Friday, November 14, 2014

"Fall Leaves Fall"

In this part of the world, autumn has thus far been benign, wistful and benign.  The winds have rattled the casements now and then.  And for some reason the term "polar vortex" (whatever that means) has captured the imagination of the media.  But the final ever-so-slight step has not yet been taken.

There are those who revel in that final step.  Or so they say.

Fall leaves fall die flowers away
Lengthen night and shorten day
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow
I shall sing when night's decay
Ushers in a drearier day

Emily Bronte, in Janet Gezari (editor), Emily Bronte: The Complete Poems (Penguin 1992).

The text above is as it appears in Bronte's manuscript, untitled and without punctuation.  The poem was not published until 1910.  It often appears in editions of Bronte's poems and in anthologies with punctuation added by modern editors.  For instance:

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me,
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night's decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

Clement Shorter (editor), The Complete Poems of Emily Bronte (1910).

Being used to the punctuated version of the poem, the unpunctuated version seemed a bit odd when I first encountered it in the Penguin edition.  But I now prefer it:  the lack of punctuation seems to create a force and a flow that fit well with the emotion expressed in the poem.  One senses the rush of feelings.

Rex Vicat Cole (1870-1940), "The Mill" (1922)

I had never thought of the following poem in conjunction with Bronte's poem.  But, by chance, I read them a few days apart recently, and I was struck by the similarities.  But I may be mistaken.

            My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
     Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
     She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
     She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted gray
     Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
     The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
     And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
     The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
     And they are better for her praise.

Robert Frost, A Boy's Will (1913).  (A side-note:  in my previous post, I mentioned that, when A Boy's Will  was first published, Frost included, in the table of contents, a one sentence gloss for each poem.  His gloss for "My November Guest" was:  "He is in love with being misunderstood.")

I am not suggesting that there is any intentional echoing of Bronte by Frost.  I have no idea whether he was even aware of the poem.  Rather, I am thinking of "my Sorrow."  I'd say that "my Sorrow" is something that the two of them had in common.

Rex Vicat Cole, "Landscape with Farm" (c. 1938)

Finally, although I remain firm in my oft-stated position that it is unfair to pigeonhole Thomas Hardy as a "pessimist," he can conjure up a dark and stormy Dorset autumn night that is every bit as harrowing and portentous as a dark and stormy Bronte Yorkshire moor autumn night.

                 Night-Time in Mid-Fall

It is a storm-strid night, winds footing swift
          Through the blind profound;
     I know the happenings from their sound;
Leaves totter down still green, and spin and drift;
The tree-trunks rock to their roots, which wrench and lift
The loam where they run onward underground.

The streams are muddy and swollen; eels migrate
          To a new abode;
     Even cross, 'tis said, the turnpike-road;
(Men's feet have felt their crawl, home-coming late):
The westward fronts of towers are saturate,
Church-timbers crack, and witches ride abroad.

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925).

Rex Vicat Cole, "Sompting Church, Sussex"


Anonymous said...

At the risk of my seeming histrionic, I found your posting today coupling two events--until I read your posting they were as separate to me as fin from fowl.

Yesterday at the gym I laughed when an acquaintance told me that when he was attempting to blow the leaves from his yard, the leaves spilling from the trees fell quicker than he could remove them. He finally gave up.

On my way home from the gym, taking my usual route, I passed a funeral home. Behind the home is the crematorium. Dark smoke and ash billowed into the November afternoon, pouring from the chimney. The autumn leaves spiraling to the ground even as the smoke lifted into the sky.

When I read your posting this morning, I found myself linking these two occasions. I thought of
C. H. Sisson's poem "Leaves."

Leaves are plentiful on the ground, under the feet,
There cannot be too many, they lie below;
They rot, they blow about before they are rotted.
Were they ever affixed to trees? I do not know.

The great connection is from the leaf to the root,
From branch, from tendril, to the low place
Below the burial ground, below the hope of the foot,
The hand stretched out, or the hidden face.

On all occasions, or most, remember this:
Then turn on yourself like a small whirlwind of leaves.

Fred said...


Great poems here, with a different POV than the usual. I know the Frost poem this time (a favorite--one among many actually), but the others are new. Thanks for bringing them to my attention,

I agree with you about the Bronte poem: it should be left alone. I like the unpunctuated version as it lets me decide on the flow. Perhaps it's because I have read some Chinese and Japanese poetry which in translation comes with little punctuation.

I am also reminded of the controversy regarding Emily Dickinson's punctuation. I prefer her use of punctuation far more than the attempts to correct her mistakes or unconventional usage.

Bovey Belle said...

We drove across the sodden Welsh landscape today, to an auction in Brecon, 45 miles away. I was thinking how even now, there is such beauty in that landscape, even though the colour is being sucked from it day by day.

Emily Bronte was never one to go with the tide was she? How can the writer who described the dark, weather-torn, brooding landscape of "Wuthering Heights" ever be satisfied by the delights of a hot summer's day?! Such was her spirit, she only allowed the Doctor to be called to her shortly before she drew her last breath. . . BTW, I think it works better without punctuation.

There are definite parallels with Frost's poem, and he was another one to relish a bit of weather too. I am a little disconcerted by his brief summing up of the poem though. Must go and ponder that a little longer . . .

The Hardy poem is delightful and I can never read it without remembering dark dark nights in an old pig-shed, collecting feed for our ponies, with just a feeble torch-light, and feeling the rats running over our wellingtons! Just as bad as those eels I think...

"Leaves totter down still green" - isn't that delightful? They are still lemon and lime on the Hazels here at present, but starting to make an exit. I always feel that Hardy knew the Dorset countryside so well he could see it all in his minds' eye from the warmth of his writing room: "I know the happenings from their sound."

Thank you for your excellent choices (as ever).

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: A sobering thought. Thank you for Sisson's "Leaves" -- a lovely poem which I posted here last year in October as well (with "Autumn in King's Hintock Park"). The last line is wonderful.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Your comparison between Bronte's unpunctuated poem and Chinese and Japanese poetry is an excellent one. As you know, the use of Chinese characters in the poetry of both countries results in a directness and compactness that tends to make most punctuation unnecessary. Of course, I say that with absolutely no linguistic expertise or authority!

Although I am mostly unfamiliar with Dickinson's poetry, I am aware of the punctuation issues with her poetry. From the little I do know of it, I have always preferred her eccentricities to the misguided attempts to "correct" her punctuation.

As ever, thank you very much for stopping by, and for your thoughts. I'm pleased you liked the poems.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: Thank you very much for your comments. I know that from your personal experiences you understand the essence of Hardy's poetry much better than I ever will!

Yes, "leaves totter down" is wonderful, isn't it? It is one of those combinations that only Hardy can come up with, combinations that may seem slightly odd at first, but always turn out to be exactly right in the end.

Your comment about Hardy knowing the Dorset countryside so well that he could see it all in his "mind's-eye" is perfect. I think of "Lying Awake" (which I'm sure you know): "You, Meadow, are white with your counterpane cover of dew,/I see it as if I were there;/You, Churchyard, are lightening faint from the shade of the yew,/The names creeping out everywhere."

Thank you again. I hope the auction was a success!

Anonymous said...

What the media now hypes as "polar vortex" in New York City a few years ago was known as "Alberta Clipper". Alas, it has descended on us abruptly. It feels odd to see bright flowers, roses, trees bright green to russet to bare, & with a winter coat hastily brought out hardly keeping out the sharp teeth of the wind.

Monophthalmos Rex said...

Thank you for adding more poems to bring into a certain focus what I, too, am seeing around me this morning. Hoping you'll forgive another contribution, I wanted to share this poem I found this just this morning in Katherine Bucknell's collection of Auden's Juvenalia (Princeton, 1994). She dates it to 1924, making him about 16 when he wrote it. The sentiment is different (it's not so much gladness where others might feel sad, but some comfort in exploring the sadness, I suppose. And, he's 16, and a human being, and therefore a moody adolescent.)

November at Weybourne

The starlings gather on the eaves
And shiver stiff with cold
The elms still bear bewildered leaves
That dare not lose their hold
Yon willow stoops as one who grieves
For a spring that is old.

The starlings fly but there are these
To speak to us instead
The surge of wind through writhing trees
The huddled clouds of lead
The waste of cold dark-figured seas
And the men that are dead.

"The elms still bear bewildered leaves" is striking (and he uses it again in a later poem), and, of course, "clouds of lead" bring to mind "a sky like lead" in The Shield of Achilles.

There is a tree at the end of my street that has just such leaves, and I'm wondering how long they'll keep their hold.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Yes, I don't know when this "polar vortex" business started, but it didn't catch my attention until this year. I suppose it is a product of having 24/7 weather channels on TV. Now, please bear with me as I sound like an old curmudgeon: "When I was growing up in Minnesota we called it . . . winter."

I always appreciate hearing from you. Thank you very much for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Monophthalmos Rex: Thank you very much for the Auden poem, which is wonderful (and new to me). I agree with you about "The elms still bear . . .," which is lovely. (Do I perhaps detect a bit of Hardy there?) I also like: "The waste of cold dark-figured seas."

I have a copy of Juvenilia, but I have never gotten around to reading all of the poems in it. You have encouraged me to revisit it. His precocity always amazes me. I'm sure you are familiar with "To E. T." (page 100), written when he was 18.

It's nice to hear from you again. Thank you for stopping by, and for sharing the poem, which is much appreciated.

Fred said...


I read a brief article by a meteorologist who said that this "polar vortex" is nothing more than a common variety polar front--a cold wave coming a bit south.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Sounds right to me. At least that's what it looks like on the weather maps. (I'm watching too much TV, obviously!) I'm sure you are quite familiar with "polar vortexes," having lived in the Chicago area.

Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Saturday afternoon my wife and I were walking out dogs at the park. It was a cold gray day. It had rained earlier. My wife, looking at the dull pewter skies, the sodden leaves littering the ground, a cold wind driving a fine mist, said, "It's almost as if winter told autumn 'Your time is up. You must leave.' And the bright autumn, now fallen from its bright beauty, timidly acquiesced, and took flight."

It seems that way. Winter, no matter the date, has arrived, and the gold and red and yellow leaves gone to ash tell us so.

I came across the below villanelle a few days ago. I had never see it before. It touches on the subject.

Autumn by Joseph Pacheco

The first to fall is the first to go.
Earth wears its mantle damp and chill —
Patina of November snow.

Leaves raged with fire just days ago —
Now grays, ash browns, pale yellows tell
The first to fall are the first to go.

Remains of harvest in desolate row
Brace for the final winter kill
Beneath their shroud of November snow.

The rakes now dry, the plow and hoe
Await Spring’s promise to fulfill —
The first to fall are the first to go.

Lit by the sky’s anemic glow
The pines are standing stiff and still,
Defiant of November snow.

In barns of silence wait those who know
What lies beneath the fields they till —
The first to fall are the first to go,
Together with November snow.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for the autumn thoughts. And thank you as well for the poem (from a poet who is new to me). Very nice. Thanks again.

Fred said...


Yes, during the years I grew up in Chicago, there were a number of "polar vortexes" although we were so ignorant as to refer to them as very cold weather.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Exactly. Thanks for the follow-up thought.