Autumn in poetry: Leaves and more

Our very own Durham in autumn
Our very own Durham in autumn

Autumn is leaves. Poets have over time unearthed numerous symbols, but none quite evoke autumn as leaves yellowing, reddening, and falling off branches. It makes the season an ideal symbol for loss and decay. In Sonnet 73: That Time of Year thou mayst in me Behold, Shakespeare uses the image of a tree to speak of ageing. Let’s fast-forward a few autumns – a little over four hundred – to Bruce Weigl’s My Autumn Leaves. Published soon after 9/11, in a fear-injected consciousness, Weigl’s speaker moves through the woods with an imaginary gun, looking for deer ‘who never come’. It often behoves a poet to work with symbols loaded and prepared by his predecessors. Much like physicists designing laws, poets make certain assumptions about their reader being familiar with a symbol. Weigl’s poem itself does not mention leaves and yet they hang over the lines, titular, a palpable vehicle using the reader’s own knowledge of the season.

Autumn is more than leaves. John Keats’ To Autumn is abundant with images of the very last stage of fertility: fruits are ripe for the picking, there are ‘later flowers’ for the bees,‘maturing sun’ represents wisdom over death. It celebrates the crest of plenty, beyond which lies the plunge into winter. The final farewell to the season, however, is perceived as music; the Keatsian eye for beauty picks out the cricket’s song and the swallows’ twitter. What the birds gather for, their migration towards warmer climates, is powered by suggestion. Beneath the primary level of the senses, lies another set of organic mental stimulants. The first verb to appear in the poem: ‘conspiring’ is derived from the Latin root spirare meaning ‘to breathe’ which reflects the first line of Percy Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, ‘O wild West Wind, thou breath of autumn’s being’. The mention of ‘breath’ in relation to the season puts one in mind of the exhaled breath condensing in the cooling autumn air.

For Shelley, the wind is a rousing Bacchic ‘spirit’ in a landscape of death and decay, stirring the fallen leaves, ‘pestilence stricken multitudes’. ‘Unseen’ and protean, it runs through the poem like the symbol of autumn.  What appears to be a terza rima with couplets closing each section may be read as five separate sonnets. The third section opens: ‘Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams’, where the verb ‘waken’ appears to be intransitive, till its object, ‘the blue Mediterranean’, arrives in the next line. We are awoken to the realisation. Frenzy and shamanistic fervour mark Shelley’s autumn. Autumn is wind.

The name of the season also appears in multiple forms.  ‘Fall of the leaf’ was shortened to fall, a word common in England in the early 17th century but now strangely prevalent in the USA. Henry, the character at the centre of John Berryman’s Dream Songs, has us know in # 77 that he prefers ‘Fall’ over the other seasons. ‘He would be prepared to live in a world of Fall/ for ever, impenitent Henry.’ In # 385 Henry adds this: ‘Fall comes to us as a prize/ to rouse us toward our fate’. The capitalisation and the need for remorse fulfils the Biblical allusion; unusually Henry does not view autumn as a symbol for death or loss. For him it is a rite of passage, a life not transcending, but moving through ironies, an endless cycle of ruin and ascent. As Berryman’s said in an interview, ‘the artist is extremely lucky who is presented the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.’

Written during the severe years of the Cold War, in the year of the construction of the Berlin wall, Robert Lowell’s Fall 1961 turns out to be his 1984. The poet is stuck in time, transfixed by the ‘Back and forth, back and forth’ of the pendulum of a grandfather clock. To understand a Lowellian winter we must turn to For the Union Dead, where he describes a city landscape ‘in a Sahara of snow’. In 1961, in ‘the chafe and jar/ of nuclear war’, the poem rests on the brink of a disaster which never arrives; the anticipation of nuclear annihilation stretches, like the desert, eternally, unbearably. Autumn is the liminal space between two certainties. The poem ends with the same stasis it had begun with; the poet has progressed nowhere but gathers some sort of solace in nature.

Autumn is leaves and more. For Carl Sandburg, as in Theme in Yellow, the colour speaks nothing of leaves. ‘I am called pumpkins’, the seriocomic voice proclaims. It is Halloween with images of dancing children, the harvest moon, and night-time hills dotted with ‘yellow balls’. Originally an occasion to remember the dead, Halloween has prepared its own symbols over time, which, working through the poem, modifies the other theme in yellow: autumn. The poet’s ability to make light of anything distances death, war, and pestilence; fear has been conquered: ‘I am a jack-o’-lantern/ With terrible teeth/ And the children know/ I am fooling.’  So maybe, autumn, like the jack-o-lanterns, is fooling us into mourning the loss of a landscape that will appear again in the spring.

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