The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Heart of Autumn” is a poem of twenty-four lines about an old man who, aware of the limitations of human knowledge, searches for intimations of a divine purpose in the universe. He does this by observing the migrations of wild geese instinctively accomplishing their destiny in the heavens as they fly southward every year in the autumn.

Appearing last in the volume Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978, “Heart of Autumn” was chosen to round out a group of poems in part 2 of the book containing “Speculative” verses, in contrast to “Nostalgic” works in part 1 of the collection. The poem is a compelling exercise in philosophical speculation about the ultimate meaning of human life, in keeping with Robert Penn Warren’s remarks about the purpose of literature in his Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, entitled “Democracy and Literature,” delivered in 1975: “What poetry most significantly celebrates is the capacity of man to face the deep, dark inwardness of his nature and fate.” The title of the poem bears the double meaning of the ultimate significance of the dying season of autumn for man and nature, and the oneness that the aged speaker comes to affirm between the migratory geese and himself in his pursuit of transcendence at the close of his life.

Stanzas 1 and 2 describe the southward migration of wild geese from the northwest, somewhere in the United States, when suddenly a hunter’s shotgun blast violently breaks...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Heart of Autumn” is a lyric poem of six four-line stanzas without end rhymes and without a regular metrical system. Instead, Warren employed relaxed free verse in run-on lines, capturing the speculative, ruminating quality of his exploration of self, nature, and destiny.

Warren’s earlier poetry had been strongly influenced by the formal control and the elegant, well-mannered rationality of John Crowe Ransom’s verse. Beginning with the volume Promises (1957) and revealed fully in the major book-length poem Audubon: A Vision (1969), however, Warren’s poetic line became more free-flowing and energetic in the modernist mode. A distinguishing mark of his poetry is a passion directed toward the physical world and toward a knowledge of truth. He was a writer full of yearning for more than what life normally discloses and yet full of appreciation of the world that instigated that yearning. In fact, “Heart of Autumn” is the beautiful swan song of a singer who loved life but lusted after intimations of immortality.

Assonance and consonance permeate the poem and help to make up for the absence of metrical rhythms (“Wind-flicker of forest, in perfect formation, wild geese”). An example of metonymy—the use of one word for another, suggesting the effect for the cause—appears in “the boom, the lead pellet” (line 4), representing the hunter’s shotgun firing at the geese.

Paradox, an apparent...

(The entire section is 414 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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Burt, John. Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

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Szczesiul, Anthony. Racial Politics and Robert Penn Warren’s Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Watkins, Floyd C., John T. Hiers, and Mary Louise Weaks, eds. Talking with Robert Penn Warren. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.