Under the Harvest Moon by Carl Sandburg compares autumn and summer in ways to represent people in two different periods of life. One is older, reflected in “the harvest” stanza, and one is younger, showcased in “the summer” verse. Through wonderfully crafted wording with subtle clues about meaning, Sandburg’s work reveals “beaut[y]” in both stages of life, but for the older person, memory is the prominent detail, whereas, for the younger person, it is only a part of the equation. For that younger person, the possibilities before them are the primary concern, like “summer roses” that are still in bloom. For both, life still has meaning and worth. You can read the full poem Under the Harvest Moon here.
Under the Harvest Moon Analysis
The first stanza of Under the Harvest Moon links to common notions of autumn, specifically the contrast of “beaut[y]” and decay. While the leaves might change color to become wonderful pieces of artwork, that change indicates they are not well and will soon perish. This idea is reflected in “the soft silver [d]rips shimmering [o]ver the garden nights.” The visual garnered from that detail is breathtaking and lovely, almost romantic from the layers of gorgeous depth occurring. However, like autumn has a harsh side, this “harvest moon” is also linked to “Death,” which again mirrors the fact that the “beaut[y]” of fall leaves indicates they are, in fact, dying. In this, “Death” is “a beautiful friend,” but a “gray mocker.” Though the turn of the seasons causes “beaut[y],” there is so much decay involved in the process that it can easily be labeled a “mocker[y].”
The stanza, however, shifts the focus from the literal lifespan of nature to more figurative representation, and this is noted in the numerous levels of personification that happen within the stanza. While the reader can understand the labeling of nature’s demise in autumn as a “mocker[y],” for instance, nature cannot “mock” anything, nor can “Death.” As well, “Death” is not capable of “com[ing] and whisper[ing]” to anyone, nor can it “remember.” Because of these discrepancies, the literal quality of Under the Harvest Moon falters to make room for a more figurative meaning.
In particular, this can be seen as age—specifically old age where “Death” is as near as it is for leaves in autumn. When a person has aged to this point, they might feel that “Death” is close enough to touch or converse with, as if the person knows their time is near and can almost hear “Death” alerting them to that concept. During such a time, “remember[ing]” would be a reasonable prospect for the aged person, thinking back on all of the pleasant memories they knew to reflect on a life that is near completion. In this aspect, with the “remember[ance]” of “beautiful” details, the event could be seen “[a]s a beautiful friend.” Though it brings pleasantly fond memories, the harsh reality remains that “Death” has the purpose of ending the very life being reflected upon. In this, the “mocker” aspect is fitting.
There is no solid action happening from the person, which indicates that when “Death” is near, only memory lingers. Once more, autumn and a “harvest moon” are great representations for this because leaves can only wait for their demise during that time of the year, and a “harvest” indicates that growing time is over. Like a “harvest” then, the memories have all been collected and grown, but no more can be done to further them. The end of the season, essentially, has arrived, like “Death.”
This stanza shifts the focus to a season that is connected to life and livelihood—“summer.” Specifically, “the summer roses” and their “flagrant crimson” are noted in a similar fashion as the “beautiful,” natural elements that exist in the first stanza. For this stanza, however, the tone does not change to anything drear or foreboding. Rather, it remains on topics of “beaut[y]” and possibility, and also livelihood itself. For instance, “Love, with little hands, [c]omes and touches you,” which indicates a physicality that the first stanza does not have. There is more to life at this point than “remember[ing],” just as nature has more growing and thriving to do before the “harvest” arrives.
Still, there are “a thousand memories” at play, and this can be seen as an indication that there is always a recollection worth having, regardless of the season, since the passage of years builds them. Unlike the aged person though, the person of metaphor in this stanza has a newness like “summer,” meaning they still have youth. The existence of the “wild red leaves” as they “[l]urk” reveals that the “gray mocker” of “harvest” time is present even at this younger stage of life, but “Death” is not so near as to “whisper” his words of horrid promise. Unlike the person who has a great deal of age, this person can overlook that looming end to think on “[b]eautiful, unanswerable questions.” This indicates a great deal of possibilities for this younger person as if they are still in bloom and able to grow.
It is interesting to note as well that this younger person is “touch[ed]” by “Love” rather than “whispere[ed] to” by “Death.” This again reinforces the more physical concepts at work for this younger person because they can still be active in more vibrant parts of life, including new “Love” and prosperity.
By comparing these two seasons, Sandburg manages to create a representation of life in later years as compared to life in younger years. Both sets of time come with their own “beaut[ies],” but the life of the younger person comes with more possibility and physicality. Overall though, life can be “beautiful,” even when the season is coming to an end and the “harvest” is approaching.
About Carl Sandburg
Carl Sandburg was a poet who refused to limit his poetry to the most structured forms, appreciating the art of free verse. In addition to his poetry, he also wrote Abraham: The Lincoln Wars, which won a Pulitzer Prize. He passed away in 1967, but his works still make him relevant—as does his home being treated “as a National Historic site.”