So here am I
Upon the German earth, beneath the German sky,
And birds flock southward, wheeling as they fly,
And there are morning mists, and trees turn brown,
And the winds blow, and blow the dead leaves down,
And lamps are earlier on, and curtains drawn,
And nights have frosted dew-drops on the lawn,
And bonfire smoke goes curling up on high,
Just as on English earth, beneath an English sky.
But here am I.
Autumn is different from the other seasons. During spring and summer the inclination might be to revel in the glories of the present, the here and now: during the winter we might look towards a future when it will be over and life will be starting again; autumn in comparison seems to encourage looking backwards.
Perhaps it derives from the rural festivals of harvest: gather in the seasonal produce that will see us through the next twelve months and give thanks for the bounty of (cultivated) nature. Maybe we collectively recall the lessons of spring sowing and summer growing to ensure better results next year. And yet there’s a big part of me which sees autumn as the start of the new rather than the end of the old, which is probably the result of too many years in education where the new academic year starts in autumn too rather than January. Either way, where the other three seasons might seem static, the spirit of autumn is dynamic, changing.
Last month Anna Akhmatova’s poem Three Autumns described this phenomenon, although her experience of Russian autumns in St Petersburg was probably more extreme than any we might experience, and not just in seasonal terms. Akhmatova wrote of the transition from ‘everything moist, motley, gay‘ to ‘suddenly everything seems paler, older,‘ until ‘a flagstone covers the sky vault‘; a transition from life to death.
This month I chose a poem I first discovered lurking in a college library over 50 years ago. It caught my imagination at the time to the extent that I copied it into a notebook and then I found a copy of the anthology in a bookshop some years later. When I decided to include it in this Third Thursday collection I thought it would be relatively easy to find further background details to explain why he was Germany during the war (presumably as a prisoner-of-war) and yet there’s barely any information about him in the public domain. Searches in the National Poetry Archive, the National Poetry Library, Who’s Who (or Who Was Who), The Dictionary of National Biography, and the British Library were fruitless.
A Daily Telegraph obituary from 2002 however revealed that after an education at Westminster School and Christ Church Oxford he spent a few weeks at Summer Field prep school in Oxford before he joined the army at the outbreak of war in 1939. He was posted to Cairo as a signals officer and served in Crete until 1941 when he was one of over 11,000 British soldiers captured by the Germans after their invasion. He spent the rest of the war in Oflag VIIB, outside Eichstatt in Bavaria, a prison camp specifically for officers. It seems that the buildings are now used a training barracks for the Bavarian riot police.
After the war Savage returned to teaching at Summer Field, progressing to the role of headmaster and remaining there until his retirement in the mid 1970s. He was instrumental in modernising the school and establishing high academic standards that has ensured its survival into the present day. And yet his achievements received no public honour and his legacy as such is as an inspiring teacher rather than a poet. A second search of the British Library catalogue indicates that he did publish a couple of Latin grammar books at this time, confirming his dedication to work at the school rather than literary circles.
Second Autumn reflects his experience as a prisoner, observing that a German autumn is not very different from those he experienced in Britain, and the wistfulness of the verse derives from a combined melancholy of the autumnal season with his separation from home. The only thing missing is a reference to squirrels gathering acorns.
It’s over 70 years after the first publication of Second Autumn, and this brings a further degree of wistfulness. The images he conjures are those of what we might consider now an ideal of autumn, one that belongs to another age: an age of garden lawns, of garden bonfires, of suburbia. Today, on sprawling estates and housing developments, the experience of autumn is more likely to be one of noisy leaf blowers, stuffed black bin bags at the side of the road, leaves decaying into a sludge to skid beneath your shoes and clog roadside drainage gullies, rail delays because of leaves on the line, horse chestnuts crushed beneath crawling traffic. Autumn might happen in woodland, parks or public gardens, but on the street and in the city its just become that time between the clocks going back and Christmas when the weather gets colder and more blustery. Kids are more likely to celebrate Halloween, Diwali or Black Friday than apple bobbing, apple dunking and conkers.
The poem was originally published in The Home is the Soldier, a 32 page volume published in 1947, and Savage is one of eight contributors to its content so there’s unlikely to be much else of his work in the public domain. Second Autumn has been republished in a few anthologies, but I’ve yet to find any other examples of his work. However, his success in capturing the essence of the season means that it shouldn’t be neglected. I think we’d all like our autumns to be like Patrick Savage’s autumns, if we had the chance.