“Autumn” by Nathaniel Parker Willis

by Ann Neilson

The following is a transcription of Nathaniel Parker Willis’ gorgeous article, entitled “Autumn,” taken from the September 30, 1837 issue of The New York Mirror. It was too stirring not to share. —Ann Neilson 

The first severe frost had come, and the miraculous change had passed upon the leaves, which is known only in America. The blood-red sugar-maple, with a leaf brighter and more delicate than a Circassian lip, stood here and there in the forest, like the Sultan’s standard in a host—the solitary and far-seen aristocrat of the wilderness; the birch, with its spirit-like and amber leaves, ghosts of the departed summer, turned out along the edges of the woods like a lining of the palest gold; the broad sycamore and the fan-like catalpa flaunted their saffron foliage in the sun, spotted with gold, like the wings of a lady-bird; the kingly oak, with its summit shaken bare, still hid its majestick trunk in a drapery of sumptuous dyes, like a stricken monarch, gathering his robes of state about him, to die royally in his purple; the tall poplar, with its minaret of silver leaves, stood blanched, like a coward, in the dying forest, burdening every breeze with its complainings; the hickory, paled through its enduring green; the bright berries of the mountain-ash, flushed with a more sanguine glory in the unobstructed sun; the gaudy tulip-tree, the Sybarite of vegetation, stripped of its golden cups, still drank the intoxicating light of noon-day in leaves, than which the lip of an Indian shell was never more delicately tined; the still deeper-dyed vines of the lavish wilderness, perishing with the noble things whose summer they had shared, outshone them in their decline, as woman, in her death, is heavenlier than the being on whom in life, she leaned; and, alone and unsympathising in this universal decay, outlaws from nature, stood the fir and hemlock, their frowning and sombre heads darker and less lovely than ever, in contrast with the death-struck glory of their companions.

The dull colours of English autumnal foliage give you no conception of this marvellous phenomenon. The change there is gradual; in America it is the work of a night—of a single frost!

Oh! to have seen the sun set on hills bright in the still green and lingering summer, and to wake in the morning to a spectacle like this!

It is as if a myriad of rainbows were laced through the tree-tops—as if the sunsets of a summer—gold, purple and crimson—had been fused in the alembick of the west, and poured back in a new deluge of light and colour over the wilderness. It is as if every leaf in those countless trees had been painted to outflush the tulip—as if, by some electrick miracle, the dyes of the earth’s heart had struck upward, and her crystals and ores, her sapphires, hyacinths and rubies, had let forth their imprisoned colours to mount through the roots of the forest, and, like the angels that, in olden times, entered the bodies of the dying, re-animate the perishing leaves, and revel an hour in their bravery.