In ‘Autumn Song’ Auden explores themes of inevitability, death, and time. The tone and mood are both dark, dreary, and depressing as the poet crafts moving and foreboding images that symbolize the future of all life.
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Summary of Autumn Song
The poem takes the reader through a series of powerful images that tap into all human senses. The speaker describes the nature of the season, not as one of harvest and plenty as another poem might, but as one that leads all life into death. In the poem, Auden’s creatures are described as without sustenance and “dumb”. The angels as absent and the dead are close behind the living.
You can read the full poem here and more of Auden’s poetry here.
Structure of Autumn Song
‘Autumn Song’ by W.H. Auden is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a simple rhyme scheme of AABB CCDD, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. Auden also makes use of half, or slant, rhymes.
This kind of rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example, the use and reuse of the “t” sound in the endings of lines one and two of the first and second stanza. There is another good example, this time of assonance, in the third stanza with “reprove” and “attitude”.
Poetic Techniques in Autumn Song
Auden makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Autumn Song’. These include alliteration, allusion, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “falling fast” in the first line of the first stanza and “graves” and “gone” in the third line of the first stanza.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In this case, Auden spends the entire poem alluding to desperation, decay, and death. All are seen through the image of dying humans and non-human animals.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence.
Analysis of Autumn Song
Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse’s flowers will not last,
Nurses to their graves are gone,
But the prams go rolling on.
In the first stanza of ‘Autumn Song,’ the speaker begins by describing the movement of the leaves. They’re falling from the trees quickly. There is nothing one can do to stop them from plummeting to the ground. The same can be said about the flowers. They “will not last”.
These aren’t questions, they are statements. The speaker knows the world is this way and he is simply setting out facts.
He brings human beings into the season in the third and fourth lines. They too will die. Beloved nurses will go to the grave but children will continue to be born. There is something foreboding about the image of the pram “rolling on” as if there is no one there to stop it.
Whispering neighbours left and right
Derelict on lonely knees.
In the second stanza the speaker of ‘Autumn Song’ continues to paint a picture of what the season is like. There are “Whispering neighbours” from every angle. They “Daunt us,” or keep up from “our true delight” by fear and pressure. What were once “able hands” in summer and fall now “freeze”. The human body changes for the worse. He speaks on the knees as “Derelict”. They’re useless and rundown.
Close behind us on our track,
In false attitudes of love.
The dead pursue “us” in the third stanza. This alludes to the nature of winter, the death that comes for all the life that once flourished in the warmer seasons. They are close “behind us on our track”. The “track” speaks to the fact that we are all on the same path from life to death, there is nowhere else for anyone to go.
The dead are always there. Crying out with “Arms raised” as if seeking an embrace. Their “false attitude of love” should really remind the reader or intended listener that this is the fate that awaits all of us.
Scrawny through a plundered wood,
And the angel will not come.
The images the poet creates in the fourth stanza are powerful. By speaking about the darkness in such a way, with creatures dumb, or unable to speak, and hungry seeking out food desperately, he taps into an atmosphere of bleakness and is at the heart of this poem. The last line is fearful, telling the reader that “the angel will not come”. No light is going to emerge to force away this darkness. Everything is “Scrawny,” dying and desperate.
Clear, unscaleable, ahead
None may drink except in dreams.
In the last quatrain of ‘Autumn Song,’ the speaker desires “the Mountains of Instead”. These metaphorical mountains rise up “ahead”. There is no way to get to them. They are off the path, a land that no human or non-human animal could reach. The only way one reaches them is through dreams. Auden (read his biography here) makes use of alliteration in these lines to emphasize the finality of the statements. The rhythm in coordination with the rhyme helps these lines deliver the poem’s final dark impact.