Sometimes in the Middle Autumn Days
by George Orwell, 1903-1950
In a very fine essay on Orwell, his friend Malcolm Muggeridge, writing of Orwell's last days in University College Hospital, said: "I think that quite often before he would have been glad enough to die; now he passionately wanted to live." (Muggeridge's essay is titled "A Knight of the Woeful Countenance." It is in the 1971 book The World of George Orwell, ed. Miriam Gross. I cannot find it on the internet.)
Muggeridge's observation was very penetrating. Orwell was a death-haunted man and writer. I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four in my teens, taking it as my schoolmaster told me to take it, as a political parable. Only when re-reading it much later, in my thirties, did I understand who Big Brother is. There are similar clues in many of Orwell's essays: the one on Swift, for instance:
… it is not because they oppress the Yahoos that the Houyhnhnms are unattractive. They are unattractive because the "Reason" by which they are governed is really a desire for death. They are exempt from love, friendship, curiosity, fear, sorrow and — except in their feelings towards the Yahoos, who occupy rather the same place in their community as the Jews in Nazi Germany — anger and hatred. "They have no Fondness for their Colts or Foles, but the Care they take, in educating them, proceeds entirely from the Dictates of Reason." They lay store by "Friendship" and "Benevolence," but "these are not confined to particular Objects, but universal to the whole Race." They also value conversation, but in their conversations there are no differences of opinion, and "nothing passed but what was useful, expressed in the fewest and most significant Words." They practise strict birth control, each couple producing two offspring and thereafter abstaining from sexual intercourse. Their marriages are arranged for them by their elders, on eugenic principles, and their language contains no word for "love," in the sexual sense. When somebody dies they carry on exactly as before, without feeling any grief. It will be seen that their aim is to be as like a corpse as is possible while retaining physical life …
… and of course also in "A Hanging." Each one of us is, in life, separated by a screen or membrane from the Other Place. The membrane is thicker for some of us than for others. For most of us, most of the time, it is blessedly opaque. For Orwell, it was the mere skin of a soap bubble.
The inclination seems to have been always present. Cyril Connolly was friends with Orwell at prep school (Orwell was older by three months). Here they are aged twelve or thirteen in Connolly's autobiographical book Enemies of Promise:
I remember a moment under a fig-tree in one of the inland boulevards of the seaside town, Orwell striding beside me and saying in his flat, ageless voice: "You know, Connolly, there's only one remedy for all diseases." I felt the usual guilty tremor when sex was mentioned and hazarded: "You mean going to the lavatory?" "No — I mean Death!"
(Gordon Bowker, in his 2003 biography of Orwell (p. 46), notes that Orwell had taken this apothegm from Chesterton's Manalive: "The only cure is an operation — an operation that is always successful: death." OK; but the fact that the quotation appealed to Orwell sufficiently for him to remember it and bring it out in conversation, helps make my case.)
Orwell is not often thought of as a poet, and in fact was not a very good one. He seemed to know this, and did not attempt much verse. The invaluable Russian Orwell Library contains only nine poems, and I don't know of any others — was, in fact, surprised to see so many. This one, written when the poet was thirty, brings us closest to the membrane.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
Sometimes in the middle autumn days,
The windless days when the swallows have flown,
And the sere elms brood in the mist,
Each tree a being, rapt, alone,
I know, not as in barren thought,
But wordlessly, as the bones know,
What quenching of my brain, what numbness,
Wait in the dark grave where I go.
And I see the people thronging the street,
The death-marked people, they and I
Goalless, rootless, like leaves drifting,
Blind to the earth and to the sky;
Nothing believing, nothing loving,
Not in joy nor in pain, not heeding the stream
Of precious life that flows within us,
But fighting, toiling as in a dream.
So shall we in the rout of life
Some thought, some faith, some meaning save,
And speak it once before we go
In silence to the silent grave …