Friday, November 14, 2014

Reflections on November: Trying to find beauty in a gloomy month

October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.

- J.K. Rowling
From Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

We are about halfway through November, which I will freely admit, is not favourite month.  Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the eleventh month is often dark and dank and dreary.  It is the death month.  It is the melancholy month.  Some people describe it as hauntingly beautiful; and yes, it is that at times. November is part of the natural order, a rite of passage.  There has to be a November so that there can be spring and rebirth.  Still, I can't deny that I find the lack of sunlight difficult and that the bleak, damp weather can be depressing.

Even the holidays in November tend to reflect the solemnity of the month.  November 1st is All Saints Day and November 2nd is All Souls Day.  Then we have November 11th, the mournful day in which we reflect on those who have died in wars.  Here in Canada, it's called Remembrance Day.  The Americans call it Veteran's Day.  South of the border, of course, Thanksgiving comes on a Thursday in late November to usher in the Christmas season, and it is a more festive holiday. However, Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October, which is fine with me.  Our Thanksgiving coincides with the harvest and the magnificent colours of the autumn leaves.  By the end of November, the promise of the Winter Solstice and the lights of Christmas and  are just around the corner anyway.

November, therefore, is inextricably linked to spring.  Edward Way Teale (1899-1980), an American naturalist, photographer and Pulitzer-prize winning author, wrote:

How sad would be November if we had no knowledge of the spring!


L.M. Montgomery

Canadian author, L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942) must have experienced some harsh Novembers in her beloved Prince Edward Island.  The woman who wrote Anne of Green Gables expressed some thoughts about the month of November in her works.  It seems she found something cathartic about it.

But there is always a November space after the leaves have fallen when she felt it was almost indecent to intrude on the woods…for their glory terrestrial had departed and their glory celestial of spirit and purity and whiteness had not yet come upon them.

- Lucy Maud Montgomery
From Anne of Windy Poplars

It was November - the month of crimson sunsets, parting birds, deep, sad hymns of the sea, passionate wind-songs in the pines.  Anne roamed through the pineland alleys in the park, as she said, let that great sweeping wind blow the fogs out of her soul.

- Lucy Maud Montgomery
From Anne of Green Gables


Emily Dickinson

In an 1864 letter to her friend, Elizabeth Holland, the great American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote:

It is also November. The noons are more laconic and the sunsets sterner, and Gibraltar lights make the village foreign. November always seemed to me the Norway of the year. ------ is still with the sister who put her child in an ice nest last Monday forenoon. The redoubtable God! I notice where Death has been introduced, he frequently calls, making it desirable to forestall his advances.

Why did Emily Dickinson describe November as the "Norway of the year?"  What did she know of Norway, this reclusive woman who was born, lived most of her life, and died at her family's homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts?  What did she know of life outside of New England? Dickinson's words are intriguing, though, and tantalizingly ambiguous.  Did she have some romantic notion of Norway and its Nordic climate?  Was she expressing the beauty of life after death?

One thing is certain. A frequent theme of Dickinson's poetry is death and immortality.  There is little doubt that she linked November with death. and the afterlife.


The American poet. Robert Lee Frost (1974-1963) first published "My November Guest" in the November 1912 issue of The Forum.  It then appeared in A Boy's Will, a volume of Frost's work, published in 1913.


My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
   Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
   She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
   She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted gray
   Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
   The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
   And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
   The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
   And they are better for her praise.              

In the poem,"Sorrow" is the personification of a female guest who sees great beauty in November days.  In a way, I'm trying to imitate the "guest," by trying to find the best in a gloomy month.

- Joanne