Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Heart of Autumn” is a poem about the discrepancy between the heaven-directed destiny in the natural order of things and a human being’s initial ignorance of this eternal fate, which the speaker comes to realize in the end. The poem is a wonderful way for Warren, late in his career, to have presented a statement about the purpose of his long life dedicated to art.
It is, after all, a modern American Romantic poem, following a well-established tradition of searching for meaning about life now and in the hereafter through literary meditations about birds. The motif has been especially popular during the past two centuries in works such as John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” and Robert Frost’s “A Minor Bird.”
Particularly close to the subject matter of “Heart of Autumn” is the content of William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl” and William Butler Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole.” Unlike Yeats, however, Warren affirmed an identification with the birds being observed to the point of undergoing a birdlike transformation that Keats would have envied. If anything, Warren is more of an escapist Romantic poet than either Yeats or Bryant had been. Bryant may have similarly worried about the hunter’s damage to waterfowl but never assimilated himself with the birds. His moralizing observations about God’s providence over humans and nature anticipated but did not duplicate Warren’s total identification of humans and nature with providence at the conclusion of “Heart of Autumn.”
Even before the later poetry appeared, M. L. Rosenthal, in The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (1960), had noted in Warren’s work “a refusal, against the tangible evidence, to accept the tragic irrevocability of the disappointed hope.” A hopefulness about human destiny marks “Heart of Autumn,” despite the dark notes suggesting a cleavage between humans and nature in the hunter’s shooting of geese (lines 4-7) and in the speaker’s initial detachment from the geese and his initially limited understanding of them and himself (lines 9-17). Happily, his detachment and ignorance dissolve under a Romantic “Process of transformation,” ending the broken bond between humans and nature and speeding the birdlike poet to his rendezvous with destiny in the heavenly beyond.