Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Autumn Day” is a poem about time running out. Nature is approaching winter and must employ all of its force to produce the final fullness of fruit and vine before winter sets in. Similarly, man approaches the twilight of his own life. He feels compelled to produce all the perfection of which he is capable before his time runs out in death.
The theme is not a new one. Many poets (William Shakespeare, for one) have used the impending end of a cycle of nature to symbolize human life. Such thoughts often trigger a sense of urgency and of intensification in human activity. Shakespeare in Sonnet 73, for example, cajoles his lover to love more intensely because of the thought of imminent departure: “This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,/ To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” Rilke’s poetic persona does not have the comfort of a beloved, however; he is alone with his reading and writing, but his writing itself may offer him some means of enduring. Being alone may provide a melancholy tinge to Rilke’s considerations, but his poem also focuses on nature’s and life’s fullness and sweetness. As in Shakespeare’s case, the thought of losing that moment of fulfillment and perfection makes it all the more poignant.
Rilke’s poem also reveals a persona ready to face autumn and the end of a temporal cycle. This is somewhat surprising, since Rilke was a young man of twenty-six when he wrote the poem in Paris in September, 1902. Poetic resignation or maturity of thought, however, does not necessarily depend on age. In this case, the poet is using his observations of nature and its seasons to think about his own future end as well as to intensify his present moment.