The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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”...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 the poems in Rilke’s collection Das 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...

(The entire section is 675 words.)