Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558
Because “Ancient Autumn” describes an ordinary scene that can easily be imagined having taken place a long time ago, the scene brings to mind the aspects of readers’ own mundane lives. There is work to be done, children to be taken care of, and places to travel, and most of this happens without anyone stopping to take notice of it. Simic shows a fairly wide spectrum of everyday life in this scene. The men haul a barrel full of an alcoholic beverage, suggesting what may be used as pleasure, yet they are “humpbacked” from the work itself. The woman pins diapers and relieves herself, yet the suggestion of a baby and a white thigh allude to two more pleasurable aspects alongside the necessity of chores and defecation. The children play, but their play is warlike. These aspects—often contradictory within the same action—show aspects of human existence that continue in modern times. Simic’s description of human life shows how little has changed over the course of human history.
The poem may even provide a more cynical view of human existence. While day-to-day existence has continued from the poem’s “ancient” times to today, Simic’s choice of season may suggest that certain aspects of the human condition threaten its own existence. The children who “play soldiers and march in step” are placed as the final image of the second stanza, and it is for their commands that the youth listens. Following this picture of innocence playing at the game of killing is the appearance of the dark horseman. The rider may be “coming” or “leaving forever.” Simic may be suggesting a more austere future for those who play at war, as it is never made clear whether this shadowy figure is arriving or leaving, or even where or whom he is approaching or leaving.
If readers try to make such figures into symbols, Simic frustrates this kind of interpretation by calling them “dumb shows with their vague lessons.” As the foolish youth grows pensive with the scene below him, so do the readers of the poem. No explicit meanings are offered for what the youth or the readers are seeing. As the youth continues to saw the branch that he is perched on, his action seems to strengthen the comic yet cynical view that portrays the destructive behavior of so much of humanity. The sun continues to set, which promises to bring darkness; consequently, even the youth’s vision will be hampered.
However, not all of the poem may be meant to make readers “thoughtful and melancholy.” The poem begins with a comic tone, and that aspect is echoed as the youth continues to saw his branch. The woman who relieves herself behind the bush is slightly comic, as are the figures of the misshapen men who haul the barrel on the commons. Such scenes provide a type of comic relief to what may be a cynical pronouncement on human nature. However, that existence of comic and tragic elements side by side adds even more ambiguity to this poem. Ultimately, that uncertainty is both humorous and depressing, depending on one’s own view of human perspective: Are humans awful beings who create their own destruction, or are they silly creatures who continually surprise themselves? In “Ancient Autumn,” Simic seems to present and even favor both perspectives.