This week’s poems are about the season of autumn and how it can be seen as a metaphor for human aging and the cares that come thence.

Gerard Manley Hopkins starts with “Spring and Fall: to a young child”.

John Keats evokes all the sights and sounds of the season as he renders his “Ode to Autumn”.

Laurence Binyon finishes off with “The Burning of the Leaves” (or to be more accurate, the first part of that poem).

It was National Poetry Day yesterday: did you share a poem? Which poem was it, and if you didn’t share a poem, which poem would you share? Answers below… I have once again gone into a bit more detail for Paulo’s benefit. Please feel free to comment on any of the poems and ask me to clarify anything that is obscure or even just to say you like the poem or dislike it.

Poem 79. Spring and Fall: to a young child

Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh,
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844—1889)
MÁRGARÉT, áre you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight men were born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

This is another of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s trademark rhythmic pieces, with the accents on the syllables intended for more emphasis. The sprung rhythm that Hopkins preferred to use is on show here.

The poem is addressed to a young child who is sorrowing over the fall of leaves—I like the phrase “Goldengrove unleaving”: in two words Hopkins shows us the golden leaves of autumnal trees scattering on the ground.

Hopkins then likens leaves to the possessions of which people are so fond and seems to marvel that Margaret can care for such ephemeral things, observing that age brings a harder attitude that ceases to care for the small things: “Ah! As the heart grows older/it will come to such sights colder”. Nevertheless, we still grieve, but for things that are less tangible but of greater consequence, ending with the grief we feel at death: “It is the blight men were born for/It is Margaret you mourn for.”

The poem compares the falling of leaves with the inevitability of aging and physical debility, suggesting that the sadness young Margaret feels for the decaying leaves is the germ that grows into the fear and sorrow that comes with age.

Poem 80. Ode to Autumn

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,

John Keats (1795—1821)
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

This poem by John Keats is the epitome of autumn, and each stanza conjures up the progress of the season from late summer to early winter.

The first stanza richly describes the ripening of crops, the burgeoning of fruits and nuts in orchards and the blossoming of late flowers that sustain the production of honey until the combs are filled to the brim.

The second stanza personifies the season, imagining it as the harvester who is present when the granary is filled, who falls into an exhausted stupor in the midst of their labours in the field and patiently waits for the last drops of cider to be pressed from the fruits they have picked.

The third stanza describes the late autumn, and the promise of a future spring is deferred while we listen to the buzzing of gnats in their last days, the bleating of lambs and the song of birds as they gather for migration or to establish their domain.


Poem 81. The Burning of the Leaves, part 1

Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

Laurence Binyon (1869—1943)
Now is the time for the burning of the leaves.
They go to the fire; the nostril pricks with smoke
Wandering slowly into a weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.
The last hollyhock’s fallen tower is dust;
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.
Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before:
Rootless hopes and fruitless desire are there;
Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.
They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

This is part one of Binyon’s poem, “The Burning of the Leaves” which is so long that I hesitate to include it in its entirety. The poem is like many of Kipling’s: ostensibly about mundane matters like the incineration of the dead leaves and flowers after the splendour of summer, it also seems to describe the human condition.

The first stanza graphically describes the collection of dead wood and mouldering plant matter and its immolation in the autumn bonfires, but perhaps it also suggests the dissolution of youth in the fires of age. Binyon brings sight, sound and smell to bear on the scene: the “Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves” (a sheaf being a bundle of grain), the “stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist”, and “the nostril pricks with smoke”.

The second stanza emphasises the dissipation and decay that is being cleansed by the flames; I like the metaphor that likens the formerly tall pillars of hollyhocks to great towers that have fallen into dust, and the idea that the fragrant summer spices have become bitter with age. I like the phrase at the end: “the wild fingers of fire are making corruption clean”.

The third stanza extends the idea of burning of waste to the discarding of worthless memories, regrets and desires; it suggests that a new world has replaced the old and we should not regret the destruction of thoughts that no longer matter. The rootless hopes are as barren as the fruitless desires.

The fourth stanza brings hope of a sort: “They will come again, the leaf and the flower”, arising from the bare earth to recreate the same marvellous colours and scents for others to enjoy, though the earth cares nothing for our concerns, seeing only to its natural cycles, so that for us, “nothing is certain, only the certain spring.”

I like this poem because it has double meaning, but it conveys its message with glorious language: “a weeping mist”, “stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist”, “the reddest rose is a ghost”, “rootless hope and fruitless desire” and “from squalor of rottenness into the old splendour”.