Autumn: Poem by P. B. Shelley - Summary & Analysis

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Text
I
The warm sun is failing, the bleak wind is wailing,
The bare boughs are sighing, the pale flowers are dying,
And the Year
On the earth her death-bed, in a shroud of leaves dead,
Is lying.
Come, Months, come away,
From November to May,
In your saddest array;
Follow the bier
Of the dead cold Year,
And like dim shadows watch by her sepulchre.

II
The chill rain is falling, the nipped worm is crawling,
The rivers are swelling, the thunder is knelling
For the Year;
The blithe swallows are flown, and the lizards each gone
To his dwelling;
Come, Months, come away;
Put on white, black, and grey;
Let your light sisters play—
Ye, follow the bier
Of the dead cold Year,
And make her grave green with tear on tear.

Summary & Analysis

Introduction

      Autumn is included in the volume entitled, Poems 1820. Captain Medivin and Walter Bagehot suggest that the poem was inspired by the memory of Shelley's first wife, Harriet Westbrook.

Summary

      Nature is bleak and bare in autumn. The sun's rays are less warm, and the wind is chilly. The boughs are bare, and the flowers are withering. Even the worms feel the pinch of cold. The swallows are gone. The year is lying dead.

      The poet invites the months to come and attend the funeral procession of the year. When the burial is over, they are to watch her grave and shed tears on it so that it may remain green.

Critical Appreciation & Analysis

      While, in India, the year is divided into six seasons, in England there are only four seasons: viz. Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Astronomically, in the northern hemisphere, Autumn begins at the Autumnal Equinox, i.e., on the 22nd of September and ends at the Winter Solstice, i.e” on the 21st of December. But, popularly, in Great Britain, it comprises the three months, September to November. The poem resembles a dirge which means a wailing song at a funeral or in commemoration of death. It owes its origin to the Latin word dirgie ('lead thou') which forms part of the Roman Catholic funeral service. Hence the word has come to possess a melancholy significance. Shelley in it sings of the dying year. The poem does not compare favorably with other poems on seasons. It is a personal lament for the passing show of thing. It is an excellent lyric but only a mediocre Nature poem. There is in it a deep feeling for the inanimate world. Only Shelley could feel that way.

      Shelley is not swept off his feet by the sensation of pleasure as Keats, for instance, is. He never dwells on the beauty of particular objects. He is haunted by the abstract idea of beauty. The outer beauties of Nature, her sights and sounds and scents, thrill him with pleasure, no doubt. But he is not satisfied with that alone. He goes to the inner Spirit that gives rise to these outer manifestations of Nature and tries to interpret her moods.

      The style is perfect, but again it is characteristic of Shelley. It is intellectual and not emotional. His language is minutely and acutely searching. In the wildest of ecstasies, Shelley's language is sure of itself.

Line By Line Explanation With Critical Comments

      LI. 3-5. And the year on.....is lying. Shelley describes the bleakness and bareness of nature during autumn. The sun’s rays are less warm than they used to be. The wind is chilly and the boughs are bare. Every sign of life in nature is absent. The year is nearing its end. The poet pictures the year as a dead maiden, lying on the earth and profusely covered by dry, yellow leaves which serve as a shroud. Her death means that nature also is dead.

      LI. 6-11. Come, months, come.....sepulchre. The poet invites all the months from November to May to follow the funeral of the year. He imagines the year as a lady who has for her hand-maidens, the months. These maidens are now to put on their mourning costume and attend the funeral of the year who is dead in autumn. When the funeral ceremony is over, the months are to remain near the grave and carefully guard it, for the year will come to life again in spring.

      LI 13-16. The rivers are swelling.....dwelling. Shelley here describes some of the common sights and sounds of autumn. Autumn is a season when all signs of life and jollity are absent. The cold rain falls, and even the worms feel the pinch of cold. Rivers swell due to the rains, and there are continuous peals of thunder. The poet fancies that the peals of thunder are ringing the knell of the dead year, as it were. The merry swallows have fled to warmer climates, and even reptiles have sought the shelter of their lairs.

      LI. 17-22. Come, months, come.....tear. These lines form the conclusion of the poem. The poet asks the months from November to May to come and attend the funeral procession of the year. He imagines the year as a beautiful lady, lying dead in autumn. She is covered by a shroud of dry, yellow leaves. The months are her daughters or hand-maidens. The other five months (from June to October) belong to the cheerful seasons of high spring and summer. They are not serious and sombre enough to take part in the solemn ceremony. Let them enjoy themselves with merry-making and gay festivities. But these seven months belong to the colder seasons of the year. They must accompany the funeral procession. When the burial is over, they must shed tears on the grave of the year, so that the spot may remain green and fresh. (The idea is that the year will come to life again in spring. It is the duty of the colder months to make the earth fertile with rains. This helps the revival of nature in spring.)

Annotations

      Stanza I. bleak—chilly, wailing—blowing with a cheerless moaning sound, bare boughs—branches devoid of leaves sighing—the noise made by the branches without leaves; sounds as if the branches are sighing at the loss of the leaves, pale—colourless, dying—withering away. The earth, her death-bed—In autumn there is no bloom in nature, no flush of life; hence described as the death-bed of the year, shroud—a winding sheet, leaves dead—fallen leaves, saddest array—dressed in most mournful attire, bier—a movable stand on which a coffin or corpse is taken to the grave, sepulchre—tomb.

      Stanza II. nipped worm—worms affected by the cold weather, swelling—the river is flooded due to the rains of autumn, knelling—ringing the death bell, blithe—merry or cheerful, swallows—kind of fork-tailed, insectivorous, migratory birds, light—frivolous, with tear on tear—shedding tears continuously.

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