Essay

The Poetry of Autumn

Forget spring. Fall is the season for poetry.

by Annie Finch
A selection of fall poems. Illustration by Mark McGinnisIllustration: Mark McGinnis

“The poetry of earth is never dead,” wrote John Keats, and yet that quintessential poet of autumn, his own life fading as the colors of his glory blazed and flew, was exquisitely alive to the season’s dying. His sleeping Autumn, cheeks flushed and hair awry, personifies the sensual richness of the early part of the season as iconically as the yellow leaves of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXIII embody the forlorn grandeur of the late. And yet both of these poems contain the tinge of their opposites, more exquisite for being so subtle: the unspoken sexual passion in the sonnet and the hint of the ominous in the ode (the wailing of the bugs, the swallows gathering) are so delicate they are barely there. 

Through just this kind of sensitivity to duality, the poetry of autumn tends to ambiguity—and to greatness. What poet or lover of poetry could resist, now, when death and beauty are afoot? Together? The stereotypical poet writes of spring; the odds are that any parody of poetry will involve twittering and budding. But Millay answers, from the end of “The Death of Autumn”: “Beauty stiffened, staring up at the sky! / Oh, Autumn! Autumn—What is the Spring to me?”

The evidence for the greatness of autumn poetry, at least in the Romantic tradition in English, is everywhere: Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Keats’s “To Autumn,” Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall,” Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole,” H.D.’s “Orchard,” Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn,” Brooks’s “Beverly Hills, Chicago.” Dickinson seemed to take the connection between poetry and autumn for granted, writing “Besides the Autumn poets sing / a few prosaic days” as if it were as standard a subject for poetry in her mind as spring is in ours. It seems likely that her own “Wild nights - Wild nights!,” not to mention its ancient ancestor, “O Western Wind,” was inspired by late autumn, by the kind of mood when Rilke wrote, “Whoever’s homeless now, will build no shelter; / who lives alone will live indefinitely so.”

Rilke’s poem partakes of the tradition of relentless autumn poems, those sad or bitter mournings of the season, the “withered” world on which Alice Cary so utterly turns her back. This is the aspect of autumn that drives Walter de la Mare, in “Autumn,” to spell-like obsession:

There is a wind where the rose was;
Cold rain where sweet grass was . . .
Sad winds where your voice was;
Tears, tears where my heart was . . .

It drives Paul Verlaine to hear such long long sobs, and most brutally of all perhaps, Adam Zagajewski to political despair at the power of autumn “merciless in her blaze / and her breath.” 

On the other end of the spectrum are the few stalwart, happy autumn poems. These seem, interestingly enough, more common among American than among English poets. Could it be the sheer beauty of a more heavily wooded landscape that tips the balance? Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Merry Autumn,” one of the most successful happy autumn poems, consciously calls up the “solemn” tradition it rejects:

It's all a farce,—these tales they tell
About the breezes sighing,
And moans astir o'er field and dell,
Because the year is dying.

Emily Dickinson’s “The morns are meeker than they were,” uncharacteristic of her as it may be, is utterly memorable, and Whitman basks in autumn with benign acceptance, feeling its rivulets flowing towards an eternal ocean. Longfellow, not at his best in his ruthlessly cheerful poem “Autumn,” more than makes up for it at the gorgeous beginning of Book 2 of his now-underappreciated, but still highly readable, epic Evangeline:

Now had the season returned, when the nights grow colder and
    longer,
And the retreating sun the sign of the Scorpion enters.
Birds of passage sailed through the leaden air, from the
    ice-bound
Desolate northern bays to the shores of tropical islands.
Harvests were gathered in; and wild with the winds of September
Wrestled the trees of the forest, as Jacob of old with the angel.

But poems of lament or celebration are the exceptions; the real tradition of the poetry of autumn is the paradoxical tradition. Where does paradox find its proper home but in poetry, and in autumn? From Shakespeare’s sonnet to Keats’s ode and far beyond, much of the most memorable autumn poetry embraces what Stevens called “the blaze of summer straw in winter’s nick,” that balance between fecundity and decay which Frost addresses with such excruciating specificity in “After Apple-Picking”:

Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear. . . .
I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.

This paradox, I think, is the pith of autumn, the part that some of us just can’t get enough of, the reason autumn is so many people’s favorite season. This is the ineffable puzzle that inspires Stevens’s “gusty emotions on wet roads on autumn nights” and leads Archibald MacLeish to call autumn “the human season.” This is the time when, perhaps, we are all looking to feel more accurately what Mary Kinzie, in her commentary on Rilke’s “Day in Autumn,” described as “the flowering of loss, . . . the ripening of diminishment into husk and hull.” And in this, autumn is again like poetry: though it may help us to notice more deeply how we are alone, it can also help us to feel the excitement of sharing that solitude with each other. In the words of Basho,

It is deep autumn
My neighbor
How does he live, I wonder.

Originally Published: October 28, 2009

COMMENTS (7)

On October 29, 2009 at 7:01pm Terreson wrote:
As always, Annie Finch, good writing and thinking nicely stylized. I know I am speaking to the choir here, or maybe to the pulpit, but fall viewed as the season for poetry makes perfect sense. Certainly on the somatic, or is it the instinctive, even the cellular level, right? Aside from the fact that, instinctively, poetry treats in terms of love, life, and death, there are the body's circadian rhythms to account for pretty much determined by the day's amount of sunlight.

But now I am wondering. Do poets of the southern hemisphere respond to Sep, Oct, or Nov in the same way? My hunch is that they don't.

Queer stuff to think about: the effect of circadian rhythms, and of sunlight, on poetry's mood.

Terreson

On November 11, 2009 at 2:58pm Gabriel Friesen wrote:
Autumn's symbolism is particularly rich; I
think this is why it's my favorite season.
As Paul Verlaine shows: 'Tis the season to
be melancholy.

On November 18, 2009 at 11:01pm Vartika wrote:
I completely agree with Annie Finch. Without doubt, Autumn is the season for poetry. I believe in part this is because Autumn provokes introspection, whereas Spring is about anticipation. Autumn confronts you with what "has been" but is not quite yet "was". As Keats expressed so beautifully, it evokes a blend of emotions ranging from fulfillment to melancholy. Will conclude this post by quoting some of the most beautiful lines of English poetry I have ever read, both in terms of visual imagery and evoked sentiment:
"Where are the songs of Spring, aye where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
When barred clouds bloom the soft dying day,
And touch the stubble plain with rosy hue..."

On February 22, 2010 at 10:00pm Sean Purio wrote:
I agree that autumn is a season of poetry, but I would not claim that it is the season of poetry. What about a poet that lives in a country where there is no autumn? Are they less adept at noticing mortality manifested in natural decay? It is easy to transpose one’s own life into the dying, crisping, and falling of a leaf. It is refreshing to take a breath of cool autumn air and taste decomposition with that ever so slight hint of mortality. Poets typically focus on the decay, the decline, the dying, the dead, but this is not the point of poetry. Poetry is meant to move an individual along the entire emotional spectrum designed to celebrate life and living. That is not to say that death and dying do not have a place in poetry, but simply that they garner too much attention. Poetry flows across all seasons and unites each season’s theme into a unique, yet commonplace, whole. Poetry is the budding flower, the sun drenched sea, the amber glow, and the silence of falling snow. To qualify autumn as the season of poetry is to discredit the others, and lose the wholeness that is poetry.

On November 15, 2010 at 6:24am Therese wrote:
In this season of autumn, which
corresponds to the Chinese element
Metal, there is a mourning quality, as
the leaves dry up and fall down, as the
earth "dies",Perspheone goes
underground until the visions of Spring
bring her back.

The Taoists, thousands and thousands of
years ago, looked at Nature and from
that compiled a wealth of knowledge
that serves to understand the body / the
spirit / the mind within the world. Metal,
autumn, is about stripping down to the
essentials, about the descent about the
grieving over what is departing AND the
keen appreciation for all the beauty that
is so temporal. You only mourn what
you deeply loved.

And while all the seasons have their
magnificence, autumn has a particular
melancholy, an artisty, an attention to
form and details, structure - all intrinsic
aspects of poetry. In autumn I see the
trees in their structural forms, I see the
mountain from my window which before
was hiding behind the leafy ash tree, the
distraction of flowers and leaves is gone
as we descend into the underworld.

THese qualities are inherent in this
season, in this element of Metal and
while climate and geography differ
around the world, every part of it goes
through the cycles of wood (spring,
sprouting forth) / fire (summer,
blossoming) / earth (late summer,
harvest) / metal (fall, winnowing down)
/ water (winter, rest and dormancy).

For a beautiful book on this, see Lorie
Dechar's Five Spirits: Alchemical
Acupuncture for Psychological And
Spiritual Healing - not just for
acupuncturists! Lorie is a poet as well.

beautiful poetry, Annie Finch, and
insightful comments

On February 25, 2011 at 1:16pm jose luis gutierrez romo wrote:
I agree whith all of you poets in all the poetry world, autumn is the season for the most beautiful poetry.

On October 9, 2011 at 1:04am A Martinez wrote:
I kind of get this poetry, but as a native Californian who as lived most
of his life on the coast, it is really fundamentally alien. For me the fall
is the season of rebirth, when the rain comes and everything starts
growing again. On the coast, Summer is the season of death, when the
grass and other seasonal plants die, and the world becomes a dry,
dusty dead place. Especially late summer when the grass turns grey.
And then the Santa Ana winds that make everybody crazy. I always
loved the fall as a child, when the cool rains came and the world
became alive again. "Fall" and "Winter" for me are the seasons of
rebirth and growth.

I do think it is important to remember that the idea of 4 seasons, and
what they are, are really not universal, they are only true for the places
where they are true. The Central Coast doesn't have 4 seasons, maybe
it has three, maybe it has five, but none of them correspond to
"winter", "spring", "summer" and "fall" in the European or East Coast
sense. There ought to be other names.

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 Annie  Finch

Biography

Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic Libretto in Seven Dreams (2009). Calendars was shortlisted for the Foreword Poetry Book of the Year . . .

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