…As We Slip Leisurely Into Winter




Many people believe that only so many ideas exist in the world and that there is a finite set of subjects one can write about.  The people who adhere to this view often use it to say nothing new is being written anymore, that everything is merely a copy of someone else’s work, which in turn is a copy of another’s and so on.  But when one looks at the vast differences that can occur between pieces of poetry and prose within the same subject matter, one is forced to reconsider this argument.  Although Keats’ “To Autumn” and Hughes’ “The Seven Sorrows” are both about autumn, they are vastly different poems.  “To Autumn” celebrates the joy that comes with the ending year, the abundance and wealth of the harvest, while “The Seven Sorrows” is a lament on the ending of the year, laden with death and despair.


            “To Autumn” rejoices in the splendor of the fall with warm images that soothe the mind of the reader.  Autumn is a “close bosom-friend of the maturing sun” and these bosom-friends “conspire”, not to bring about winter and death, but on the best way to “load and bless” the earth.  Apple trees “bend” with the weight of their fruit, gourds “swell” with their plenty.  Everything is “o’er brimm’d” to the point where even the bees have trouble dealing with the sheer amount of sweetness that is to be found.  Autumn for Keats is “mellow” and “maturing”.  He personifies autumn, and then has her laying in the fields, “drows’d with the fume of poppies”; Autumn is intoxicated with her own harvest- the poppies opening up for the bees, their aroma released during the harvest around them.  Autumn’s head is “laden” with her prosperity and she watches the “oozing” of thick cider coming out of a cider-press; she has enough time for everything, and going slowly or leisurely is no burden to her.  Keats speaks to Autumn almost like a lover wooing, claiming that while Spring’s songs might be beautiful, Autumn’s are just as lovely, and he “thinks not” on the songs of Spring while Autumn’s are in the air.  Even the death of the earth that must always accompany autumn is treated with a soft touch.  The day is “soft-dying” and it paints the fields with a “rosy hue”.  Though the “choir” of bugs in the willows might be “wailful”, they are seen merely as part of a chorus of animals that add their “treble soft” to the twilight air.  Everything seems very still by the end of the poem, the stillness of a day, of an hour, of a season come slowly to a close.  And only the swallows are left to “twitter in the skies”.


            Hughes’ “The Seven Sorrows” also paints autumn in slow, leisurely drips of time, but unlike Keats, Hughes sees autumn not as a slow decent into a beautiful night, but as a kind of pestilence that steals away summer’s glory, and leaves quiet destruction in it’s wake.  Even the title of the poem is somber.  Keats poem is entitled “To Autumn” making one think of an ode, perhaps to an old lover, but Hughes entitles his poem “The Seven Sorrows”.  Right away the tone of the piece is set- there is nothing happy about autumn to Hughes.  He repeats the word “sorrow” eight times in the poem, not including the title, and the words “sad goodbye” appear every other stanza, making a slow litany of despair.  The plenty and overabundance that reigns in Keats’ poem is here only as it relates to death- a “pheasant… hangs from a hook with his brothers” it’s “empty feet” hang below it.  The sun in Hughes’ poem is still a friend of autumn, but unlike Keats’ sun, it is melancholy, pulling with it as it sets both the “birds” and the “minutes of the evening”- as each day grows darker and darker into winter.  The early nights darken a pond into “black” and turn the ground around it into the “catacombs of the dragonfly”.  The trees lose their leaves, not in a glorious spray of color, but “quietly”, leaving behind only “litter- firewood, tentpoles” the deadwood of the forest no longer good for anything else.  The only joy in the poem is brief, and bloody.  It is the “joy of the huntsman, the joy of the hounds” and it only comes at the expense of the “fox’s sorrow” as it is hunted down amid the dying earth which “closes her ear” to it’s desperate prayers for rescue.  And the ultimate sorrow of the poem comes last- the old man or woman watching “through the window”, “wrinkles” curving their face, knowing that the slow death of autumn is much like their own.


            Though they are writing about the same season, and both agree on the basics of what autumn means- the slow conclusion to the swiftness of the spring and the youthfulness of summer- Keats paints the autumn in beautiful and brilliant shades, the red of poppies, the orange of the swollen sinking sun, while Hughes prefers darker hues, the black of a pool at twilight or the deep golden of the minutes as they sink into the night.  If this kind of diversity can be found between two works on the same subject, we do not need an infinity of subjects to write about- merely the desire to look at each subject from as many different angles as possible, whether in the brilliant light of dawn, in the melancholy of midnight, or at any angle of the sun between.