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Essay

The Poetry of Autumn

Forget spring. Fall is the season for poetry.
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.

  • 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...

Essay

The Poetry of Autumn

Forget spring. Fall is the season for poetry.
  • 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...

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