Bare Ruined Choirs

Bare ruin'd choirs

Bare ruin’d choirs

When I wake up and stare out the window in the morning it perfectly frames the top of the maple trees in the back corner. In the past month or so when I’ve had the leisure to appreciate the view I’ve happily noted the cheery reds and yellows. This morning, though, I noticed that the branches are mostly bare. The few leaves that are still clinging will be gone soon. Now the familiar winter tracery of dark branches catches the sky that I could only see glimpses of just a week or two ago.


I found myself quoting one of my favorite sonnets:

THAT time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang:

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day 5
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest:

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie 10
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by:

—This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


Don’t be too impressed. I don’t have the whole thing off, just the line about bare ruined choirs and then I was able to retrieve most of the first two lines as well. But I want to memorize the whole poem now. I’m in a poetry mood of late. More and more poetry, please. Strange how it works in seasons, isn’t it? I’ll go for months and months never reading a poem or thinking about poetry– except perhaps to lament the lack of poetry in my life– and then suddenly a switch is thrown. So here we go.

lingering late-fall color

lingering late-fall color

Bare ruined choirs. That image speaks to me so much more after reading a piece that was either by or about Eamon Duffy. The stripping of the altars, English recusants. The image of the abbey church ruined, the statues thrown down, the monks dispersed. Yes, the image haunts me. Which is fitting. This is a haunting time of year. Halloween, All Saints, All Souls.

November skies

November skies

I do love this time of year. Though the fast fading light depresses me and the too-early sunsets, I do rather like the bare branches, the dead flowers, even the dying garden.

Yes, my garden in the fall has a wistful beauty. The marigolds still boldly blazing and a few lingering sunflowers. Even a couple of bachelor’s buttons, which Anthony just loves the blue of.

Fall garden

Fall garden

fading sunflower

fading sunflower

that time of year

that time of year



On Saturday afternoon I beheaded a bunch of the sunflowers and the kids helped harvest the seeds, filling a huge mixing bowl full of the big black beauty of them. (Though one sunflower produced pretty little white seeds.) Then they played with the stalks, great staffs or swords or wands!

harvesting our sunflower seeds

harvesting our sunflower seeds

I love how intent they get when you set them a task to do such as this. Sitting so still, so focused. Until every seed is removed. Then, run, run, run.

Golden leaves, golden light

Golden leaves, golden light

On Sunday afternoon we took a walk around the block. All seven of us. We don’t do that sort of thing often enough. The weather was perfect, sunny and clear and crisp. The light was amazing. The late fall color still dazzling.

Sunday afternoon family walk

Sunday afternoon family walk

Sunday afternoon family walk

Sunday afternoon family walk

When we got to the other side of the block, immediately behind our house, we found the cat. The one that came and lingered a whole day. The kids saw it at the same spot on Halloween night when they were out trick-or-treating. This time it followed us home, all the way around the block, darting under cars and hiding behind bushes and then brazenly trotting along the sidewalk. When it got to our house it planted itself on the front step. And then at some point made its way to the back yard. And there it lingered all Sunday night, all day Monday, all Monday night. And it keeps scratching at the door, begging to be let in. Oh no, we are not adopting you, cat. Even if you think you have adopted us. I refuse to feed you, care for you, take responsibility for your well being. Someone else must have been feeding you all this time. Go back!

the stray cat returns

the stray cat returns

I feel a bit guilty for my tirade. I’m setting a bad example for the children. What would Saint Francis say? Should I be welcoming to Brother Cat? Show him hospitality? Feed the poor hungry beastie? But then if I do feed him, do I then become responsible for him? Do I? I can’t have a cat, I’m asthmatic. But even if I weren’t, I don’t want a cat. I’m not a cat person. And I don’t want to call animal control on him. I just want him to go back to whoever was caring for him before.


The cat haunts the doorstep. The children linger by the door, watching him. Encouraging him. He’s great entertainment on these autumn afternoons.





That time of year. Days grow shorter, colder. But there are treasures here too in the dying of the year. Golden light, golden days.


9 Responses to Bare Ruined Choirs

  1. Bearing November 5, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

    Margaret, are you grieving
    Over Goldengrove unleaving?

    The rest of the poem is nice enough (it is Gerard Manley Hopkins, for those who don’t recognize it) but for some reason, maybe the novel verb “unleaving,” I always have those two lines in mind all autumn.

    • Melanie Bettinelli November 5, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

      Bearing, Yes! I almost included those lines in my blog post. They were in the draft I was writing in my head. They’ve been echoing in my brain for days, weeks–really, as you say, always in the autumn they come to mind– and in fact I read the poem to the kids a couple of weeks ago. But somehow they didn’t make it into the actual writing. Too many distractions. Thank you for bringing them back to mind. And I agree the rest of the poem is nice enough, but it is those two lines that really stick.

  2. Enbrethiliel November 6, 2013 at 5:24 am #


    Oh, that cat! =P And Anthony has perfected the “Please, Mom, can we keep it?” face!

  3. Cathy J November 6, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    The winter sky is a great consolation for the short days around here. And don’t worry about the cat–he probably lives in one of those houses behind you. We have a whole set of cats in our neighborhood that wander all day looking for handouts and then go home at night.

    • Melanie Bettinelli November 6, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

      He finally left this morning, but I don’t think he was going home at night. He was here at midnight when we went to bed, was here in the middle of the night when Bella got up to go to the bathroom, here first thing in the morning.

  4. Stephanie November 6, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    Such a beautiful post. I love your pictures of trees. (We are awash with blossom here; I sweep the path to the front gate of petals at the moment). There is something that catches the heart at the sight of branches becoming bare against the sky. Is it the heightened sense of change, a point when the sweep around of the seasons seems magnified, the intensity of beauty at its height and nearness of absence/winter/cold/sleep…? It provokes lots of stop and stare. ‘Bare ruined choirs’ and ‘Goldengrove unleaving’ are magical phrases. I’ve been trying to remember a poem I read once which pictures the thin black branches against the sky as type face or lettering- I’m mashing up the poet’s image- I wish I could find it. Another phrase that’s magical to me is ‘blasted oaks’. We went once to the real Sherwood Forest in England. The forest is sparse and the trees so old. The oldest oaks, which may have been saplings in Robin Hood’s time, have tremendously thick girths but not the corresponding height. Anyway, they are blackened and stunted- with age/lightening strikes/fire/battle? some still alive with tufts of green, but so atmospheric and full of character. Standing there, and even now remembering being there, I can almost hear the thudding of hoof beats, the call of a horn, the furtive dash of through the greenwood…

    • Melanie Bettinelli November 6, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

      Oh we’ve been reading Robin Hood recently. How I’d love to go there.

      They are most magical phrases. I love that image of the bare branches as lettering. I’ve always thought of it as lace.

  5. Karen November 6, 2013 at 2:47 pm #

    We have a similar cat now haunting our house–a beautiful semi-longhaired tortoiseshell with green eyes. It has a collar with bells, no tag, and looks very well cared for. It comes up on the porch, lets us pet it, and looks longingly at the front door. Sorry, cat, I have had my allergies retested and cats popped up the biggest on the scratch test. Plus we have another outdoor cat who we’ve had for six years now, who is depending on us.

    I am a cat person, though, so I don’t mind petting it but we’re not feeding it, because I’m pretty sure it has an owner.

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