“Autumn,” by the South African poet Roy Campbell (1902-1957), celebrates the coming of fall and winter and the various kinds of beauty those seasons can reveal. The speaker of the poem appears explicitly in the work’s very first word. The poem thus expresses this speaker’s particular—and somewhat unusual—point of view. Whereas many people lament the advent of the colder seasons, and whereas they especially regret the way trees lose their leaves (and apparently much of their life) during those times of the year, this particular speaker invites us to see autumn and winter in different, literally more revealing ways.
When leaves fall from trees as autumn turns into winter, those trees are stripped of whatever is merely temporary and non-essential. All that is left of them is “what is pure and will survive” (5). The loss of leaves reveals the “clear anatomy” of the trees themselves (2). Winter is thus a “paragon of art”—a model of excellence at the kind of artistry (like sculpting) that creates by pruning. Trees in the spring and summer may be beautiful in their own ways, but the bare trees exposed during the fall and winter are revealed in their true essences. The speaker thus implies his own insight by showing that he can see beauty where others might only see loss.
Stanza two compares flocks of geese to “clanging chains” that are “harnessed to the moon” (6-7): they make loud sounds as they move through the sky, apparently pulled by the glowing moon (which is itself a common symbol of change because of the various phases through which it moves). Plane trees (such as sycamores) have lost their broad leaves, thus allowing the sun to shine down through the thin needles of pine trees and thereby touch the ground. Part of the paradox of this stanza—and indeed of the poem as a whole—is that every apparent loss involves some kind of gain. Even the coming of winter (often dreaded) can be seen as a beautiful, beautifying process. Once the thick, obscuring leaves of the plane trees have fallen, needles of bright light can pierce down through the dark needles of pines.
Stanza three follows much the same pattern as the two preceding stanzas. Olive trees, bent over by storms, “whiten” (perhaps by revealing the white undersides of their leaves, and/or perhaps because they lose their fruit and leaves, thus revealing their white branches ). Similarly, grape vines give up their fruit as autumn arrives. Thus, olives are turned into “sun-gold oil” that is stored in vats, just as wine (“red froth”) is made from purple grapes and is also stored in vats (14-15). Once again, then, what can seem a loss involves a gain, but these gains are of a sort that can physically nourish human life.
Indeed, this implication—that parts of nature, by dying, can serve humans—becomes explicit in the poem’s final stanza. The “rotted stems” of grape vines (and/or olive trees) will become fuel for fire in the “reviving pyre” of a hearth. Literally dead wood will thus contribute both to the literal warmth and to figurative life of people gathered near a fireplace, and
The grape will redden on your fingers
Through the lit crystal of the cup. (19-20)
In other words, the red grapes will be transformed into red wine, and the red wine will be illuminated by the fire and will cast red reflections on the fingers of those who hold crystal wine glasses. The poem has thus gone from an emphasis on clear light (in the first two stanzas) to an emphasis on bright red colors in stanza four. In each case, the color red is here associated with warmth, pleasure, and satisfaction. Trees and vines may lose their leaves, their fruit, and even their lives, but in the process they provide humans with nourishment, happiness, beauty, and sensual stimulation. A poem that began by stressing the perceptions of an unnamed “I” ends by emphasizing the pleasures of an unnamed “you.”
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