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First published: 1998

Edition(s) used:The Fall, and Other Poems. South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001

Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Lyric poetry

Core issue(s): Death; the Fall; nature; sin and sinners


Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, former books and arts editor of The Weekly Standard, and host of Book Talk, a syndicated radio program, has published articles and poetry in numerous leading newspapers and magazines. “The Fall” was first published in First Things, a journal of religion, culture, and public life, in 1998. It is a lyrical poem of ninety-nine lines, unrhymed but structured. Each line varies from seven to ten syllables. The meter is mostly pronounced and regular, at times suggesting rhythms of iambic tetrameter or pentameter. Pervasive use of alliteration and assonance give the poem a classic character.

“The Fall” is divided into three sections, each named for an autumn month. The first section, September, begins with a powerful evocation of fall in New England, “New England comes to flower dying.” It is ironic that New England’s most colorful, attractive season is made not by the budding but the dying of leaves. From the first line, Bottum suggests an analogy to the life of Christian believers who by dying are born to immortal life. The first section continues with images of autumnal New England expressed most vividly in metaphors of fire, as “kindling trees” are set ablaze, each falling leaf “a spit of flame” to make “New England burning.”

In the second section, October, the images of fire are replaced by those of roots, as the leaves fall to the ground and are intermixed with the New England earth. “The twisted roots begin to stir,” Bottum writes, and the desolation wrought by the mid-autumn month is heightened by images of human remains lying amid the tree roots: bones of deceased new-born children, chambermaids, and banker’s nieces and the graves of college boys and Atlantic sailors, farmers and Native American hunters, blacksmiths, Minute Men soldiers, harpooners, and aristocrats, all “drained of life” as the ubiquitous roots, “twisted roots . . . fat roots . . . surging roots . . . netted roots . . . pale roots . . . wrap around them.” The explosion of September colors has been replaced by a “gray shroud” as the once fiery leaves lie among the white bones and brown roots.

In the final section, November, New England is beset by the approach of icy winter. Images of sea and snow prevail, both forceful elements that sweep all before them. Despite the charm and rapture of fall, November is a last respite “until at last the winter breaks” and New England is enveloped in the clean, silent beauty of an all-embracing snow. However, even the arrival of winter itself forebodes a new season: “What resurrection waits on spring?”

There is a long tradition of evocative poetry about New England seasons, especially the spectacular leaf-turning of autumn, made most famous by the great American poet Robert Frost. “The Fall” certainly recalls this tradition with its well-honed images of the wondrous New England countryside. Descriptions of “hawthorn flurries, apple flakes along black boughs,” “foam among the driftwood dams,” and “bare ruined oaks against gray skies” vividly call to mind the tempestuous New England season. Appreciation and even nostalgia for New England’s storied past pervades the poem, and there is hardly an aspect of its long history that does not find mention, including Puritan preachers, Gloucester seamen, Irish immigrants, famous colleges, rich bankers, Mohawk Indians, revolutionary soldiers, and such New England landmarks as stone fences, pewter, and...

(This entire section contains 1426 words.)

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quarry walls.

Bottum, whose interest in religious topics and culture is evidenced by his writing for First Things, is probing the religious underpinnings of New England life, as readers see immediately in the poem’s title, with its studied reference to both a New England autumn and the fall of humankind in Adam and Eve. According to the Bible, the fall of Adam brought sin and death into the world, and both are prominent in this short poem. Sin and death are symbolized in the red color of the September leaves, which brings the poet to think of “welcome slaughters” and the “blood of martyrs.” This section culminates in vengeful imagery: The leaves themselves, each a “burning tongue,” accuse us of our “wrongs.”

October too is linked to images of “slaughters” and of “the thick remains of sin . . . coursing through October trees to splatter red.” Likewise November contains images of death and sin, as the poet describes it as the “killing time between the crime and judgment, act and pain.” A forensic element enters the poem—“witness perjured, time suborned,” as it hints at the judgment that faces humans on their death. This New England season, “perverse” for blooming in death, is readied for punishment, although the final Christian references—“a thousand leafless crosses,” mercy, resurrection—hint at an ultimate forgiveness. Bottum has taken the classic poetry of a New England autumn and mined it for suggestions of the violence, death, sin, and judgment that are embedded in human life and reinforced in the drama that is the New England fall.

Christian Themes

“The Fall” is a lyrical poem, suffused with Christian themes, mixed with the images of autumn in New England. The themes are allusive and suggestive but nonetheless stark and an integral part of the poem, imbuing the seasonal descriptions with a transcendent quality.

The first level of religious allusion is to the Christian history of New England, a region settled by the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, followed by various ethnic and religious groups over the succeeding centuries. “The Fall” is set in New England towns with biblical and Christian names—Canaan, Salem, Bethel, Concord, Fairhaven, and Christmas Cove. Images of the religious heritage of New England are sprinkled throughout the poem: cities such as Boston and Plymouth that were founded by Pilgrims and Puritans, sermons preached by stern eighteenth century Anglican ministers, and the Irish chambermaids of nineteenth century Massachusetts and their devotion to weekly Mass.

The seasonal imagery reflects the inevitable decline of life. In the robust bloom of September, “fuddled age” makes its first appearance. By October, life has been overtaken by death, as nostalgic images of New England’s past are buried in “New England’s gravemuck.” November gives way to the long still of winter, but in that season is contained the promise of spring, of resurrection, of life following people’s earthly end.

Bottum’s images of fall raise the central questions of human and Christian life. The title evokes both a New England autumn and humankind’s first descent into sin. Evocations of violence, judgment, forgiveness, and mercy are sprinkled through each section. The dominant metaphor of fire in September describes the blaze of colors of a New England autumn but also makes explicit violent references to the “welcome slaughter,” “blood and spew and mongerings of war,” and “flames like the blood of martyrs.” Biblical hints resonate in the allusions of “children pass[ing] through fire” (Isaiah 43:1-2; Daniel 3:26) and to “fire falls” and “the world [a]s kindling for the Lord.” (Luke 12:49: “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled!”)

“The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and October’s pall follows September’s fire. Here the tree roots entangle sin and death. November is the last pause before winter renders final judgment on human activity. However, in this image of desolation is the seed of hope. The trees are a “thousand leafless crosses” that suggest a new intervention of God. The “lovely, silent, finished, clean” embrace of snow will quench the fire of the Fall. Spring will bring God’s compassion and “what mercy after such forgiveness?”

Sources for Further Study

  • Bottum, Joseph. The Catholic Awakening: How Catholicism Became America’s National Church and How That Church Came to Dominate American Politics. New York: Doubleday, 2007. The author of “The Fall” identifies the increasing importance of the Catholic Church as the central church in the American political and imaginative realm.
  • Linker, Damon. The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege. New York: Doubleday, 2006. Controversial description of the rising influence of religion in American culture and politics, which focuses on the journal First Things and features a lengthy quote from Bottum on public religiosity.
  • Olson, Ray. Review of The Fall, and Other Poems. The Booklist 98, no. 3 (October 1, 2001): 278. A short, favorable review of the book that mentions its religious overtones.
  • Wilson, John. The Best Christian Writing 2004. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. This collection of recent Christian writing includes Bottum’s well-reviewed “Dakota Christmas,” a holiday memoir in evocative prose.