Looking at the long history of autumn imagery in poetry one gets the sense that this season, perhaps more than others, served as a sort of initiation, or test for artists, a canvas to push the boundaries of their imagination. Whether because the season engenders this ancient devotion (it does), or because the tradition itself demands some gift or sacrifice to the Lords of autumn (it should), it’s hard to tell, but that tradition contains a gluttony of beauty trying to describe and capture this strange season. In the afterglow of sensuous summer, with hints of the wild whiteness of winter, autumn explodes with beauty and melancholy. Fall stands between two extremes, and in that ambiguity, poets and writers of all kind found and continue to find endless variations of beauty around the theme of the death and rebirth of Nature.
William Blake gives voice to the feeling of the beauty of ripeness that pervades the fall:
O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain’d
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.
As much as poets obsess over the vivacity of fall (Walt Whitman described the joy in “inhaling the ripe breath of Autumn”) as many felt the creeping in of cold death, of naked trees, and barren fields. Few poets describe the melancholy of fall better than Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
Laid on it for a covering,
And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?
And how the swift beat of the brain
Falters because it is in vain,
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf
Knowest thou not? and how the chief
Of joys seems—not to suffer pain?
Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
Bound up at length for harvesting,
And how death seems a comely thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?
Contemporary poet Patricia Boutilier mirrors these feelings, writing:
Autumn washes in softly along the Gulf of Mexico,
a fragile, tonal shift to the quality of light.
Well-watered roots spread wider and belie the coming dryness…
Day and nights of equal balance process to growing darkness,
a meditation upon our brief mortality.
Of course, as with any powerful experience, autumn takes on a range of meanings in the poetic tradition depending on temperament, era, especially in the difference between rural and urban life. James Wright captures a specifically American feel of the fall in a time of depressed economies, of dried up farms in small towns USA. Entitled Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, Wright describes “Polacks nursing long beers,” and “All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home,/Their women cluck like starved pullets,/Dying for love.” Then, in perhaps the best imagery of football I’ve seen in a while, he provides this indelible image of football as a reaction against the dreariness of autumn, “Therefore,/Their sons grow suicidally beautiful/At the beginning of October,/And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” Even more specifically, echoing the life giving abilities of autumn, the eternal Nora Ephron penned this delicious sentiment, “Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.”
The more you read poetic sentiments and images of autumn, the more it coheres into a common theme and picture of the beauty of nature at it heights of ripeness, the fullness of the harvest, with, at the same moment, the hints of demise in this most ambiguous of seasons. Shelley describes this as the “Sweet sadness” of autumn’s song. Contemporary poet Mary Hamrick described this as “The leaves/Like death, climaxed with a smile.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald captured some of the magical paradoxical nature of fall in his famous sentence, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” There’s a counterintuitiveness to this sentiment in that life appears to start again as nature appears to wither and explode away. Leaves fall off trees, animals horde for the winter, and humans adjust to the cold and darkness of the days, but the shift from summer to winter, in growing through the elegant falls allows us time to turn inwards, with reverence, and to behold the seasons trading places, as painted by Keats, “His soul has in its Autumn, when his wings/He furleth close; contented so to look/On mists in idleness—to let fair things/Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook.” Contemporary poet, Judith A. Lawrence echoes this experience:
You may gather from me
the spring of my youth,
my summer of maturity,
and hold onto with me,
the solace of these days
before the frost.
Yet, curiously so, there’s something almost too poetic, or too simplistically poetic about Fall. Leaves change color right before they die, leaving the tree empty of all its previous majesty – which perhaps too easily echoes Neil Young’s lyric – “it’s better to burn out than fade away.” Autumn, seen in this cliched manner can easily turn stale. The air changes, the winds churns, and kids collect leaves as their worn out bodies crackle beneath our ignorant feet. There’s something almost too perfect in this evocative poem from Adelaide Crapsey:
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
In that sense, these impressions of autumn can grow stale if not made new. Consequently, so much of what feels noxious about something as ostensibly innocuous as pumpkin spiced latte is this co-opting of something that still feels pure, the love, awe, and sadness autumn engenders, and commodifying that exact feeling into an artificial drink. Exactly because something like a pumpkin spiced latte could actually capture the taste and feeling of autumn makes this particular case that grating. They aren’t wrong, they are just assholes. But this signals a much larger and more nefarious shift in our cultural experiences. For the most part, the greatest measures of our days is no longer nature, or semesters, or religious holidays, but Work. We divide our personal schedules on when we work and when we vacate, on the money we make, and through advertising. Instead of celebrating the harvest, or the changing of the seasons, we celebrate the time off from work. En masse, money still weaves its way into this most basic of intimacies with nature. We largely know its fall because Halloween shops pop up, we know of the winter in the increasingly early Christmas advertising etc. Modern poetry tries to tangle within this dynamic, continuing the naive tradition of melancholy/joy in autumn poetry while trying to give voice to the confusion of something man-made like idea of “sweater weather.”
Lawrence, captures this oddity of modern times that with our technological advance we grow less and less attuned, necessarily so, to the exigencies of nature. Here, she describes a person choosing to dress up as Autumn for Halloween. Her costume is made of the stuff of beauty, but thats is a costume attests to the slight absurdity in the idea:
I shall be Autumn
with leaf draped skirt,
and folds of
boysenberry velvet wine
flowing to the ground.
Poetry then, especially poetry that returns our gaze to the endless and mysterious Nature still around us, allows us to create a deeper schedule, one that connects back to the beginning of our sense of time. Whether it conjures up a sweet melancholy or a joyous sense of ripening, Autumn poetry helps us tap into what Whitman described as “God’s calm, annual drama;/Gorgeous processions, songs of birds.” These traditions teach us to attune ourselves to the mysteries of weather, the sway of the seasons, outside the seemingly natural flow of our careers.