Saturday, September 28, 2013

Top Ten Autumn Poems

If the sign of spring is the first cuckoo, for me the sign of autumn is hearing someone - usually someone just stepping outside into a foggy day with golden leaves swirling across the pavement - quote Keats' 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness'. Like 'now is the winter of our discontent' or 'shall I compare thee to a summer's day', these lines are no so much part of the English language that they survive quite happily without the poem they introduce. Autumn provides a ready-made metaphor for the end of youth, the process of ageing and intimations of wintery death on the horizon. And yet, as in Keats' lines, autumn is also a time of plenty and harvest. So, my selection of favourite autumn poems (in no particular order) may be downbeat, but there is always some comfort to be found.

I'd love to discover some of your favourites - feel free to leave a comment!

File:Hapgood Pond - Flickr - USDAgov.jpg
Image: Wikipedia

Thomas is the 20th century poet of the English countryside, but the landscapes he loved were never only beautiful, shadowed as they were by existential and political concerns (for instance, in 'The Team's Head Brass'). Here, the observer is struck by the beauty around him, but also experiences a melancholy born of his own awareness of his difference from the rest of nature, that difference which is a product of human consciousness. The irony is, of  course, that the beauty of nature could not be experienced without that human point of view.

A wonderfully musical poem which manages to make the mountain of winter (and, metaphorically, death) sound like a relief from the stiffness and decay of the autumnal world. It certainly seems more of a comfort than the narrator's fellow human beings, growing cold as the nature around them.

The cranefly of the summer becomes an ungainly, unlikely creature in Hughes' description, like a species about to be made extinct by an environment which has changed without leaving time for it to adapt. The 'vast empire' of nature is indifferent to her fate.

Elizabeth Jennings says that 'every season is a kind / Of rich nostalgia' - as in most things, she is right.

Skilfully using the sestina form to suggest a moment of stasis, Bishop captures autumn as a time of waiting - the cold felt by the grandmother is an intimation of mortality, while the child waits for the flower bed she has drawn to bloom in an anticipated spring.

Autumn as a desolation that only May can redeem.

Frost beautifully juxtaposes autumn's twin themes of decay and plenty - here the narrator is weary from harvesting so much richness, and that weariness suggests that he may not be able to enjoy the fruits of his labour for too much longer. The pane of ice from the water trough, which he holds up to observe the autumn world, is a lovely metaphor for his melancholy point of view.

A much more vital and life-affirming take on autumn here, as we might well expect from Redgrove, who is never a glum poet - the poetic imagination gives the changing season an energy which charges the whole of the natural world with erotic expectation.

A lovely poem by Shuttle for her late husband, Peter Redgrove. Here autumn is a moment of loss and loneliness. It's remarkable how much Shuttle is able to achieve with such economy - a real contrast to Redgrove's effervescent style.

If there's one thing I personally try to refrain from, it's commenting on or attempting to interpret Stevens' poetry. I just read it. A kind of desolate music in this exquisite poem.


  1. Lovely selection of poems. .Replying to your request for others, may I suggest Laurie Lee's 'Apples'. Nowadays his poetry is considered a bit overblown, but surely no one can deny the succinct lyricism of this, a poem which touches the heart - and all the senses.

  2. Good one, Jennie - there's a lovely recording of it here, too.

  3. Autumn 1964, Betjemen