‘Autumn’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
As if far gardens in the skies were dying;
They fall, and never seem to be denying.

And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,
Into a starless solitude must fall.
We all are falling.

My own hand no less
Than all things else; behold, it is in all.
Yet there is One who, utter gentleness,

Holds all this falling in
His hands to bless.

Below is the original German text for those of you who can understand it, and for those of you (like me) who can’t, but who would like to read it to catch a glimmer of Rilke’s original music.

Herbst


Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.

Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere
Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir allen fallen.

Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist einer, welcher dieses 

Fallen
undendlich sanft
in seinen Händen hält.

This poem is full of such beautiful, melancholic and autumnal images. I particularly love the line in the first verse, “As if far gardens in the skies were dying”. This image strikes me as so uniquely brilliant, and makes me eager to read more of Rilke’s work.

Autumn, uses the notion of “falling” throughout, mirroring, of course, the falling of the leaves and the dying of the year. The season of Autumn is often attached to a state or tone of melancholy, as it inevitably reminds us of the the seasons of our own lives winding down. This notion is expressed in a line so memorable here that I am sure I will be unable to forget it: “And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,/ Into a starless solitude must fall.” The idea of the earth being a heavy ball promotes the feeling that none of us are immune to the melancholy of the passing of time, and the “starless solitude” is just a perfect coupling to create a vision of the bleakness of the state of mind being described.

In his final lines, Rilke introduces hope to the poem – religious hope: “Yet there is One who… holds all this falling in his hands to bless.”

Rainer_Maria_Rilke,_1900

 

‘Death, be not proud’ by John Donne

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die. 

This poem, Divine Meditation 10 is one of Donne’s best-loved and most-quoted sonnets. The message of the piece is simple enough – a notion surely common to all religions (at least, to the Judeo-Christian faiths): “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians, verses 15-26). The poet personifies Death as he addresses it directly, and he does so with such confident, triumphant defiance that one cannot fail to be seduced.

Donne warns Death against pride, and affirms that he is not “Mighty and dreadful”, as he has been so perceived throughout history. “For”, explains the poet, those who he believes he “overthrow[s]/ Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me”. This kind of bravure on the part of a poet is irresistible.

The poet goes on to express the idea that Death’s role is simply the kindness to deliver us from this earthly plane and the pain of human suffering: “Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery”. Rather than depicting the terrifying traditional image of Death as the ‘reaper’, choosing his ‘victims’, Donne suggests that Death itself is in fact the ‘victim’, and by no means at the top of any hierarchy; Death is “slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men”. It is “fate” (God’s will?), “chance”, or else human actions and decisions that conjure Death. Death decides nothing.

Donne also delivers the idea that Death is inferior to drugs (“poppy or charms”) in terms of giving us rest and sleep, for on the other side of Death we “wake eternally”. “Why swell’st thou then?” I love this direct, exultant question, and the delicious use of “swell’st”.

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” So ends the poem, and in the final analysis (the poem is entitled  Divine Meditation 10, so we might have guessed from the start) the sonnet seems to have a very religious tint to it – in that great hope of eternal life.

However, the hope in this poem, though evidently religious, can also, I think, encompass hope in human endeavour and discovery. It is particularly the line, “And dost with… sickness dwell,/ And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well” that brings this idea to me. The notion of man’s capacity to create remedies for pain and sickness is present here. I feel like there is a sort of sub-plot to this sonnet, where Donne is foreseeing that man will make great discoveries and advances in medicine, and that indeed in many instances it will certainly be the case that “Death, thou shalt die”.

barley-birds-dawn-field-nature-Favim.com-324511

‘Epitaph On A Tyrant’ by W.H. Auden

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

This brilliant poem is a precise and universal portrait of a tyrant. Auden, who lived in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power, and who, like so many writers of his generation, joined the International Brigade in ’37 to fight the Fascists in Spain, saw his fair share of tyrants. I find it devastatingly powerful that this description can still be applied to tyrants of our own time. Tragically, the subject of this piece is timeless.

Reading this poem also brought to my mind the idea of a tyrannical God (those who have read the late Christopher Hitchens’ explosively erudite and enjoyable God Is Not Great will be familiar with the notion of God as a dictator. Hitchens memorably described a world in which God exists as a ‘celestial North Korea’.) Although I am by no means an atheist, I find this image fascinating, Hitchens’ argument compelling, and would like to stretch it further while reflecting on this poem. I think that the tyrant in this poem can encompass the political dictator, a tyrannical deity, but also the Artist (i.e. poet, writer, painter, composer etc.), and even the scientist (whose intellectual quest to understand all can lead him at times to “play God”).

So, whether your read this poem as about God, a scientist, artist, or a human dictator, it’s clear that Auden really gets tyranny. Tyrants are after “Perfection, of a kind”, he writes. An insane, inhuman, deluded idea of perfection, of course. I am interested that Auden talks about “the poetry he invented”. All poetry is propaganda, in a sense; when we write a poem, we use all sorts of ploys and techniques to amplify our ideas or the message or emotion we wish to convey – to colour the reader’s mind. I find it fascinating that Auden seems to almost identify with the tyrant in the poem, in the sense that – as a poet – he seeks a certain symmetry, a certain perfection, through his art. Is that not why we create Art? To make sense of a senseless world? To create order out of chaos? Is that not the motivation behind all scientific inquiry? All of this paints the tyrant as a crazed sort of creator, prepared to do anything in order to achieve his mad visions.

“When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter”. This line strongly evokes the way in which a powerful tyrant can so poison and enslave the minds of even intelligent, “respectable” people, that they will follow his lead. I am thinking here particularly of those who – though ordinary, “respectable” people – went along with the atrocities of the Nazi party as though possessed or sleepwalking. And how far will we go to create perfect Art? And to make our scientific discoveries?

The final line of the poem is devastating: “And when he cried the little children died in the streets.” This sentence reminds us that the subject of this poem is real and extremely serious. Every move the tyrant makes affects the life of somebody, somewhere.

auden

 

‘To Autumn’ by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

If you have read any of my other posts on poems by Keats, you will know that to say I am a big fan is a massive understatement. For me, and for most people, it seems, the odes are his among his greatest hits. I have come late to this particular ode, however, perhaps because Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn consumed me so absolutely in my late teens that they rather overshadowed this one… I still think that those poems are superior in their exquisite mix of music, beauty and thought; for me, they are the “songs of Spring” mentioned in Ode to Autumn, but Autumn (as the poem tells us) has “[its] music too”. It is this subtler, “mellow”, generous, nostalgic autumnal music that really touched me as I read this poem the other day, inspired by the present season.

The obvious connection between seasons and the progress of our own lives through childhood, youth, through to middle-age and then old age, is clearly present in this poem. Much of Keats’ work explores the dualities and paradoxes of the human experience; in Ode on Melancholy, he writes that “in the very temple of Delight/Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine”. He was searingly aware that there is but a thin veil between the realms of bliss and those of melancholy, between Beauty and our sense of our own mortality. It is a similar vein that the poet evokes the beauty of Autumn – its beauty is in its capacity for nostalgia, reflection, sadness, but also in its generosity and learned wisdom.

Keats’ vision of the harvest season is coloured by many suggestive adjectives such as “mellow”, “fruitfulness”, “maturing”, “ripeness”… In the first stanza, I love the image of Autumn as a generous, life-giving force, “Conspiring” with the sun “how to load and bless/ With fruit the vines”. Throughout the piece, there is almost a parental presence, in the way the season seemingly takes care of nature – to “fill all fruit with ripeness to the core” and to “set budding more,/ And still more, later flowers for the bees”. Keats uses these examples in nature to illustrate the fact that Autumn is by no means the end of new beginnings.

Like many of his other odes, this one is addressed directly to its subject. Autumn, in this piece, is an entity with its own character, and, to my mind, represents the person entering middle-age. I love the images given of “Thee sitting careless on a granary floor/ Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind”. This image to me is very beautiful, and there seems a playful, almost childish aspect to it. I particularly like the word “careless” because it delivers the sense that this person has lost the seriousness of youth (I mean, the way youth can tend to take itself too seriously). Keats mentions “thy store”, the “granary floor”, the “laden head” of Autumn and its “patient look” – there is wisdom here, and generosity.

The final verse is interesting in the way it opens with the poet imploring us (or “Autumn”) not to think of the “songs of Spring” (the passion and romance of youth). Here, Keats acknowledges that it is natural to be nostalgic as we age, but encourages us to appreciate the beauty of the “soft-dying day”. He mentions many of the treasures of autumn – the “full-grown lambs”, the songs of the “Hedge-crickets”, and the soft “treble” of the “red-breast” in a “garden-croft”. These images remind us that the coming of Autumn heralds many treasures and much beauty to look forward to.

The final line is one of great hope, as it evokes the “gathering swallows twitter[ing] in the skies.” This image, of birds preparing excitedly to fly south for the winter, reminds us that there is joy and love and warmth to be had at all stages of our lives. I feel that this line also hints at some kind of spiritual or religious hope.

traces-of-autumn-leaves