Autumn Valentine by Dorothy Parker is a two-stanza work with an ABAB rhyme scheme that reveals two moments in the scope of the narrator’s pain—one when the pain was new and one when it had endured for a time in the shadows. While the pain was fresh, it was encompassing to the point of complicating day and night on different levels. After months had passed, the vocabulary of the poem suggests the narrator had pushed away the memory that caused the “breaking,” but then turned and asked the “heart” if it “remembered” the painful moment. In response, the “heart” did not even recognize itself enough to offer an appropriate answer.
What this reveals to the reader is that pain linked to good memories must be embraced as pushing away the pain also pushes away those good memories. Without the care and honesty that come with embracing those moments, the very being of a person could be compromised so much that the person becomes unrecognizable in their own eyes. You can read the poem here.
Autumn Valentine Analysis
In May my heart was breaking-
And sore it split in sleep.
There is an encompassing feeling at work within this stanza showcased through word choices, and this encompassing feeling is connected to a “heart… breaking.” The first element that addresses this kind of enduring pain is that the setting begins “[i]n May,” which is a month of spring when new flowers are growing and the decay of the previous seasons has fallen away. There is renewal happening in this month, like a continuance of the cycle of life that will not be broken as year after year, new plants sprout and grow. That concept shows the “heart was breaking” with a new “wound,” but the “breaking” would be something that lingered in a cyclical way to mirror the seasons.
Another concept that shows the fulness of this “heart… breaking” resides in the noted size and shape of “the wound.” Specifically, it was “wide” “and deep,” and that very basic representation of its proportions indicates largeness on more than one dimension of the hurt. Regardless of how this “breaking” is analyzed then, it was extensive and resounding—encompassing.
What could be the most telling aspect of this concept within the lines is that the “break” affected the narrator’s “heart” during the day and night, according to the final lines of this stanza: “bitter it beat at waking [a]nd sore it split in sleep.” What this entails is that no matter what state the narrator was in, the hurt was real and painful. The details provided in these two lines, however, do not end with that basic notion since more can be inferred with a more careful look at the word choices for each state of being.
For when the narrator was “waking,” “bitter” the “heart” “beat.” The first element of this scenario to note is that the narrator does not say this “bitter[ness]” happened “while awake,” which would mean that every moment the person was conscious was impacted by this harshness. Rather, it was limited to just the “waking” moment. To say such a thing in connection to “bitter[ness]” is quite telling since that wording hints the “bitter[ness]” sprang only from being awoken. This would mean the remembrance of the painful memory would only instigate a “bitter” feeling—not keep it going at all conscious hours. While this seems to contradict the idea of the ongoing nature of the pain, in the context of the first stanza, the notion holds solid since the narrator would endure this moment of “waking” or “remember[ing]” again and again whenever the memory resurfaced.
This also gives a new connection to the mention of “May” in that spring is the time of “remember[ing]” the sights and feelings of blossoming flowers. This is the “waking” moment for nature, and it adds an odd sweetness to the “bitter” experience of the “waking” of the narrator’s memory, almost as if the narrator had soft feelings in regard to that memory in spite of the pain that sprang from it. To support this notion, recall that while the “heart” was “bitter” at this “waking” moment, it was still “beating,” meaning the “heart” itself lived in its connection to this painful memory of “breaking.”
For the night detail, the narrator says that “sore [the heart] split in sleep.” Clearly, the heart would not literally “split” in this situation, so the reader must look for a deeper meaning. For this, the concept of “sleep” representing the memory within the psyche would be logical. If such is the case, the narrator is saying that in forgetting the memory—in having it lie below a conscious level—the “heart” experienced pain that was comparable to a “split.” On a further level, this “split” could mirror the indecisiveness of the narrator in deciding whether holding to this memory was a good thing or a bad one, whether the “beat[ing]” of that memory’s life was worth the “bitter[ness]” and “sore[ness]” that came with its lingering. In this, the narrator has ended the stanza unsure of where they stood on the prospect, with only their lingering pain and confusion noted.
And when it came November,
“What heart was that?” it cried.
This stanza takes place during the last full month of fall when nature suffers decay—“November.” The contrast is instant from the vibrant beauty of “May,” and there is an air of despondency and loneliness that surfaces in regard to this choice of month that the first stanza does not embrace because “November” represents so much of nature’s passing. Also worth mentioning, however, is that while fall is the season of decay, the process in which that decay happens includes a series of vivid, lovely colors across leaves and plants. What could seem like only a mention of the memory’s death by utilizing this month, with that in mind, becomes a link to decay, but also beauty. In this concept, this stanza pairs well with the first one since it expresses the same approach of not completely knowing what to do with the memory that caused the pain. Was it too beautiful to lose or too painful to keep? The narrator does not seem to know.
The irony though is that the narrator did not get the final say in the situation, as is evidenced in the final two lines of the poem. That narrator asked their “heart” with a “sigh” if it “remember[ed].” While the object to be recalled is not mentioned, the memory that makes the “heart… break” being the driving force of the poem makes it clear that the thing to be “remember[ed]” was the very same memory. The “heart,” in response, asked its own question: “What heart was that?”
There are a number of conclusions that can be drawn from this setup, and they begin with the detail that the narrator had separated so much from their “heart” that they felt the need to ask if the memory could be “remember[ed].” Should the narrator have been in close connection with their “heart,” such a question would not have had to be posed. This shows an internal distance by the narrator to separate from their own feelings, which is a representation of separating from the “heart.” If a person does not feel, after all, the metaphor of losing “heart” is solid.
Unfortunately, by the time the narrator decided that having those feelings was worth the pain—why else would they ask about the memory with a “sigh?”—the “heart” had changed beyond recognition. In fact, the “heart” no longer recognized itself as the narrator’s since it replied by asking “[w]hat heart” the narrator was referring to. While the narrator may have only intended to push the feelings aside for a while then, the decision had permanent consequences in the existence of their own “heart.”
By losing those memories and feelings, the “heart” lost its meaning and place, so much that what remained was no longer the same “heart.” On a broader level, this can mean that a person who pushes aside good memories and feelings to avoid hurtful recollections can become so cold and distant that they do not recognize their own reflection, just like this “heart” did not know that it was the “heart” to which the narrator referred.
In the end, this poem can be seen as a warning in regard to forcing away good feelings and memories for the sake of sparing pain. In doing so, a person can become unrecognizable.
About Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker was born in 1893 and died in 1967. Among her literary accomplishments, she worked for Vanity Fair and wrote fictional pieces, and she also offered her opinions of theater through literary means. She was a bestseller in 1926 and the winner of the O. Henry Award in 1929.