There’s something about a gray September day that makes the heart grow melancholy.
Shakespeare, in his sonnet No. 73, captures this brooding sense of autumn when he likens himself to the season.
"That time of year thou mayest 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."
There is, with the dying of the leaves and the departure of the birds, a literal loss. Summer is gone; mere memories remain. The choir lofts where late the sweet birds sang are empty now, but the sight of them recalls the loveliness of the songs, and the very beauty that enthralled us earlier in the year now causes sadness.
For it is fall, the antithesis of spring, a time of letting go. Things fall in fall: leaves, fruits, temperatures, sap, spirits. The springing up that happened half a year ago must now subside. Plants and animals prepare to rest. The soil has earned a respite, too. The great cycle of life curves down and in.
As the preacher of the Old Testament assures us, “For every thing there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.”
Where, then, does the melancholy come from?
From the joy. Where else?
But how easily we forget its source, how quick we are to feel cast out, forlorn. And how readily we try to distract ourselves, to numb our hearts against the sorrow.
I think this is a bad mistake.
Kahlil Gibran, in "The Prophet," wrote: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
By distracting ourselves we avoid the growth that, eventually, allows us to feel greater happiness. The truth of the matter is not that joy is greater than sorrow, nor sorrow greater than joy, but that they are inseparable.
So when the leaves flutter earthward and the frost turns the flowers gray, it’s proper to feel downhearted. That is, perhaps, September’s function: to prepare us for the greater losses; the loss of youth, the loss of loved ones, the loss of life itself.
The challenge is to celebrate that which we value, and then to muster the grace and dignity to let it go.
As Shakespeare’s sonnet concludes:
"This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
"To love that well which thou must leave ere long."
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.