SEPTEMBER has a special feel. The light and leisure of August linger into it a little, and yet it is also somehow brisk and exciting, quickened with promise, with endings and renewings: the start of terms and all the other turnings of the year. It carries the plumped fullness of harvest, but also breathes a clean new scent, a change in the wind.
I was especially glad, therefore, when I came upon the word “Septembral”. It seemed right and fitting that September should have its own adjective. I found the word in some lines of Hilaire Belloc’s “Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine”:
The years dissolve. I am standing in that hour
Of majesty Septembral, and the power
Which swells the clusters when the nights are still
With autumn stars on Orvieto hill.
These lines were all the more poignant for me, since I, too, had seen the stars from Orvieto hill, and his Septembral remembering kindled mine.
It’s likely that Belloc borrowed the word from his beloved Rabelais who wrote, after a truly Rabelaisian drinking bout: “My head aches a little, and I perceive that the registers of my brain are somewhat jumbled and disordered with the Septembral juice.”
Belloc and Rabelais were both praising wine, but here the real Septembral juice is cider, and the glory of September in England shines and oozes from her apples. My college has wonderful old apple orchards bearing unique varieties, with names such as Peasgood’s Nonesuch and Norfolk Beefing. In late September, their branches are laden with red and gold, ready to offer new students an orgy of delicious scrumping.
Before those students arrive, I’ll have time to savour September in our orchards and call to mind the most truly Septembral poet of all, remembering that other September in 1819, when Keats seemed to glimpse Autumn herself, as she began
. . . to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch eves run,
To bend with apples the mossed cottage trees.
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.
As September ends, and the students return, some of the new ones will ask me what they should go and see in Cambridge. Rather than send them to the big monuments and famous colleges, I’ll direct them to a little gallery in the Fitzwilliam Museum where they can lift a brown cover from a display case and see Samuel Palmer’s most perfect picture: The Magic Apple Tree. In that painting, an Edenic and unfallen light briefly transfigures the little village of Shoreham.
Palmer’s “Valley of Vision” — the apple tree, the fields of grain, and the church spire — offer a concentrated beauty, which at once affirms and transcends the world. He was Blake’s disciple, but for Palmer the spire of the parish church, which marks the very centre of his painting, was not the mark of the oppressor as it might have been for Blake, but the very place through which all that Septembral glory might tremble at last into praise.