summer time to view the teeming land;
‘Tis pleasant on a Winter’s night to crouch around the blaze,
But what are joys like these, my boys, to Autumn’s merry days!

Then hail to merry Autumn days, when yellow corn-fields shine,
Far brighter than the costly cup that holds the monarch’s wine!
And hail to merry harvest time, the gayest of the year,
The time of rich and bounteous crops, rejoicing, and good cheer!

Later in the play, however, the character George Edmunds, who is betrothed to Lucy Benson, sings with a decidedly different perspective on the season after Lucy has apparently stood him up. Though he is certain he has lost her, we know from an earlier scene that Lucy, whom the rich Squire Norton has attempted to shame into dumping Edmonds—deriding him as “a rustic” and urging Lucy, “Forget him--remember your own worth”—refuses to deny the power of her love for her suitor: “I wish I could, sir,” she tells the Squire. “My heart will tell me though, weak and silly as I am, that I cannot better show the consciousness of my own worth, than by remaining true to my first and early love. Your honour rouses my foolish pride; but real true love is not to be forgotten easily.”

Unaware of this exchange and despairing of his future with Lucy, Edmonds offers a plaintive lament straight from his broken heart, in which he sees in the turning of the earth the death of his romantic fortunes as well:

Autumn leaves, autumn leaves, lie strewn around me here;
Autumn leaves, autumn leaves, how sad, how cold, how drear!
How like the hopes of childhood’s day,
Thick clustering on the bough!
How like those hopes is their decay,
How faded are they now!
Autumn leaves, autumn leaves, lie strewn around me here;
Autumn leaves, autumn leaves, how sad, how cold, how drear!

Wither’d leaves, wither’d leaves, that fly before the gale;
Wither’d leaves, wither’d leaves, ye tell a mournful tale,
Of love once true, and friends once kind,
And happy moments fled:
Dispersed by every breath of wind,
Forgotten, changed, or dead!
Autumn leaves, autumn leaves, lie strewn around me here;
Autumn leaves, autumn leaves, how sad, how cold, how drear!

In the end, Lucy will not be moved, even though she fears the Squire’s ill temper will drive him to violence against her. Her love for Edmunds, in fact, is so great, and her disdain for the Squire so complete, that the Squire gives her up, telling Lucy’s father, “I honour her too much to injure her, or you.” Lucy and Edmunds exit, singing their exultant song of Autumn:

Hail to the merry autumn days, when yellow cornfields shine,
Far brighter than the costly cup that holds the monarch’s wine!
Hail to the merry harvest time, the gayest of the year,
The time of rich and bounteous crops, rejoicing, and good cheer.



Dinah Washington, 'September In the Rain.' Written by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics), published in 1937 and introduced that year by James Melton in his starring role in Louis King-directed film Melody for Two. The innumerable cover versions of this standard include renditions by The Beatles, Norah Jones, Peggy Lee, Marty Robbins, Jo Stafford, Hank Thompson, Sarah Vaughan and Lester Young, among many others. 'September In the Rain' was Miss Dinah's final major hit, in 1961, at #5 R&B and #23 pop.

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