Themes and Meanings

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“Autumn Song” is a poem whose intent is to create a literary atmosphere. Verlaine chooses familiar concerns—melancholia, nostalgia, and so on—and attempts to show his contemporaries how these themes can be treated in a fresh way. This emphasis is present not only in this first collection of poetry but throughout his later works as he presents poetry not for the sake of social or moral commentary but as paradigms of technical accomplishment. The structure and the harmony, the forms and sounds are of consummate importance to Verlaine. The poem must embody the sensation that the poet wishes to express and not function as merely a picture of it.

The Symbolist poets were sometimes known as “decadents.” The label of “dandyism” or “decadent” was applied to some for their lifestyles, but it was mostly a term used to characterize the poetry of artists such as Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé for a particular vision and aesthetic accord. The point of view in most of the poetry penned by Verlaine and his group expresses the world as seen through the eyes of a somewhat jaded and bored individual. Bored with conventional representation, Verlaine makes a strong argument in “Autumn Song” supporting the artistic credo of his fellow Symbolists in their attempt to revitalize poetry. He is “wounded” by the monotonous sounds of irritating music just as his sensibilities are offended by much of the clumsy and awkward poetry that was being written at the time. The Symbolists despised the kind of poetry that had little regard for innovation and instead preached morality to a wide, middle-class audience. The Symbolist poets, with their unexpected associations and hermetic symbols, addressed a more intellectual and cultivated audience. Hence, the subtle allusions to Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857; Flowers of Evil, 1909) in “Autumn Song” that pay tribute to Charles Baudelaire (who called his own collection “Saturnian”) would have been known to only a select few despite the poem’s seeming simplicity of subject.

Although the poet has control over his creation, he has no control over the state of sadness that envelops him. His poetry, measured and chiseled, fastidiously fashioned, contrasts with his own haphazard wanderings “now here, now there,” and the care with which he creates the poem is out of keeping with his own personal “harried and sped” feelings, over which he exercised no composure. “Look to the poem,” Verlaine is telling his reader, “not to the poet. For you will surely be deceived.” The passivity expressed by the Symbolist narrator is a veil that thinly and exquisitely hides the aggressive, enthusiastic, and arduous honing of such radical poetry.

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