The Quality of Autumn Light

by Daniel Hartley

Magritte, 'Homesickness'

A year or so ago I came across the following passage in Thomas Hardy:

The gray tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degree of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of morning, light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of evening, it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse.

Such prose seems to arise from an Adamic urge to fuse the names of things with things themselves, to lift up the dumb linguistic animal to a level of discernment which is  normally beyond it. Ultimately, it is doomed to fail: the range of the world’s phenomenal nuance is infinitely greater than the combinations of words we have for it. Where denotation falls short, however, connotation fills in the gaps, offering us a provisional anchor in the swirling singularities around us. At its best, such language – whether it be prose or poetry – extends the potential gamut of experience, making new vistas suddenly visible like fairy-tale palaces emerging from the mist.

Just such a discernment is the palpable difference in quality between the light of summer and the light of autumn. A sky can be clear and blue in July and in October, but the feeling of the light is totally distinct. In summer, the sun is so potent, so magisterial and elevated that it acts as a spot-light on all below it, and just as with a spotlight, its heat is intense. What it loses from withdrawing itself from the line of sight it compensates for by burning itself into our flesh. Autumn is the opposite; the sun is far lower in the sky, and on a cloudless day practically blinding. Its heat recedes and is overtaken by freezing winds, but its visual presence waxes.

Everything seems faded, bleached of its essential colour. Every cloudless day feels like a Sunday. There is even something solitary about the light of autumn. The summer sun makes for an animal warmth which invites gatherings, urges us to celebrations of the bodily passions, but autumn is far more philosophical. It is as if, built into the clinical exactitude of its luminescence, there is a certain self-distancing, the gaze of the objective observer who does not participate in the common labour. As the sun steps down in the sky, man steps back from his surroundings, just long enough to sense the faintest odour of thawing nettles on the frosty mid-morning air.

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