The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

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“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, and here, Paul Verlaine begins his career as a young man who sees the parallels between an exhausted universe and the soul’s fatigue. For the artist, it is a time to comment on his own frustration with his inability to experience exaltation through art whose meaning or message has dulled.

“Autumn Song” is a short poem of only eighteen lines, yet it is a complete composition. Composed mainly of rhyming couplets, it has been constructed like a musical score, with crescendo and decrescendo communicating in the classical lyric tradition. The intense feelings of the narrator are expressed through a first-person voice in deliberately plodding rhythm quite pronounced in the original French, formed with short meters that demonstrate a somber and disturbed tonality.

The first stanza begins with an image of a violin sobbing out a monotonous and languorous song that pierces the poet’s heart. The personification of this musical instrument is a metaphor for the poet: He is the vessel through which the sadness of humanity is expressed.

Another sound is heard in the second stanza as the orchestration becomes more complicated. The clock strikes. As the hours proceed, time ticks onward. In contrast, the poet’s memory returns to the past. The intrusion of this regression creates a counterpoint. Two melodies, as in a fugue, lend dimension to this stanza, and their simultaneous activities give the poem its tension. As his mind “strays,” the poet weeps. Therefore, both the sobs of the autumn song and the tears of the poet create a groundswell of emotion at the end of the second stanza.

The poem is resolved in the third stanza by the annihilation of these feelings as he is left parched like a “dead leaf,” transported “now here, now there,” blown about by “ill winds” that leave him a passive object tossed about by unfavorable circumstance. The monotony of the autumn song is transposed to randomness and inconstancy.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

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 frequently used theme is Verlaine’s artistically self-conscious method of calling attention to his own purpose. He uses paradox, as well; for example, the soul is bathed in tears (life-sustaining water) at the same time it is dry “as a dead leaf.” The title of this early collection of work, Poèmes saturniens, was chosen by Verlaine to provide an ironic message of his intent. “Saturnian” is a word that is associated equally with abundance, feasting, and merriment as it is with the astrological sign of sadness and the description of a gloomy temperament. Although the reader might think, at first glance, that the collection is a celebration of plenty, most of the works contained within are about the paucity of the poet’s soul as a result of an unnamed pain and unlocated depression. The reader experiences these sensations not solely through visual imagery and metaphor, but through the rhythm of the music, which has, in effect, made the reader become the narrator through its psychological impact.

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