Late fall sonnet

Autumn leaves

Falling Leaves Like Lovers

The leaves, the leaves are gone except the oak,
Which cling to trees and rattle needlessly.
The others flame and fall for all to see.
They streak and sizzle, leaving only smoke.

But oak leaves hang as by some unseen yoke,
All browned and curled awaiting sympathy,
Or sap to course and lend vitality–
The leaves cannot perceive the sorry joke.

For spring will end the lie and they will drop,
To drift and rot and turn in time to dust.
As sure as buds will burst to make a crop
Of new, the old will flutter down–they must.
The falling leaves like lovers never stop.
It’s hardly gentle, but ’tis just, ’tis just.


Notes:  Some of my favorite poems compare the death that comes in the autumn to the end of a love.  Or poems that use the dying natural world when winter approaches as the backdrop for the story.

I think of Robert Frost’s Reluctance, with its heartbreaking line about it being treasonous “to bow and accept the end of a love, or a season.”

Or Thomas Hardy’s Neutral Tones, which uses a frozen landscape as the setting for the realization that a relationship has ended.

Then, there is John Crowe Ransom’s Winter Remembered, with its wonderful image comparing the forsaken lover’s cold fingers to “Ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather.”

I may never have discovered Ransom had it not been for my 11th grade English teacher,  Paul Hagedorn, back in Marshall, Missouri.  We spent an inordinate amount of time on poetry that year.  The major assignment, as I recall it, was to select an American poet from a lengthy list, and then immerse yourself in the writer’s work, and finally write a paper.

Knowing nothing about most of the choices, I picked John Crowe Ransom solely because I liked the sound of his name.  I got lucky, because I discovered I enjoyed his work.  Had I chosen Wallace Stevens with his difficult, cerebral verse, I probably would have flunked.

Another assignment was to prepare a notebook of our favorite poems.  I remember making daring choices, including song lyrics by such radicals as Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.  Now  that Dylan as been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I consider myself foresighted.

I was fortunate that Mr. Hagedorn approved of my choices.  He was the cool, young teacher back then.  He managed to fan the flames of inspiration and love for poetry.  They smoldered for years, flaming up now and then, and have finally started burning here in this blog.

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A real downer

Thomas Hardy wrote
Thomas Hardy

I’ve been getting a lot of suggestions about poems and poets to feature in this blog. Thank you all. I’ve discovered some great poetry and rediscovered some that I had failed to appreciate earlier.

The latest is “Neutral Tones” by Thomas Hardy. This recommendation comes from someone who seems to be somewhat of a Hardy fan.  You know who you are.

“Neutral Tones” is definitely well crafted, but is it ever a sad and depressing poem!

Hardy is writing about a remembered meeting of lovers that spelled the imminent end of their relationship.  As the couple stands by a pond in winter, it becomes increasingly certain that the love is dead.  It is as if the whole world, the pond, the trees, the fallen leaves, and even the sun confirm that it’s over.

The leaves “had fallen from an ash, and were grey.”

The woman looks at the writer of the poem, but he feels her eyes on him are “as eyes that rove over tedious riddles of years ago.

Even the woman’s smile is described as “the deadest thing,” and compared to an “ominous bird a-wing” passing by.

All pretty grim, dismal stuff.  No color.  No warmth.  No sign of hope, and no relief.

The only comfort — and it is cold comfort — is that the man has gained the knowledge that “loves deceives.”

Hardy wrote “Neutral Tones” in 1867, when he was 27.   One theory is that this poem was written about his cousin, Tryphena Sparks, with whom he had a tempestuous love affair.  Not long afterwards, he fell in love with Emma Gifford, whom he later married.

Others have written extensively about how Hardy uses the poet’s craft to establish the heartbreaking atmosphere of the poem.  So I won’t go into detail here.

But Hardy knows what he is doing and uses language, meter and metaphor to create an aching sense of loneliness and despair.