A poem for leaf fall

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang:

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest:

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
——W. Shakespeare, Sonnet 28

I memorized this in the fall of 1993, my sophomore year at BYU, walking between my apartment at the Riviera and my classes on campus. That fall I listened to Smashing Pumpkins and wore docs and plaid flannel shirts. I don’t know why I did any of it, the flannel or the docs or the memorized poems, and I don’t know why this sonnet, and the memory of its memorization, has stayed with me for so long.

I like autumn, but my neurosis for clean floors makes it difficult for me to relax into its loose-limbed leafiness. Rake and bag, rake and bag, the wind sings. Please share below your autumn observations, natural or metaphysical, compost recipes, and of course poems.

Bonus question: I’ve always thought of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” as an autumn poem, but upon closer reading I see that it’s actually about spring, isn’t it?

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

23 comments for “A poem for leaf fall

  1. Rosalynde:

    The sonnet certainly sparks memories — we pretty well memorized this in high school, back when the Beatles were new and exciting. Before long, I will be in that time of life that is discussed inb the poem (which strikes me as about age and death rhather than about fall), making this line of thought seem all more the more real to me. At once, a warm feeling and a cold shiver!

    Anyway, this sonnet brings to mind two little verses from my “Zen Desk Calendar.”

    Although the wind
    blows terribly here,
    the moonlight also
    leaks through the holes
    in the roof
    of this ruined house. (Shibiku, March 14 on the calendar)

    Growing older, I love only quietness:
    who need be concerned with the
    things of this world?
    Looking back, what better plan
    than this:
    returning to the grove. (Li Po, June 14 on the calendar)

  2. I am reminded of this simple poem from e. e. cummings




    Its very easy to memorize, too.

  3. Autumn

    The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
    as if orchards were dying high in space.
    Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

    And tonight the heavy earth is falling
    away from all other stars in the loneliness.

    We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
    And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

    And yet there is Someone, whose hands
    infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

    Rainer Maria Rilke

  4. In my comment, the poem begins with an l, not a 1. I copied it from a website, so I didn’t double check the begining letter. My bad.

  5. Last week I had to remove an 80-foot weeping willow from my yard. It had suffered serious damage at about the 30-foot level during a ferocious wind storm this summer, and since it was only a dozen feet or so from our house it was quite threatening.

    Still. The tree, for all the trouble it always caused (willows are not well-behaved lawn trees) nearly defined this place for all of us here. It was autumnal work, done with a renewed sense that we have been expelled from Eden. We are mourning.

    And yet, there was so much joy in it, being out in creation with my sons, using muscles and getting things done. Were it not for the trouble, I would have spent the day largely at a word processor bending abstractions into some more or less usable form.

    I was too cheap to pay the guy with a ladder truck $900 to do the work, so my sons and I did it ourselves with ladders, chainsaws, cables and an old truck. It was larger-scale gardening than I usually do, and standing on a 32-foot ladder running a saw into a 30-inch trunk with fifty feet of massive willow still above me, I couldn’t help but notice that things felt riskier than they would have twenty years ago, or that I’m in about the same stage of life as my November garden.

    I still have a huge mess in my yard. But the house is safe. The worst work is done. My senses have been sharpened by outside work done in company. And I feel ready for winter:

    The seed is in the ground.
    Now may we rest in hope
    While darkness does its work.

    Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Cave.

  6. That third stanza kills me every time. The comparison of dying embers to the fall season and to passion now fleeting is almost mystical in its depth and feeling. I always feel content and comfort in the fall, despite the physical reminders of death settling in all around. The embers are a physical reminder of blessings received and now counted.

    What can I say? I’m a sucker for nostalgia.

  7. Not a poem, but… Jane Austen in Persuasion:
    “Her [Anne Elliot’s] pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which has drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling” (Ch. 10, ¶7).

  8. Also not a poem… John Muir on the Grand Canyon:
    “Walking quietly about in the alleys and byways of the Grand Canyon city, we learn something of the way it was made; and all must admire effects so great from means apparently so simple; rain striking light hammer blows or heavier in streams, with many rest Sundays; soft air and light, gentle sappers and miners, toiling forever; the big river sawing the plateau asunder, carrying away the eroded and ground waste, and exposing the edges of the strata to the weather; rain torrents sawing cross-streets and alleys, exposing the strata in the same way in hundreds of sections, the softer, less resisting beds weathering and receding faster, thus undermining the harder beds, which fall, not only in small weathered particles, but in heavy sheer-cleaving masses, assisted down from time to time by kindly earthquakes, rain torrents rushing the fallen material to the river, keeping the wall rocks constantly exposed. Thus the canyon grows wider and deeper. So also do the side canyons and amphitheaters, while secondary gorges and cirques gradually isolate masses of the promontories, forming new buildings, all of which are being weathered and pulled and shaken down while being built, showing destruction and creation as one. We see the proudest temples and palaces in stateliest attitudes, wearing their sheets of detritus as royal robes, shedding off showers of red and yellow stones like trees in autumn shedding their leaves, going to dust like beautiful days to night, proclaiming as with the tongues of angels the natural beauty of death” (Steep Trails, 1918, Ch. 24, ¶44 [2nd to last paragraph in the book]).

  9. In Albuquerque there are a number of Mulberry trees, and they loose all their leaves in what seems to be a single day. My daughter and I sometimes speak German together and we called this annual event “Blatfallentag.” It always seemed amazing to me, but I never thought to write a poem about it.

  10. Cold kisses
    flaming arms,
    the sky
    with the iced pleas
    of Lethe’s forgotten.

    Soon shalt thou
    thy glory.
    Crimson litter
    to grace
    the earth below
    with thy faded life.

    A final
    before sleep.
    A gift of life
    laid down
    only to be
    taken up again.

    Beneath my
    thy ending
    whispers to me
    of hope,
    and speaks to me
    of beginnings.

  11. Along the fields as we came by
    A year ago, my love and I,
    The aspen over stile and stone
    Was talking to itself alone.
    “Oh who are these that kiss and pass?
    A country lover and his lass;
    Two lovers looking to be wed;
    And time shall put them both to bed,
    But she shall lie with earth above,
    And he beside another love.”

    And sure enough beneath the tree
    There walks another love with me,
    And overhead the aspen heaves
    Its rainy-sounding silver leaves;
    And I spell nothing in their stir,
    But now perhaps they speak to her,
    And plain for her to understand
    They talk about a time at hand
    When I shall sleep with clover clad,
    And she beside another lad.

  12. If you want a Frost poem about autumn, it’s definitely this one:


    Out through the fields and the woods
    And over the walls I have wended;
    I have climbed the hills of view
    And looked at the world, and descended;
    I have come by the highway home,
    And lo, it is ended.

    The leaves are all dead on the ground,
    Save those that the oak is keeping
    To ravel them one by one
    And let them go scraping and creeping
    Out over the crusted snow,
    When others are sleeping.

    And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
    No longer blown hither and thither;
    The last lone aster is gone;
    The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
    The heart is still aching to seek,
    But the feet question ‘Whither?’

    Ah, when to the heart of man
    Was it ever less than a treason
    To go with the drift of things,
    To yield with a grace to reason,
    And bow and accept the end
    Of a love or a season.

  13. I think ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ has an autumnal feel to it, whatever season its about.

  14. I hate summer. I hate the bright light, the heat, the noise.
    When fall comes, I literally feel like I can breathe again, I feel lighter, free.

    Some people get depressed in winter. I get depressed in summer.

    (the above is not a poem LOL, it’s my opinion)

    Good post, Rosalynde

  15. Rosalynde,

    I\’m sorry that you must chant, \”Rake and bag, rake and bag.\” For you I would wish a wooded area behind your home, like I have. With the help of a plastic tarp, \”Rake and drag, rake and drag\” is SO much easier.

    Actually, my one-year-old keeps dragging my wife outside during the day so that he can play with his rake. Consequently, she does the lion\’s share of the raking (what else to do while out there with the boy?), and I do the dragging after returning from work. The boy loves every bit of it.

    Where are those compost recipes Rosalynde solicited?

  16. I can’t recite the poem which was featured in the Ensign many years past, but it described the brilliance and beauty of autumn hues, then concluded with, “Why can’t all dying be so beautiful?” It’s never left me.

  17. I love fall because it reminds me of Christmas (fall almost anywhere else = Christmas in Southern California). But today’s November day in Charlottesville was very mild–short-sleeve weather–and it reminded me of this poem:

    These are the days when birds come back
    A very few–a Bird or two–
    To take a backward look.

    These are the days
    When the skies resume
    The old, old sophistries of June
    That blue and gold mistake.

    Oh Fraud that cannot
    cheat the Bee–
    Almost thy plausibility
    Induces my belief.

    Till ranks of seeds their witness bear
    And softly through the changing air
    hurries a timid leaf.

    Oh Sacrament of summer days,
    O last Communion in the haze–
    Permit a child to join.

    Thy sacred emblems to partake
    Thy consecrated bread to take–
    And thine immortal wine.

  18. A slightly different take by an aspiring young writer of my acquaintance :

    “Why?” exclaimed Henry’s thought, now grown into full-fledged articulate expression. “Why should a leaf– some inanimate bit of plant-life, be allowed to die in such a breathtaking blaze of fiery glory? But a man—a heart, a mind, a soul, and a lifetime of accomplishment to some degree—has to rot underground, to feed the worms?”

    A solitary gust of passing autumnal breeze traipsed through recently formed aerial passages opened up in the tops of the trees. The light wind gently rocked the branches and released another group of leaves. One by one they danced in a brilliant flash of color: a swirling commemoration of life, a glorious celebration of death.“That settles it!” exclaimed Henry Arthur, not the least bit startled by the fact that he’d unexpectedly spoken aloud, drawing a great deal of involuntary and resentful attention his way. “I wish that I had been born a leaf!”

    “Holy crap,” mumbled Chris in complete stupefaction, and a bit of adolescent awe: “Dad’s completely lost it.”

  19. Thank you, everybody, for loading the harvest table. As a public service, the wonderful poem in comment 12 is by A.E. Houseman, and the lovely 21 is Emily Dickinson, of course. The prose passages were all delicious, as well.

    More, more!

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