The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

“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.

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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 V-shaped formation of the birds but cannot for long prevent their recovery of flight and the resumption of the order of nature (“the season’s logic”).

Stanzas 3 and 4 begin to decipher the lesson of this description of nature for humankind and its mysterious destiny. The aged speaker perceives a difference between unerring brute instinct guiding the geese’s heaven-directed flight and his own limited human intelligence in deducing the purpose of his existence.

Stanzas 5 and 6 at first mock human intelligence as a catalyst for error and deception (“Path of logic, path of folly, all/ The same”), contrasting sharply with the laws of nature that govern the instinct of geese on the right “path of pathlessness” in the mysterious beyond. The mocking quickly subsides under the ecstatic experience of the speaker’s identification with nature and his transformation into a wild bird winging his way toward the ineffable finality of a heavenly hereafter, in a sunset glow that makes the fall of his life a climactic rising of the human spirit. The mortal words of the poet wind down into a simplicity that is a prelude to the sound of silence (“the imperial utterance” of the geese) in the awesomeness of eternity.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

“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 contradiction that is somehow true, appears twice: first, in the “path of pathlessness” (line 14), representing the geese’s instinctive flight to a mysterious, heaven-directed destiny in accordance with the order of nature; and second, in the “Path of logic, path of folly” (line 17), signifying the error-prone intelligence and foolish wisdom of human beings out of touch with the natural order of things.

The language of the poem alternates between a colloquial informality (“the boom”) of extreme simplicity (“fall comes”) and a philosophical formality (“Process of transformation”) that embraces technical vocabulary (“the sounding vacuum of passage”). There are neologisms; Warren turns a noun into a verb (“arrows”) and creates other new words by compounding (“Sky-strider,” “Star-strider,” and “wing-beat”). Warren is also elliptical, reducing the poetic communication of concepts to the briefest spurts of words and phrases, as in lines 4, 14, 17, and 24.

Symbols lie at the heart of the poem’s stunning effectiveness. The autumn indicates the speaker’s age, the sunset represents death and eternity, and the migratory geese embody the heaven-directed destiny with which the aged speaker identifies through a process of birdlike transformation at the end of the poem.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141

Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.

Bohner, Charles. Robert Penn Warren. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

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

Clark, William Bedford, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Penn Warren. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.

Grimshaw, James A. Understanding Robert Penn Warren. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Justus, James H. The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Madden, David, ed. The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Ruppersburg, Hugh. Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

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.

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