The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Autumn Song” is the most famous poem from the collection of verse known as Poèmes saturniens (Saturnian poems), published when Paul Verlaine was only twenty-two years old. Like most of the French Symbolist poets of his day, Verlaine was enormously focused on the art of poetry for its own sake and often presented the soul of the artist and the creation of art as the only topics worthy of consideration.

Verlaine was singled out among his colleagues for his insistence on the notion that the poem must be musical. His often quoted theory, “De la musique avant toute chose” (“Music first and foremost”), is amply demonstrated in “Autumn Song.” For this reason, many of his alliterations, phrasings, rhymes, and the poem’s rhythm are untranslatable, leaving much of the powerful impact of “Autumn Song” diluted when the poem is not read in the original French.

Verlaine’s genius was appreciated by many around the globe, and his influence on the Hispanic “Generation of ’98” is widely documented. “Autumn Song” is one of the most quoted and most imitated poems of the late nineteenth century. The ennui expressed by the poet is a posture that was to be characteristic of his work for years to come, and the title, “Autumn Song,” immediately marks this poem as one whose time and place do not celebrate vitality. The “song” is a lament of the process of withering. Decay was of great interest to the Symbolist poet,...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The content of “Autumn Song” works brilliantly with its musicality, although its forcefulness has been affected by translation. For example, the first two lines of the first stanza have been translated as “With long sobs/ the violin throbs.” Although rhyme and rhythm are evident, the intended onomatopoeic device of the long, nasal o sound in “Les sanglots longs/ Des violons,” which accurately bring to life the sound of a violin, is obliterated.

The “languor” of the poet’s soul is mirrored in the sluggish rhythm of the poem. Although the use of imagery like autumn to express decay and a sadly playing violin to reveal a disquiet heart are devices that, to the poet of Verlaine’s generation, would have seemed to be hackneyed Romantic clichés (certainly they would have elicited a bored reaction), Verlaine’s use of meter elevates the poem from the banal to a thing of consummate beauty. Verlaine is exhibiting his skill as a technician here in order to show that even an “autumn song”—a timeworn theme or topic for the artist—can be treated in a new way if the poet pays attention to his craft. In contrast to the effusive and melodramatic Romantic poetic presentation, Verlaine’s short meter demonstrates, through its gasping cadence, that nostalgia is not always comforting.

Irony is another poetic device prevalent in “Autumn Song.” The irony of naming the poem “Autumn Song” while attempting to rejuvenate a...

(The entire section is 408 words.)