The Persistence of Goethe’s Herbstgefühle: Finding “Autumn feeling” in Instagram feeds

While on my way to class the other day I was stopped by the familiar smell of Autumn, collected within fallen leaves, uninterrupted air blowing through bare branches, and the seasonal flavored lattes of a nearby group of sorority sisters. While our Romantic poets experienced a slightly different set of scents, Fall has seemingly always been marked as an oddly favored season, butting against consideration of the abundance of decaying leaves, cold fronts, and harvests. Keats reminds us of the morbid aspects our current season in “To Autumn”,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d 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. (ll. 15-21)

Even if Autumn is not everyone’s favorite season it’s certainly marketed as such through sporting events, seasonal food products, neutral colored turtle necks, and Instagram worthy happenings. See my post from last week below, captioned, “I fell in Fall’. We’ve always been falling for, and into Fall, memorized with our “patient look”, just at the Romantics imparted their Autumn musings into writing.

i fell in fall

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Goethe gives a name to one of the preconditions for the incessant need to express Fall through a chosen medium, Herbstgefühle, translated as “autumn feeling” or often, “autumn emotion”. Scholars have seriously attended the popular season within Romantic poetry, and persist today to understand the intricate implications, factors, and consequences of “Autumn feeling”. Today when we express “Autumn feeling” we are most likely be met with laughter, conceived as foolish or the dreaded title— romantic. Even though my Instagram was met with “likes”, a friend later remarked, “I feel gross for liking Fall so much”. We generally don’t like to over identify because we feel we lose a part of some authentic self, even the micro consumer level scale (the guilt of buying pumpkin yogurt at Trader Joe’s each October, or even worse looking forward to the purchase.)

When Keats over-identified with Autumn he had a similar, but slightly more intense reaction than  “gross”. In Jacques Khalip’s 2009 book, “Anonymous Life: Romanticism and Dispossession”, he detects

“what’s so eerie about “To Autumn” is its reluctance—indeed, its disinterest—in filing out a capacious interiority. Indeed, the poem represents a structural shift from a confessional (read Wordsworthian) paradigm to a constructivist one of inwardness; it isn’t inflated by benevolent investments and over identifications, but rather deflated by them, resembling the condition of the “Poetical Character,” who confesses: “in a room with People if I am ever free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of everyone in the room begins to press upon me that, I am in a very little time annihilated.” The speaker of “To Autumn” relinquishes a hold upon reality, but only because the essentially charitable over identifies not because it wants to, but because it cannot stop, and thus can only think of its agency in terms of something that occurs almost sporadically from without.

Not to say all Romantic era or Keats’ poems about Autumn perform the same emptying of the self, but Khalip’s notes of how over-identifications results in deflations of identity strike me as not so distant from how easily Fall traditions encapsulate us at the first onset of yellowing leaves. ( Though for Keats’ case, the ode was written in 1819, and the poet has some issues going on at this time in his life—to say the least.)

I don’t think any season annihilates me per say, but Autumn as experienced by a native Northerner and now Midwesterner, marks the end of summer and the beginning of work year to which I relinquish part of myself to the settling into the post-Summer traditions. Winter approaches and in this middle season all of daily life’s mechanisms start back up from the spontaneity of Summer. Fall has becomes characterized as a time of routine that certainly affords its own comforts. Every season has traditions and quirks, beyond new Trader Joe brand products. Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters give insight to another Autumn provoked response, less deflating than Keats’ and more in tune with the one I expressed,

June and July are the months to make a tour through Norway; for then the evenings and nights are the finest I have ever seen; but towards the middle or latter end of August the clouds begin to gather, and summer disappears almost before it has ripened the fruit of autumn—even, as it were, slips from your embraces, whilst the satisfied senses seem to rest in enjoyment.

We cannot control the extent to circumstances press upon us, deflate us at times—or in other instances we embrace these moments as time of comforting routine. As a good Romanticist I must attribute these seasonal reactions, both old and new, to more than the routine of contemporary life or marketed products, but also the inherent forces and feeling that let us and makes us fall in Fall.

On another note, I’m happy to be contributing my first post to the NASSR grad Caucus! I hope some enjoyment or perhaps even insightful reflection is to be gained through these notes on Fall. Now, I close with my excerpt from a lesser read early piece from Blake—also titled “To Autumn” from Poetical Sketches (1778), have at it what you will.

TO AUTUMN
O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stained
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof, there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe;
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.
“The narrow bud opens her beauties to
“The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
“Blossoms hang round the brows of morning, and
“Flourish down the bright cheek of modest eve,
“Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
“And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.
“The spirits of the air live on the smells
“Of fruit; and joy, with pinions light, roves round.

Notes

Cassell’s German Dictionary, Betteridge, Harold T., and Karl Breul. Macmillan, 1978.

Khalip, Jacques. Anonymous Life: Romanticism and Dispossession. Stanford University Press, 2009. pg. 56

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Broadview Press, 2013. pg 131

The poetry and prose of William Blake. Doubleday, Incorporated, 1970. ll. 1-14