A number of years ago, I published a poem in First Things called “.” Although the brilliant and changing colors of the leaves begin the poem, the explicit subject is the fearful turn of season and history, symbolized above all by the neighbors’ Halloween decorations. Nature and artifice alike speak the language of the end of things. That turn is also more directly figured in the appearance of political yard signs in advance of November 2016:
A few doors farther on, the lawn is spiked
With signs for candidates I’ve long disliked.
Just seeing their names induces in me fear
Less supernatural but much more near
At hand than those that haunt the children’s dreams.
Both natural and artificial things bear a parabolic or symbolic quality to them. Autumn as a season, for example, is evocative of many things: the darkness of decay, to be sure, alongside bold beauty. The flashy fire of the autumnal landscape and its sudden snuffing out both remind us that God’s book of nature often speaks in unmistakable but mysterious characters; even the most insensible among us cannot miss the meaning unfolding before the eye and discernible to the nose, and yet that meaning is not univocal or simple.
When our pilgrim ancestors first encountered the blazing autumn beauty of New England, they did not take it calmly. What was this wild and dangerous place, they wondered. Were those fall colors but pleasing illustrations of God’s providence or signs that the devil lurked in those woods and that the strange new land presented not only bodily but spiritual dangers? They viewed the season’s turning as rich in mystery; it was not, however, the sensuous but the spiritual significance behind the color of the leaves that caught their attention. Out of such a Calvinist apprehension emerged the New England literary tradition.
William Cullen Bryant’s “Autumn Woods” is a subtle and skillful instance of this vision. The “summer tresses of the trees are gone,” he writes. The turning leaves give to the land another sort of significance, which Bryant describes as a kind of enchantment. The fantastic appears to us within nature’s crepuscular beauty:
The mountains that infold,
In their wide sweep, the coloured landscape round,
Seem groups of giant kings, in purple and gold,
That guard the enchanted ground.
I roam the woods that crown
The upland, where the mingled splendours glow,
Where the gay company of trees look down
On the green fields below.
By the end of the poem, autumn emerges as a fleeting refuge. The final stanzas lament the “low strife” of everyday existence, which “makes men mad.” His footsteps through the woods will shortly and inevitably lead to such an unhappy place, but for the moment he remains in a golden world.
Perhaps fearful that he had underemphasized the grim ending of his poem, Bryant made another foray into the poetry of autumn that brooks no suggestion of enchantment or moral ambivalence about the season:
The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,
Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sere.
Heaped in the hollows of the grove, the autumn leaves lie dead;
They rustle to the eddying gust, and to the rabbit’s tread.
Bryant proceeds to lament the loss of the summer flowers, including the “goldenrod,” and to denounce the frost as falling like a “plague on men.” The death of flowers reminds him of the death of a young beauty by his side: “And we wept that one so lovely should have a life so brief.”
Emily Dickinson’s poems often engage that New England religious and allegorical imagination in a playful and incredulous manner. For most readers, her wild visions stand alongside the fables of Nathaniel Hawthorne as the chief representatives of the tradition. But, perhaps having been made uncomfortable by the pathos of Bryant’s poem on the death of the flowers, published a generation earlier, she becomes uncharacteristically circumspect when she writes about autumn. Referring directly to Bryant (and to James Thomson, author more than a century earlier of the immensely popular poems The Seasons), Dickinson writes:
Besides the Autumn poets sing,
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze -
A few incisive mornings
A few Ascetic eves -
Gone - Mr Bryant's “Golden Rod” -
And Mr Thomson's “sheaves.”
She concludes by asking God to give her a mind of summer to endure the blustery outer weather of the season. If Bryant is an autumn poet, she will settle for prose; he makes exaggerated cries, she “a few” observations.
Dickinson plays “nimbly” with belief and unbelief alike. For Robert Frost, the failure of belief is a more likely possibility and the occasion for seriousness, even in such a brief poem as “Nothing Gold Can Stay”:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
The season, in this poem, is a reminder of the perennial failings of nature but also of the first Fall in the Garden. Bodily mortality and spiritual mortality have something to do with one another, chiefly in the fact that all is characterized by loss.
In “After Apple Picking,” however, Frost treats the frosted but fruitful season as a land at least hinting of enchantment. Autumn becomes a dreamscape. The poem concludes nonetheless by entertaining the likely possibility that one’s dreams are simply the anxious recapitulation of one’s tedious daily labors and that what seems a revelation may merely be “some human sleep.” Frost thus translates the pilgrim’s concern with the wilderness as place of God or devil, as place of good or evil, into a concern with whether the meaning we perceive in the natural world is an occasion for belief or a willful self-deception.
Two later New England poets would engage in similar reflections, taking up themes from Frost and Bryant. Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s poetic sequence on her childhood home, 19 Hadley St., in South Hadley, Massachusetts, includes the marvelous short lyric “Halloween.” Schnackenberg describes the streets crowded “with devils and dinosaurs / And bleeping green men flown from distant stars.” After the children have recovered from fear and candy and fall asleep, the adults sit up talking about the brother who has told his sister that monsters and ghosts aren’t “true.” The adults know better:
But the King of the Dead
Has taken off his mask tonight, and twirled
His cape and vanished, and we are his
Who know beyond all doubt how real he is:
Out of his bag of sweets he plucks the world.
The old perceptions that Dickinson and Frost merely contemplate, Schnackenberg sees in the New England townscape as not mere “haunting,” but present reality. What fall may spiritually symbolize, fall also simply becomes: a time when all things mortal may be “plucked.”
Much as Schnackenberg senses a grim but moral reality in the season, so does Richard Wilbur. Wilbur knew Frost well; they both would spend their later years teaching at Amherst College. Wilbur’s poems often work their way through the ambivalences that Dickinson and Frost explore, but in Wilbur’s poetry the antitheses of belief and unbelief, life and mortality, the divine and the secular, issue in a vision that transcends mere ambivalence and promises a fullness—not for one season only, but an everlasting fullness.
In “The Beautiful Changes,” a walk through an autumn field, or the discovery of a praying mantis on a green leaf, remind us that the transience of beauty awakens the mind and senses to it, and in awakening to being, we discover depths within it. As Wilbur puts it, such mystery as we encounter “proves / Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.” A late poem, “In Trackless Woods,” mulls “Four great rock maples seemingly aligned” and does so with the mind and style of Frost, which would wonder whether such signs were put there by God’s providence or nature’s chance. Wilbur concludes, however, that nature is “Not subject to our stiff geometries.” We do not have to make a summer out of autumn’s penury. The fullness of nature outdoes us all on its own.
The question of nature’s signifying power is often taken up in poems not specifically autumnal in theme. And yet, because of those early pilgrim encounters with the New England wilderness, and because of the obvious ways in which the season manifests to us the passage of time and the line between life and death, it is often in the poetry of autumn that we find the meaning, mortality, and mystery of the natural world most pointedly addressed. It was in writing of the seasons that still another New England poet, T. S. Eliot, first referred to God as the “still point of the turning world.” Eliot’s midlife conversion to Christianity in some sense long lay germinal within the vision of things found in his native poetic tradition. With those early pilgrims, we sense that to look upon the natural world is never merely to look upon things, but to see into the life of things. To see into that life, as William Wordsworth once remarked, is to look all the way through and even beyond it to the eternal source of our passing being.
James Matthew Wilson is Cullen Foundation Chair of English at the University of Saint Thomas and Poet-in-Residence of the Benedict XVI Institute.
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