Student Question

Can you provide a critical summary of Gunn's poem "Autumn Chapter in a Novel"?

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Thom Gunn's "Autumn Chapter in a Novel" parodies romantic novel clichés through a sophisticated, ironic tone. It describes an affair between a woman and her younger tutor, laden with overblown descriptions and tired conventions. The poem critiques the insensitivity of the woman's husband and dismisses the lovers' nightly excitement. The atmosphere evokes the style of novels by Edith Wharton, Henry James, or E. M. Forster.

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Thom Gunn's "Autumn Chapter in a Novel" consists of four five-line stanzas rhymed aabcb followed by a rhyming couplet. It describes an affair between a woman and a younger man, who appears to be the private tutor of her children. The poem parodies the clichés and conventions of romantic novels, adopting a sophisticated, ironic tone to describe a situation that has become a commonplace or a set-piece of fiction.

The beautiful woman, "a trifle ill" with idleness, walks in the woods with her young lover. There is so much over-blown description of the scene that the poet says syllables crowd in a mob around her feet. The tutor kicks the leaves, but the gesture is such a tired convention that it does not even affect the leaves he kicks, which "settle back / In much the same position."

The lovers are interrupted by the woman's husband, who is talking to his bailiff about the management of the estate. In the final stanza, the poet addresses the husband directly, castigating him for his stubborn insensibility and referring to his unfaithful wife as "your property," since this is the only language he will understand. In the final couplet, the poise of the way the lovers handle their affair as they walk in the woods is compared with their illicit love-making, described dismissively as "The brief excitements that disturb them nightly."

The atmosphere of the the poem is that of elegant, brittle parody. Its subject is a novel of the sort that could have been written by Edith Wharton, Henry James, or even E. M. Forster—anything that might have been adapted for the screen by Merchant-Ivory Productions.

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