An age too late?

A touch of autumn falls upon our Maine airs; and the mind turns suddenly to thoughts of work to be done, of efforts to be renewed. ''Winter in the study,'' said Thoreau, ''summer in the field.'' We have had our season in the field, or upon a mountainside or on the sea. Is it not time to turn inward, becoming men and women fit for laborious days?

I myself am not wholly of the mind that summer was meant for idleness. I work through August when everyone else is relaxing, rising at an absurdly early hour to write and afterwards giving myself to the delights of a printing office where young printers and apprentices come and go through the day. (That there is time for sailing, too, I cannot altogether deny.) Yet I know this is an unreasonable behavior, not only contrary to the gospel of Thoreau but to other, even more weighty, authority.

Reading the other evening in Samuel Johnson's Lives of The English Poets, I came upon the fact that Milton conceived himself as being able to write poetry only between ''the Autumnal Equinox and the Vernal.'' Whatever he attempted at other times was little to his liking ''though he courted his fancy never so much.'' Milton, then, would have been taking up a canto of Paradise Lost, or perhaps of Paradise Regained, at just about the time these lines appear in print.

One is tempted to contemplate, with apprehension as well as with awe, what further prodigies Milton might have accomplished had he been able to exercise his faculties through the whole year instead of only for half of it. How many thousands more of ''heroick poesies''! How many polemical tracts to swell his collected works! But, for better or worse, Milton seems to have been constrained by other than seasonal factors - and by more than the blindness which he bore with so great a fortitude. For he seems to have thought he was writing in a declining world, in an age too late for such works as his; and perhaps in a climate too cold to permit the required flights of imagination.

Dr. Johnson, in his sensible gruff way, had little patience with these complaints. He denigrated the belief that the seasons could have anything to do with the expression of a man's genius; the idea of ''a lagging race of frosty grovellers'' aroused nothing but his contempt. An opinion, said he in his lordly style, ''wanders about the world and sometimes finds reception among wise men; an opinion that restrains the operations of the mind to particular regions, and supposes that a luckless mortal may be born in a degree of latitude too high or too low for wisdom or for wit.'' Fie upon it! As for that other opinion prevailing in Milton's time, ''that the world is in its decay, and that we have had the misfortune to be produced in the decrepitude of Nature,'' well, it seemed to Dr. Johnson pure nonsense.

In short, the great lexicographer would have had poor Milton working all the time, no matter the season of the year or the age or the elements in which he found himself. He would have looked with equally little indulgence, I am afraid, upon our long vacations, our journeys to Maine or elsewhere in search of inspiration for our muse.''The time to work, Sir,'' he might have told Boswell (and for all I know he did), ''is now; and the place to work is here.''

Some of this harsh injunction, I must avow, appears to be coming true. Certainly in the world there is much to be done, if only we conceive our tasks aright and do not wait to be asked or to be instructed. Let young and old take up whatever is at hand, whatever the mind or heart tells each of us to do. The universe may be languishing; everything may be ''gradually sinking by daily diminution''; but (Milton notwithstanding) souls need not partake of the general degeneracy. Autumn brings its own bright challenge, as will the spring in due course; and the world - who knows? - may in spite of itself be abetted by all our small endeavors.

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