When a poem has a title like Song of Autumn, it’s setting a particular expectation of itself. The use of the word “song,” for instance, suggests a very specific, and very poetic look at the following subject. The use of the word “autumn” instead of “fall” furthers this idea. There’s a lot that can be conveyed in a good title, and Mary Oliver sends a very strong impression with this one. Song of Autumn is very good at conveying its theme, beginning right from the title, where the author’s word choice gives her work an immediate edge in evoking the season. There’s a lot of power in a title used well, and it’s typically a good sign for the poem to follow as well.
Song of Autumn – The Poem
Despite its perceived length, Song of Autumn is a mere six sentences long and pays no particular attention to line breaks or even stanza changes. Therefore, it makes more sense to examine it as a whole than it does to examine the verse break the author chose for this particular piece, which seems like it was likely chosen for readability and formatting reasons over any particular meaning in the text. The poem, song of Autumn, can be read in full here.
Immediately, the most prominent poetic device is used throughout the poem is personification. The autumn leaves are being given the human qualities of longing and comfort, and it is implied that they would rather be on the ground than hanging in the air. There is a need for comfort embedded in these lines, a desire for belonging and stability. Interestingly, the poem begins with “don’t you imagine,” suggesting that the speaker is seeking companionship, and for someone to agree with their perspective and outlook, the one that imagines that the leaves wish they could be on something solid and stable, rather than dangling precariously in the air.
The poem continues to personify the natural world. In the second sentence, it is the trees that are given human characteristics, and in particular, the hollowed-out trees, the ones covered in moss that birds like to sleep inside. This continues the earlier theme of stability, offering a sense of safety and comfort for the smaller animals that take autumn as an indication of the impending need to hibernate and seek safety from the coming cold. Despite this, the next lines depict the beginning of winter in positive terms, romanticizing the whispered good-byes of the glowers, and the “crowning” of the evergreen trees during the first snowfall. The image of the evergreen, as well as the idea that the flowers are saying “good-bye” — implying that they will be back — continues to push forward the idea of stability, of something that lasts. Autumn is being depicted as a time to maintain and ensure survival.
The natural scenery is described beautifully in the poem’s conclusion; everything is covered in white snow and blue shadows; the inclusion of a fox to breathe additional life into the wintry scene is a strong idea by the author. It is undoubtedly cold if the wind reminds the speaker of pumping bellows, but this line is placed in almost as an afterthought and feels buried beneath the natural descriptions and colours, as though the speaker can observe and admire the transition of autumn to winter without being bothered by the fact that the nights are longer, or that the temperature is colder. The strength of the natural world overcomes.
The final line is an ambiguous one. It brings in a human element to the poem, that of firewood, and then personifies the firewood, suggesting it wants to continue on its way. The way could refer to returning to the natural world, where safety and stability are core themes, or it could refer to its predetermined path of becoming a fire to light and warm another being. In the context of a “song of autumn,” it could be that the firewood is simply looking to provide that warmth and stability that has been an underlying theme throughout so much of the poem thus far.
By using personifying devices alongside detailed natural imagery, Mary Oliver is able to create a calm, quiet, and almost therapeutic atmosphere out of the natural world. Inviting us to share the perspective that the natural world is alive and sentient in its own way is a wonderful thing to do, and fulfills an aspect of poetry that seeks to create bonds between the author and the reader. Whether or not there is an exact meaning or historic context behind the vivid descriptions is a difficult thing to assess. As the poem stands, it is in itself a beacon for beauty and the security of the natural world, as it exists in perfect balance with itself; the birds and the trees, the trees and the leaves, the leaves and the ground, where the roots of the trees are buried deep, patiently awaiting the return of spring.