The poetry of autumn | James Matthew Wilson

A a few years ago I published a poem in first things called “autumn road.” Although the brilliant, changing colors of the leaves begin the poem, the explicit subject is the spooky turn of the season and of history, symbolized above all by the neighbors’ Halloween decorations. Both nature and artifice speak the language of the end of things. This turning point is also more directly represented in the appearance of political road signs before November 2016:

A few doors away, the lawn is bristling
With signs for candidates, I hated for a long time.
Just seeing their names scares me
Less supernatural but much closer
Close at hand than those that haunt children’s dreams.

Both natural and man-made things carry with them a parabolic or symbolic quality. Autumn as a season, for example, evokes many things: the darkness of decadence, of course, alongside bold beauty. The bright fire of the autumnal landscape and its sudden extinction both remind us that God’s nature book often speaks in unmistakable but mysterious characters; even the most insensitive among us cannot miss the meaning that unfolds before the eye and discerns the nose, and yet this meaning is not unambiguous or simple.

When our Pilgrim ancestors first encountered the fiery beauty of New England fall, they did not take it calmly. What was this wild and dangerous place, they wondered. Were those fall colors just 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 turn of the season as rich in mystery; however, it was not the sensual, but the spiritual significance of the color of the leaves that captured their attention. From such a Calvinist apprehension grew the New England literary tradition.

William Cullen Bryant’s “Autumn Woods” is a subtle and skillful example of this vision. The “summer braids of the trees are gone,” he writes. The turning leaves give the land another kind of meaning, which Bryant describes as a kind of enchantment. The fantastic appears to us in the twilight beauty of nature:

The folding mountains,
In their broad sweep, the round colored landscape,
Look like groups of giant kings, in purple and gold,
Who keep the ground enchanted.

I wander in the woods that crown
The plateau, where the mingled splendours shine,
Where the gay company of the trees looks down
On the green fields below.

At the end of the poem, autumn appears as an ephemeral refuge. The final stanzas lament the “little conflicts” of everyday existence, which “drive men mad”. His steps through the woods will soon and inevitably lead him to such an unhappy place, but for now he remains in a golden world.

Perhaps fearful that he underestimated his poem’s dark ending, Bryant made another foray into autumn poetry that tolerates no suggestion of enchantment or moral ambivalence about the season:

The melancholic days have come, the saddest of the year,
Of moaning winds, and bare woods, and brown, serene meadows.
Heaped up in the hollows of the grove, the autumn leaves lie dead;
They rustle in the swirling wind and the step of the rabbit.

Bryant continues to mourn the loss of the summer flowers, including the “goldenrod”, and to denounce the frost as a “plague on men”. The death of the flowers reminds him of the death of a young beauty by his side: “And we wept that such a beautiful one had such a brief life.”

Emily Dickinson’s poems often engage this New England religious and allegorical imagination in a playful and incredulous way. For most readers, his wild visions sit alongside the fables of Nathaniel Hawthorne as the main exponents of the lore. But, perhaps made uncomfortable by the pathos of Bryant’s poem about the death of flowers, published a generation earlier, she becomes uncharacteristically circumspect when writing about autumn. Referring directly to Bryant (and to James Thomson, author over a century earlier of the immensely popular poems Seasons), Dickinson writes:

Besides the autumn poets sing,
A few prosaic days
A little on this side of the snow
And this side of the mist –

A few incisive mornings
Some ascetic vigils –
Finished – Mr. Bryant’s “Golden Rod” –
And Mr. Thomson’s “sheaves.”

She concludes by asking God to give her a summer spirit to endure the windy outside weather of the season. If Bryant is a fall poet, she will be content with prose; he makes exaggerated cries, she “a few” observations.

Dickinson plays “agilely” with belief and disbelief. For Robert Frost, the failure of belief is a more likely possibility and opportunity to be serious, even in a poem as brief as “Nothing Gold Can Stay”:

The first green in nature is gold,
Her hardest shade to hold.
Its first leaf is a flower;
But only an hour.
Then the leaf turns into a leaf.
So Eden sank into grief,
Thus the dawn sets over the day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The season, in this poem, is a reminder of the eternal faults of nature but also of the first Fall in the Garden. Bodily mortality and spiritual mortality have something to do with each other, mainly in the fact that everything is characterized by loss.

In “After Apple Picking,” however, Frost treats the frosty but fruitful season as a land of at least evoking enchantment. Autumn becomes a dream landscape. The poem nevertheless ends by considering the probable possibility that his dreams are only the anxious recapitulation of his arduous daily labors and that what seems like a revelation could simply be “a human sleep”. Frost thus translates the pilgrim’s preoccupation with the desert as a place of God or the devil, a place of good or evil, into a concern about whether the meaning we perceive in the natural world is an opportunity to believe or a self- willful deception.

Two later New England poets would engage in similar musings, taking up themes from Frost and Bryant. Poetic sequence by Gjertrud Schnackenberg on his childhood home, 19 Hadley St., in South Hadley, Massachusetts, includes the wonderful short lyric “Halloween.” Schnackenberg describes the streets crowded “with fiends and dinosaurs / And beeping green men from distant stars”. After the kids recover from the scare and candy and fall asleep, the adults sit around talking about the brother who told his sister that monsters and ghosts aren’t “real.” Adults know best:

But the king of the dead

Took off his mask tonight, and twirled
His cape and is gone, and we’re his
Who undoubtedly know how real it is:
From his candy bag, he takes the world out.

Old perceptions that Dickinson and Frost simply contemplate, Schnackenberg sees in the New England cityscape not a mere “haunting,” but current reality. What the Fall can symbolize spiritually, the Fall also becomes simply: a time when all mortal things can be “picked up.”

Just as Schnackenberg senses a dark but moral reality in the season, so does Richard Wilbur. Wilbur knew Frost well; they would both spend their final years teaching at Amherst College. Wilbur’s poems often weave their way through the ambivalences explored by Dickinson and Frost, but in Wilbur’s poetry the antitheses of belief and unbelief, life and mortality, divine and profane , result in a vision that transcends mere ambivalence and promises wholeness – not for just one season, but eternal wholeness.

In “The Beautiful Changes”, a walk in an autumn field, or the discovery of a praying mantis on a green leaf, remind us that the transience of beauty awakens the spirit and the senses to it, and that awakening to being, we discover the depths within. As Wilbur says, such a mystery we encounter “proves / All greenness is deeper than anyone knows”. A late poem, “In Trackless Woods”, evokes “Four tall rocky maples seemingly lined up” and does so with the wit and style of Frost, who would wonder whether such signs were put there by the providence of God or by the chance of nature. Wilbur concludes, however, that nature “is not subject to our rigid geometries”. We don’t have to make a summer of fall scarcity. The plenitude of nature alone surpasses us.

The question of the significant power of nature is often addressed in poems whose theme is not specifically autumnal. And yet, because of these pilgrims’ first 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 the fall we find the meaning, mortality and mystery of the natural world most ostensibly addressed. It was while writing about the seasons that another New England poet, TS Eliot, first referred to God as the “fixed point of the revolving world”. Eliot’s midlife conversion to Christianity, in a sense, long germinated in the vision of things found in his native poetic tradition. With these early pilgrims, we feel that looking at the natural world is never just looking at things, but seeing things in life. To see in this life, as William Wordsworth once remarked, is to look all the way through and even beyond to the eternal source of our passing being.

James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas and Poet-in-Residence at the Benedict XVI Institute.

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