As Autumn Turns to Winter

By Emily Rupp

When I took my undergraduate survey course on British literature from the Romantics to the present, I had a little habit of writing down the poems I loved reading the most into the margins of my (now abandoned) bullet journal.  The imagery of the poems most often motivated me to collect them, but I also kept poems that held messages that resonated with me.  I didn’t want to forget them, and I certainly haven’t as “To Autumn,” by John Keats, keeps coming back into my mind as this semester comes to a close.

There are ultimately two major ways to think about autumn as a season.  The first of those is what the first stanza of “To Autumn” primarily focuses on: a season of harvest and abundance.  The (literal) fruits of labor have paid off, and now we can reap the rewards.
“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-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d 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’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.”
Yet, what happens once those fruits have all been plucked away?  What happens next?
Well, once the warmer days of autumn subside, suddenly it starts to look like a completely different season, and the second way to think about autumn kicks in:

This was a picture I took while walking along my campus prior to Thanksgiving break.  It was the first major snowfall of the season, and I was bemoaning it.  It looks a lot more like winter now, doesn’t it?  A season we associate with harshness, coldness, death, endings…and it is sadly all too appropriate for the way we feel by the end of the semester.  Each of us has dealt with week after week of reading and writing, no matter what stage of our graduate career we’re in.  Some have had to add teaching duties to that.  Others have leadership positions.  For people like myself, we’ve been scrambling to put together applications for PhD programs, too.  The workload only increases as those final weeks tick down.  Any optimism we may have entered this season with is now tumbling down as low as the temperatures have reached.  (Unless you’re attending a school in the southern United States.  In that case, let me come migrate down there for the winter, please.)
By this point in the semester, even though we should be feeling like we’ve amassed all this knowledge, that it’s time to pluck it off the branches and use it and contribute it back out there (whether it be a course paper, conference paper, journal article, dissertation chapter, etc.), but instead, we feel much more like the apple tree that’s now barren of all its leaves and fruit.  Despite how many years we’ve been in school, how many years we’ve followed this cycle of seasons and semesters, it doesn’t feel like it gets any easer, does it?  Yet, when we’re stressed out about now, and we’re hoping to just be in the future, maybe returning to this Keats poem can remind us of what really matters:
“Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too”
What is the music that we can find in all of this?  Perhaps it’s a reminder that challenges are what strengthen us.  We aren’t the same people we were at the start of the semester.  We can get so lost in the stress and negativity that we miss out on the progress we’ve made.  We’re all better students, better teachers, better leaders, and if we can remember that, maybe we can all try to end everything on a positive note.  Even if the transition from autumn to winter is symbolic of death, we aren’t close to that.  We’re only just beginning.
John Keats, “To Autumn”: