In ‘First Fall,’ Maggie Smith’s speaker talks to her child, trying, as she feels she needs to, to explain the beauty of the fall season. The child is not yet one year old, but she is dedicated to making sure that they come to love the world as she does. That they grow up happy and take pleasure in the simple changes that a season can bring. Smith skillfully employs image-rich language in ‘First Fall,’ one of the many techniques that make this poem worth reading.
Explore First Fall
The first part of the poem begins with the speaker directing her child’s attention to the tree bark’s colors, the texture of the leaves, and the animals that wander in the park. She explains in the next part of ‘First Fall’ that she’s doing this in an attempt to begin her child’s life in the right way. She wants them to love the world as she does.
You can read the full poem here.
The themes in ‘First Fall’ include change, life, and happiness. The latter comes into play at the end of the poem when it becomes clear why the speaker is directing so much of their attention to exploring the fall season for their child. The speaker desperately wants her child to love the world, she says. It is with this in mind that she’s trying to share the beauty and wonder of fall. The speaker seeks out her child’s happiness, always keeping it at the front of her mind. Simultaneously, the speaker is dealing with what it’s going to mean to explain life and death to her child. She notes, also towards the end of the poem, that her child might not at first understand that things which appear dead in winter will return to life in the spring.
Structure and Form
‘First Fall’ by Maggie Smith is a twenty-line poem contained within a single stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but they are all very similar in length, ranging between five and nine syllables each. Smith makes use of fairly direct language that does not include complex syntax or overly poetic language. She focuses on imagery and the first-person narration of fall above all else.
Smith makes use of several literary devices in ‘First Fall.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, examples of caesurae, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, is seen through the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple verse lines. For example, “stars smolder” in line seven and “paddling” and “prized.” There are a few excellent examples of caesurae as well in ‘First Fall.’ For instance, the first line reads: “I’m your guide here. In the evening-dark” and line thirteen, which reads: “begin to end. Soon I’ll have another”.
Enjambment is an important formal device that can be seen in the transitions between lines—for instance, that which is found between lines four and five and between lines six and seven.
I’m your guide here. In the evening-dark
morning streets, I point and name.
Look, the sycamores, their mottled,
the dogs paddling after their prized sticks.
In the first lines of ‘First Fall,’ the speaker begins by stating that she is “your guide.” She’s directing her words to a specific listener or set of listeners. At this point, it’s unclear who the listener is supposed to be. She’s acting as a guide regarding the streets and all the autumn changes that are coming over them. For example, she describes how it’s her role to “point and name” the sycamores and their “paint-by-number bark.” This is one of the many wonderful examples of imagery in the poem. She uses the phrase “paint-by-number” to emphasizes the multicolored nature of the trees.
In the fourth line, she uses the word “Look” to capture the reader’s and the intended listener’s attention once more. At the same time, Smith doesn’t use any exclamations to show her speaker’s excitement; it’s still clear that she’s interested in the fall changes and wants to share them.
In the sixth line of the poem, the speaker reveals who the listener is supposed to be, her child. She carries this child on her chest, intent on showing them the “pond, the ducks” and more. With this piece of information, the title makes more sense. It is the child’s first fall, meaning they can’t be more than one year old.
Fall is when the only things you know
because I’ve named them
begin to end. Soon I’ll have another
to love the world because I brought you here.
In the next lines of the poem, the speaker tells her child that while they only know “Fall” now, they’ll soon have another season to learn and explore—winter. She’s “offer” them that season next, with its “frost soft / on the window” and ice on the branches. Smith romanticizes the images of winter in a way that allows her speaker’s emotion and love for her child to show through. She’s taking pleasure in the simple act of moving from season to season with her baby.
The poem concludes with the speaker reminding the child, as well as herself and the readers, that this child won’t realize that when something dies in winter, it “might / come back.” This feels like a metaphor for life in general. That when something goes wrong, or something bad happens, she’s there to remind the child that things will work out okay in the end.
In the last lines, she tells the child directly that she wants them to “love the world because [she] brought [them] here.” This is a beautiful and powerful line that taps into the long history of mothers or, more generally, parents and their children. It goes beyond the fall or winter season and suggests the complexities and responsibilities of parenting.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading another poem by Maggie Smith, ‘Good Bones.’ It explores the idea that the world is not necessarily a morally good place, something she doesn’t share with her children. Some other poems related to autumn subject matter include ‘Fall, Leaves, Fall’ by Emily Brontë, ‘Autumn Song’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and ‘To Autumn’ by William Blake. The latter is a fairly simple poem about the joys and colors of the autumn season.