‘Song at the Beginning of Autumn’ by Elizabeth Jennings is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, or sextains. Jennings chose to structure this piece with a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows a pattern of abcabc, alternating as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza. The poem was first published in Jennings’ collection, A Way of Looking, appearing in 1955.
The most important images of this piece are of course those related to autumn. Although the season does not begin until the very last line of the poem, the text is laden with referential memories. The speaker uses Proust as a starting point to describe her own moments of recollection, inspired by the smell of the air. She can tell that the fall is coming, even though the world appears still very much under the sway of summer.
Summary of Song at the Beginning of Autumn
The poem begins with the speaker stating that autumn is on its way, but it doesn’t appear that way to anyone else. The speaker is able to sense, through the smells in the air, that soon all the green on the trees will wilt.
In the second stanza, the speaker relates her own memories to those depicted in Proust’s novel, Swann’s Way. In it he tells of a narrator’s return to a childhood memory after dipping a madeleine in tea.
The poem concludes with the speaker defining why and how human beings name and categorize seasons. She also recalls her own madeleine moment related to the coming of autumn. It seems to her that she is able to call the season forward with only the word “Autumn.”
You can read the full poem Song at the Beginning of Autumn here.
Analysis of Song at the Beginning of Autumn
Now watch this autumn that arrives
In smells. All looks like summer still;
Colours are quite unchanged, the air
The fields. Flowers flourish everywhere.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by stating that Autumn is coming, and one can detect its presence by smells in the air. This is one of the only ways one can know at this point as,
All looks like Summer still
Colours are quite unchanged,
The following lines emphasize the fact that everything still speaks of summer. When she looks around her environment she can see that all the colours are the same bold greens of summertime. Everything appears to be thriving, as yet untouched by the beginnings of death or decay. She states that the world is “serene.” This suggests that when autumn comes serenity will no longer be present. The fields and trees are still full of “growth” and there are flowers “flourish[ing] everywhere.”
Proust who collected time within
A child’s cake would understand
Column of smoke stirs from the land
Proving that autumn gropes for us.
In the next set of lines, the speaker refers to “Proust,” the French novelist who is best known for his work À la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time. The speaker is referencing Proust’s investigations into time, memory, and experience in this section (and later lines) of the poem. In particular, she is referring to a moment in the first volume of the work, Swann’s Way. Proust’s narrator is overtaken by a memory from his childhood that surfaced after he tasted a madeleine, or small cake, dipped in tea.
It is this child’s cake that the speaker is referencing in the first line. She speaks of Proust being able to “collect…time” into a cake. Embedded within its form are all the emotions and experiences of one’s life. There is of course an “ambiguity” to this, not everything is remembered exactly as it was.
The next three lines are somewhat scary. She tells of summer and its continuing “rage” as well as how a,
Column of smoke stirs from the land
It is this sight that proves to the speaker that autumn is reaching out for “us.” It signals the progression of time and therefore death itself.
But every season is a kind
Of rich nostalgia. We give names –
Our moods and give them outward forms.
We want the certain, solid thing.
The second half of the poem begins on a lighter note. Jennings quickly takes the reader back from the darkness of autumn to a more straightforward view of the seasons. She names them and defines them simply. They are all different but equally full of “rich nostalgia.”
While doing this, she also defines why it is that human beings have always felt the need to name things. It is a way to “give them outward forms” and make them easier for us to understand. This way they are single “solid” and unable to threaten one’s well being.
But I am carried back against
My will into a childhood where
From evocations in the air.
When I said autumn, autumn broke.
The fourth stanza provides the speaker with her own madeleine moment. The smell of autumn approaching brings her back against her will to,
[…] a childhood where
Autumn is bonfires, marbles, smoke;
She recalls from the past these three words. They represent in the simplest forms what her life used to be like. “Marbles” probably refers to a game, perhaps played around a bonfire of which smoke is inherently a part. The speaker returns the reader to the present in which she is leaning against her window recalling the emotion-laden memory. It is not an entirely happy one.
The starkness of the three words speaks to an emptiness around her past. Perhaps something was missing from the speaker’s life at this time, or she was missing out on something else.
The poem concludes with the line “When I said Autumn, Autumn broke.” The speaker is ascribing a great deal of power to speech here. Although it is likely she does not believe this, it is as if she can predict, call upon, and bring on autumn with a single word. This is how close, mentally, and emotionally, she is to the changing of the seasons.