The Falling Leaves is a poem born from a fairly unique circumstance. For Margaret Postgate Cole, the societal values of her time (1893 was her year of birth) were flawed and outdated, and no event showcased this quite as much as the First World War. An activist, Cole wanted to speak out against the injustices she saw in the world, and used poetry as a means of doing so. The Falling Leaves captures her spirit as she observes the changing world, and the change in attitudes and beliefs concerning the Great War, and the society of the time as its whole.
The Falling Leaves Analysis
Despite the harsh realities that fit the historic context of November 1915, the poem, which can be read in full here, is a very calming piece. It follows a loose rhyming pattern; each line has a rhyming line that follows three lines later, resetting after six lines. The poem discusses a narrator who watches as leaves fall from a tree. There is no breeze as the leaves fall, so they simply drop to the ground to join a vast array of dead leaves on the ground. Given the historic nature of the poem (and the preface, “November 1915”), it is likely that the fallen leaves represent soldiers of war, who fall, one by one, only to collapse into a field of bodies (or perhaps a list of the dead) so vast their names, identities, and even physical bodies are simply lost forever.
The poem references “for thinking of a gallant multitude,” which ties in a very sad theme connecting the poem to the frenzy of excitement for the war that might well have been the last positive things felt by the vast fields of the dead. The poem describes them as having died, “like snowflakes wiping out the noon.” This too is a very telling image — it depicts a scene of winter where, in the afternoon, the warmest time of day, snow begins to fall. The glorious metaphorical summer turns to a bitter winter as snowflakes start to fall — except instead of snowflakes, it is the bodies of soldiers that are covering the fields.
The snowflakes metaphor appears again near the end of the poem. The winter analogies can be interpreted two ways; generally the silent, white blanket of snow is an image used as a metaphor for peacetime. Otherwise, it is indicative of the cold winter that essentially smothers and ends a great deal of plant life. The meaning seems to be dual here; for every snowflake, every body on the field, another unique life’s struggle has ended, and the calm wording of the poem almost makes it seem as though the fields are peaceful. Alternatively, the image conjured by snowflakes is one made of a great many flakes, and it is a fitting analogy to point out exactly how many people have died fighting the war even as early in as 1915.
The last line of the poem references the Flemish clay, though this might make more sense if it is referred to as “Flanders Fields” (“Flemish” typically refers to the people of Flanders in Belgium, near where a number of significant battles took place throughout the war). There is no physical location called Flanders Fields; the name was popularized by the poem In Flanders Fields); rather, the location refers to battles such as ones in Passchendaele and Ypres.
When Margaret Cole saw and heard about World War One, she was an outsider, yes, but also a feminist watching only men die, and a pacifist strongly opposed to the war itself. The calm nature of The Falling Leaves is not a strong reflection of what she is best known for, but is a terrific tone to set on a piece that challenged common perceptions of the war effort. Its somber nature may have been what many needed to hear to reflect upon the purpose of the war, and it is likely that this was her intention in writing it.
It is a sad chapter in human history when men fall like leaves and cover the ground like snowflakes. There is a vast array of poetry, music, and art that reflects the nature of this period, but few that can capture its sobriety and pain in quite the same way as could Margaret Postgate Cole when she watched the falling leaves.
As the first “line” of the poem suggests, The Falling Leaves was written my Margaret Cole in November 1915. Throughout her life, Cole identified herself as a pacifist, a socialist, an atheist, and a feminist. Her pacifist beliefs began after her brother was imprisoned for refusing to obey an order to conscription. She fought the sentence and the whole idea of forced draft thereafter.
During the early stages of the First World War, countless young men volunteered to fight for their home countries eagerly. The viewpoint of many was that the war would be an exciting opportunity to travel overseas, to punish their enemies, and to get away from everyday life for a while. In parts of the world further away from Europe, there was concern that if men did not volunteer as soon as war broke out, that there would no longer be a war to fight, since victory was a certainty.
By November of 1915, these ideals would have been utterly shattered by the brutal reality that was the First World War. Trench warfare meant miserable living conditions, an extremely high and constant risk of death from being shot, struck by artillery, poisonous gas, or gangrene, and fighting under such conditions for days on end, only to advance or retreat a few hundred metres. It is during this setting that the poem takes place.