The Poem

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“Autumn Day” is a short poem of twelve lines broken into three stanzas of three, four, and five lines. The original poem is predominantly in iambic pentameter (with the frequent substitution of stressed syllables to begin lines) and rhymes aba, cddc, effef.

The title of the poem recalls a familiar literary motif—autumn as the season of moving toward the end of a natural cycle. Autumn often calls up the melancholy feeling of things drawing to their close and reminds one of death. In this poem, the poet brings the reader to consider autumn’s various aspects and what they might symbolize for man on a broader level.

The first stanza emphasizes autumn’s association with endings, and so with death, by pointing out that the warm and nurturing days of summer have been great and full, and that now the creator who controls the seasons must curtail summertime in order to move on to autumn. The shadow being cast on the sundials symbolizes this act of divine curtailment. The almost biblical rhetoric with which the poet addresses the “Lord” in the first phrase adds a serious and spiritual tone to the poet’s meditation. This same biblical tone returns in the last stanza of the poem.

Rainer Maria Rilke, however, also suggests the fullness of autumn as the time of ripe maturity and abundant harvest in stanza 2. The imminence of winter and death from stanza 1 is thus tempered by the ripening fruit and the “southern days” which bring life to its final perfection and fulfillment. Autumn becomes a time of full harvest and almost superabundance. Both the melancholy and the positive sides of the autumn day are embodied in these two stanzas.

The urgency of time running out, exemplified by the shadowed sundials of the first stanza, returns in the last stanza’s first two lines as the poet echoes a biblical cadence and uses the repetition common in biblical passages. These lines admonish man that it is now too late to undertake life’s primary tasks of building one’s house or finding one’s mate. Autumn—and the passing time it symbolizes—sweeps relentlessly forward. Like the leaves blown by the autumn wind, man too is driven along by time toward his own end. If he has not already attended to the important aspects of life and of love, he will not have time to do so as the year, and his life, draw to their close.

This last stanza also introduces the process of reading and writing into this natural cycle. Almost as in preparation for death, man will read and write long letters to leave behind. Writing thus becomes a link to some more permanent state. This poem itself is such a document of poetic permanence that outlasts the seasonal changes. The last phrase of the German text, “wenn die Blätter treiben”—translated as “when the leaves are blowing”—has a dual meaning; “Blätter” can also mean the pages of a letter or a text. The term “leaves” also carries this dual meaning in English, although it is less commonly used. The word “leaves” thus connects the natural cycle (blowing autumn leaves) to the act of writing (the pages of a text being ruffled by wind) and unifies the natural and the human realms.

Forms and Devices

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Among many minor poetic touches, Rilke employs two main devices in this poem. The first is the use of nature and its temporal cycle as a metaphor for man as he approaches the end of his life. This use of a strong central image is common to many of...

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the poems in Rilke’s collectionDas Buch der Bilder (the book of pictures) in which this poem appears. The second characteristic is the biblical tone of the poem, which adds a spiritual seriousness to the poet’s ruminations.

The references to nature and to the natural cycle begin with the poem’s first line. Summer and its growth are at an end; the shadows lengthen as night and the end of the year draw closer; the autumn winds begin to blow. In stanza 2, the references to nature continue as the fruits reach final ripeness in the warm late-summer days and the grapes achieve their final sweet fullness. While all of these images are familiar tropes for the end of the natural cycle, they also serve as metaphors for the end of man’s life as well. As a part of nature, man too is subject to the winding down of time, to the end of abundance and the approach of winter and death.

This implied comparison is made explicit in the final stanza of the poem in which the poet’s focus shifts from nature to man himself. It is man now who must realize that no time remains to him. He can no longer build or be fruitful. If he is alone as the end of his life approaches, he will remain alone. As the leaves in his path are blown by the autumn winds let loose in the first stanza, man too is driven restlessly forward toward his own end. Thus nature serves as the model for man’s own progression in life.

To provide an even more serious mood for his meditations, the poet couches his thoughts in a tone reminiscent of biblical language. Not only does he address the “Lord” in the opening phrase, but he also echoes biblical rhythms and repetitions in the last stanza. This return to a biblical tone helps to bring the poem to full circle and to unify its natural and human components as well as adding the weight of biblical tradition to the poet’s aesthetic contemplation.

Finally, Rilke uses stress and rhyme to emphasize his points. The unusual number of stressed syllables that open his lines (Lord, lay, bid, who, who) interrupt the more familiar iambic rhythm to call attention to the urgency and gravity of the situation. In the final stanza, the stresses pile up to create urgency in the phrases “Who has no house now will not build him one. Who is alone now will be long alone.” The poem itself is propelled forward toward its end just as both the leaves and man are compelled to go on by the movement of time. This driving force is nicely preserved in the translations of the poem.

A formal characteristic of Rilke’s German poem not easily carried over to the English translations is its rhyme scheme. Particularly in stanzas 2 and 3, Rilke uses rhyme to reinforce his message. For example, he rhymes Tage (days) and jage (pursue, chase, hunt) at the ends of lines 2 and 3 in stanza 2. He thus links the idea of time (days) with the idea of pursuit to produce the concept of time running out for nature and for man. In the final stanza, Rilke rhymes the second, third and fifth lines to similar effect. Bleiben (to remain), schreiben (to write), and treiben (to drive or push) rhyme and create a structure in which writing forms the bridge between remaining or enduring and being pushed or propelled by time. In the rhyme itself, Rilke indicates that even though we are driven unavoidably by time, writing may provide some form of human duration. The written word, the letter or the poem, helps us to endure beyond our own autumn and winter.