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.)