One day in 1956, a poet was sitting at his desk, thinking back eighteen years. On an early-autumn day like this, just before the Second World War, he had taken his seven-year-old son to his first day at school. The poet remembered the freshness of the occasion: the leaves just turning in the sunshine, the brightly-painted touchlines of the football pitch. But above all he remembered his child’s awkward gait as he disappeared into the crowd of his new schoolfellows.
That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosed from its parent stem […]
The poem which recorded that memory, Cecil Day-Lewis’s “Walking Away,” is a classic evocation of parenthood, recording the “wrench” of parting but also the understanding that it was necessary. (“Love begins in the letting go.”) “Walking Away” is also a quintessential poem of autumn: If this is the poets’ favorite season, it is because autumn catches us in between, regretting and hoping, seeing the seed fall and imagining its growth.
As Annie Finch asked in a fine essay, “Where does paradox find its proper home but in poetry, and in autumn?” The poets especially like talking about autumn leaves, because they embody the paradox: Most glorious when they are about to crumple up, most full of life when they are closest to death.
The speaker in Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 begins self-pityingly:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
It gets even gloomier: By line 11 the speaker is already contemplating his deathbed. And yet the poem concludes that this picture of decrepitude “makes thy love more strong.” Seeing the speaker fall apart, the listener comes to love him even more. Or, on a more unsentimental reading of the poem’s conclusion, the listener realizes why he has to make the most of his own youth.
Poets who write about autumn can emphasize either side of the paradox. They can focus on the chill in the air, the increasingly desolate landscape, the rotting of plant life into the earth; or they can give thanks for the miracle that anything lives in the first place, and the abundance that remains. On the side of misery you find Edna St Vincent Millay (“Then leans on me the weight of the year, and crushes / My heart”); Tennyson, “Looking on the happy Autumn-fields, / And thinking of the days that are no more”; and Yeats, envying the wild swans at Coole, who in contrast to the poet are “unwearied” by experience.
On the side of gratitude are Paul Laurence Dunbar (“Don’t talk to me of solemn days / In autumn’s time of splendor”) and James McAuley, who argued that autumn’s sense of loss is partly an illusion. McAuley was by temperament a pessimist; despair—or rather the resistance to despair—was one of his major themes, and when he expresses delight, it is often an act of defiance.
One McAuley poem is about autumn in Tasmania’s Huon Valley, which at the time boasted a huge apple industry. For a moment the poet’s eye is drawn to the windfalls festering on the ground, attracting nothing except wasps. But then he looks up, to the golden elm-leaves, the “big white plumes of rushes.” And the apples are not only rotting: Listening closely, he can hear them being brought in and packaged.
Life is full of returns;
It isn’t true that one never
Profits, never learns:
Something is gathered in
Worth the lifting and stacking […]
Autumn can insinuate that your life has been a story with no point. But “it isn’t true.”
The most purely beautiful autumn poem I've come across is Rilke's “Herbst,” especially in the loose translation by Robin Robertson. The shortest is E. E. Cummings’s “l(a,” four words broken into their parts. Like so much by this misunderstood writer, the poem is far cleverer than it appears.
The longest, as far as I’m aware, is Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, which holds the reader’s attention while veering from autobiography to political commentary, from gossip to metaphysics. What unites this poem’s musings is the autumnal paradox. The poem has its moments of gratitude and wonder—“the human animal’s endless courage”—and it ends by assuring us that “the equation will come out at last.” But Autumn Journal is primarily written in a mood of foreboding. The past and its promises are gone, the brilliant theories are disproved or irrelevant, and home is no refuge:
[…] Hitler yells on the wireless,
The night is damp and still
And I hear dull blows on wood outside my window;
They are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill.
It was the autumn of 1938, the same year that Cecil Day-Lewis first took his seven-year-old to school.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.