‘Behold that tree, in Autumn’s dim decay‘ by Anna Seward is a traditional fourteen line stanza that follows a rhyme scheme of abba abba, cdcdcd. The sonnet is of the Italian, or Petrarchan variety and can be separated into two quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one sestet, or set of six lines.
Summary of Behold that tree, in Autumn’s dim decay
“Behold that tree, in Autumn’s dim decay” by Anna Seward describes the fear and acceptance of death through the metaphor of a tree battered by “Autumn.
The poem begins with the speaker introducing one such tree that has been driven to “decay” by the chilly autumn winds. The leaves have been unable to withstand the onslaught and many have fallen to the ground. Of those that remain, perhaps 20 out of the original “millions,” the speaker describes as being stubborn in their resistance. They represent the majority of humankind and man’s inability to accept death.
The poem concludes with the speaker stating that there is no wisdom in trying to live forever and even if one is avoiding death, there are many things still to fear in a prolonged life.
Analysis of Behold that tree, in Autumn’s dim decay
Behold that tree, in Autumn’s dim decay,
Stripped by the frequent, chill, and eddying wind;
Where yet some yellow, lonely leaves we find
Lingering and trembling on the naked spray,
The speaker begins this piece by placing the poem within a season. The time of year, and physical settings of this narrative, while negligible by the conclusion, are worth keeping in mind as a reference point.
The narrator asks that all those reading this piece, “Behold” a tree that is deep in “Autumn’s dim decay.” The poet has capitalized “Autumn” in an attempt to depict the changing of the season as having a conscious will and ability to cause “decay.” The tree has been “Stripped” of its leaves by the wind that is both “chill[y]” and blowing in circles, or “eddying.”
In the next two lines it is revealed that there are still a few leaves “lingering” on the branches. They have faced the wind and the “naked spray” of the rain, and persevered. They were strong enough, or stubborn enough, to hang on much longer than others of their kind.
Twenty, perchance, for millions whirled away!
Emblem, also! too just, of humankind!
Vain man expects longevity, designed
For few indeed; and their protracted day
In the second quatrain of this sonnet the speaker gives further detail about this tree and how many leaves exactly are left on its branches. Of all the innumerable that blew away, perhaps “millions,” maybe “Twenty” remain. The speaker is unsure of these numbers, but the exact total means less than the fact that somehow there are still leaves remaining.
The image of a battered tree which has been left with only a few of its previously endless leaves, is a very common sight. This image is one that almost every reader would be able to clearly picture as the speaker gets to the main theme of her narrative in the final six lines.
This stanza continues with the speaker stating that these leaves are not just interesting for their longevity, but for the fact that they are an “Emblem” of humankind. She sees in the stubbornness of the leaves the same inability to accept death that is present throughout all of the human race.
The speaker states that among mankind, many “expect longevity.” There are very few who understand and accept that they will eventually meet their end. The last phrase reaches into the concluding sestet, it begins by the narrator asking what “their,” meaning those who resist aging, “protracted” or drawn out, “day,” is worth.
What is it worth that Wisdom does not scorn?
The blasts of sickness, care, and grief appal,
That laid the friends in dust, whose natal morn
Rose near their own; and solemn is the call;
Yet, like those weak deserted leaves forlorn,
Shivering they cling to life, and fear to fall!
In the final set of lines, the sestet, the sonnet takes its turn. The second half of the poem summarizes what has been said in the first section, while answering any lingering questions and providing the most important theme of this piece. The speaker finishes the question that she began in the previous line by asking what long drawn out days of life are worth, that is not “scorn[ed]” by “Wisdom?” She is attempting to make the point that there is nothing wise about living forever, seeking eternal life, or even a prolonged life.
The poem then turns back to the leaves that have fallen from the tree and met their end. The speaker offers the negatives of life as reasons that one might want to live forever. One might fear “sickness, care” and unending “grief,” like that which the fallen leaves suffered. While these things are sometimes worth fearing, there is an equally fearful fate awaiting those who cling to life as the remaining leaves do.
The leaves, or people, who have passed on, were closely related to the leaves, or people, who are still living. This enhances the empathy that the remaining leaves experience, but unlike the fallen leaves, the remainders experience an endless “fear to fall!” Their lives are consumed with an obsession of the end of life.
About Anna Seward
Anna Seward was born in 1742 in Derbyshire, England. She was the daughter of a clergyman and the only one of four children to live into adulthood. Seward lived the majority of her life in Bishop’s Palace where her father worked as Canon of Lichfield Cathedral. Throughout her life she kept prolific correspondence, enough to where six volumes of her literary letters were published in 1811 after her death.
During her life she completed a number of works, some of which include, Elegy on Captain Cook; to which is added An ode to the sun and the Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin. Anna Seward died in 1809.