Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

“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...

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“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?”

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