The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384

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Charles Simic’s “Ancient Autumn” consists of four free-verse stanzas that simultaneously present a landscape and call the scene into question. While the view presented is one of everyday existence from an earlier time, subtle hints within the scene present both a cynical and comical view of human life.

The poem presents an Old World landscape where a “foolish youth” is perched in an apple tree sawing the branch that he is seated on. The orchard echoes the sound, and the few remaining apples on the tree sway from the saw’s motion. As the young man looks out over the landscape from his vantage point, he can see the wisps of smoke from the village’s chimneys blowing in the breeze. As he pauses to rest, he smokes a long-stemmed pipe. Below him, a chimney sweep cleans a chimney. A woman pins diapers to a clothesline and then relieves herself behind a bush, hiking her skirts high enough to show “a bit of whiteness.” Closer to the center of town, “humpbacked” men roll a barrel filled with hard cider or beer. Cattle graze beyond them, and a group of children march as they play soldier.

The wind is blowing away from the youth, so he cannot hear the sound of the children’s shouted commands. Likewise, a “black horseman” appears silently. This horseman is seen to be riding toward the youth in one instant, but he either changes directions quickly or is so far away that the young man has not accurately determined in which direction he is riding.

In the final stanza of the poem, the poet claims that the silence of the scene causes the youth to meditate upon the meaning of the things before him, even to the point of melancholy. The lessons these things teach are “vague” as well as “dumb.” The youth’s thoughts occupy him so much that he is not aware that he has begun to saw the branch again nor that the “big red sun” that illuminates the whole scene has nearly gone down. The readers of the poem have encountered the same scene as the youth in the tree, and with little direction from the poet, they too must feel some melancholy at a scene that presents no lesson and promises only increasing darkness.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

“Ancient Autumn” begins with three questions that seem to provide a comic tone and present a scene transparently. “Is that foolish youth still sawing/ The good branch he’s sitting on?” The poet then asks if the sound of the saw’s “wheeze” fills the orchard and hill, and if the youth is able to see the village below him “The way a chicken hawk would.”

The scene that follows appears with painterlike clarity. Apart from labeling the youth as “foolish”—an evaluation that most readers are likely to agree with—the poem’s descriptions are objective. They appear with the perspective of a painting, as they begin with the youth in the foreground and gradually fade into the very distant sight of the horseman. He almost seems to have been captured on canvas, as he is described as leaving “forever in a hurry.” Beyond him, the scene disappears into an ellipsis.

The events described are those of the commoner’s everyday existence, but they have an ancient quality to them consistent with the title. Simic’s choice of details—hard cider, long-stemmed pipes, line-dried diapers, a woman relieving herself outdoors, a man on a horseback, cobbled roads, and houses warmed by wood fires—all suggest an era gone by. His word choice occasionally suggests a European setting as well, as the town is called a “village” and its center park is a “commons.” Both the long-gone European setting and its painterly quality call to mind a scene portrayed by the artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Simic has claimed an affinity for this Flemish artist whose paintings of daily life in Renaissance Europe often served as the backdrop for important historical events that were placed insignificantly within the scene.

Readers are carried along into the certainty of the scene with other subtle word choices. The poet speaks of the scene with assertion. For instance, “that foolish youth” is named as if he had previously been identified by the poet. Most of the people within the scene are described using indefinite articles; however, as the poem nears its end and the scene gains a familiarity with its readers, the horseman is introduced (“the black horseman”) as if he were actually being glimpsed by both poet and readers.

However, because the poem opens with questions that cast doubt on the presence of the youth, the sound of his saw, and his view of the village, Simic creates ambiguity in a scene made up of otherwise straightforward images. If the answer is “no” to any of the initial questions, then there is no scene—and therefore, no poem. What begins as a set of rhetorical questions ultimately serves as a device to lead readers into uncertainty.

There is no sound in the poem, as the wind carries the noises away from the youth. Except for the saw’s “wheeze,” which is challenged by the poet’s opening questions, all aspects of the scene can be perceived only through vision. In some cases, such as with the black horseman, whose direction is not immediately apparent, this vision is faulty, perhaps because of the distance. However, the point of view comes under more question when one realizes that the youth may be mentally challenged (to provide a euphemism for the poet’s old-fashioned term “foolish”). The scene is laid out with careful clarity and perspective, but if one cannot trust the source of that point of view, then the poem’s scene may place its readers in great uncertainty.