09/23/2012 11:52 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2012

Four Poems for Autumn


While poets traditionally see spring as a symbol of rebirth and renewal, the fall calls up thoughts of the harvest and, more depressingly, the approaching winter. Here are poems by William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, William Blake and Carl Sandburg that explore what the fall can teach us about our humanity.

Shakespeare famously used autumn as a metaphor for aging in the first quatrain of his 73rd sonnet.

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.

But in the face of deterioration and mortality, Shakespeare reminds us, love can not only endure, it can grow stronger.

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In Frost's "October," winter is near: the wind is about to "waste" the leaves and the crows are poised to migrate. Frost asks the morning to slow down, and asks our hearts to "beguile us" into thinking the day is lasting longer. It's hard not read Frost's final plea for the grapes along the wall, already "burnt with frost," as concern for his own mortality.

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
To-morrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know;
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away;
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes' sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost--
For the grapes' sake along the wall.

In Blake's "To Autumn," the coming winter is also seen as a hard season, but it doesn't take on the finality it has in Frost's poem. Here, a personified Autumn, whom Blake describes as "jolly," sits with the speaker and celebrates the spring and summer in song before girding himself for the coming "bleak" winter. But Autumn leaves the harvest behind (his "golden load") and one can read that as a symbol of better times ahead -- another spring and summer.

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stained
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou mayst rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

"The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust'ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather'd clouds strew flowers round her head.

"The spirits of the air live on the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees."
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat;
Then rose, girded himself, and o'er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

Sandburg, in "Autumn Movement," sees the fall as a reminder of the ephemerality of beauty. Crops, beautiful possessions, and even people (Sandburg reminds us through his image of the "mother of the year"), will die or fall apart. And while "new beautiful things come," Sandburg insists, "not one lasts."

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.

The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman,
the mother of the year, the taker of seeds.

The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things
come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go,
not one lasts.

Feel free to add your own favorite poems about autumn in the comments section.