The Emperor's New Clothes (14/10/12)

Misty, mellow, fruitful... the poet Keats may see only beauty in autumn, but David Randall dreads the gloom

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Not a bad man, John Keats, but he was liable to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Take autumn. Of all the seasons he could have chosen to eulogise, what possessed him to choose this one? Mists and mellow fruitfulness? Moss'd cottage-trees bending with apples? Stubble plains touch'd with rosy hue? Fag end of the year, more like, and much the same colour as one. You know, one of those orangey-browny ones that's been floating in an October puddle for a day.

It is to Mr Keats, one suspects, that we owe the present fetishising of autumn, the drooling over golden leaves and reddening trees, the slavering over crisp mornings and dew-soaked cobwebs, the gushing over a few apples and mushrooms, the whole bloody tourist-board brochure cliché. Let us, then, lay the maple-syrup'd sentiment to one side and see this time of year for what it is.

Autumn is a dank, dreary season of decay. The reds and yellows of dying leaves are not a blooming, but the expiring pigments that remain when life has left them and their trees have shut down for the winter. These are the weeks when light leaks from either end of the day like water from a ruptured barrel; when fungi sprout in woods like mildew on a damp slum wall; when the sun shines but doesn't warm; and when people walk the streets clothed not in the bright variety of spring and summer, but in the drab uniformity of buttoned-up browns and blacks.

It's the penitential part of the year's life-cycle; three months of purgatory-like probation before we can enjoy Christmas and know that soon, in January, the days will start slowly to lengthen, and Spring – that most gloriously surging of seasons – will soon begin.

So we have to go through it, this lowering Octoberish, Novemberish time, but that's no reason to celebrate and praise it. No cause to write it a poem, use the past tense, and put apostrophes where the penultimate letters in words like "brimmed" should be. All very well being a poet, but there's no need to go all Romantic about it.

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