Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Autumn

When Walt Whitman heard that his fellow poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) had passed away, he wrote an announcement where he defined Longfellow as “the poet of melancholy, courtesy, deference—poet of all sympathetic gentleness—and universal poet of women and young people.”

Longfellow was all that —and more. His famous works, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1842) and “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1860) reminded Americans of their roots. Although Longfellow is widely known for his reflections on Native American traditions, the Revolutionary War, and the American Civil war, Whitman’s description of Longfellow points to his tender and melancholic side—which is beautifully highlighted in his meditations on nature.

Since September has rolled around, I’ve been spending time reflecting on my year and enjoying all things fall.

This morning, I was reading Longfellow’s poem “Autumn,” which was published in 1845.

Longfellow writes:

With what a glory comes and goes the year!
The buds of spring, those beautiful harbingers
Of sunny skies and cloudless times, enjoy
Life’s newness, and earth’s garniture spread out;
And when the silver habit of the clouds
Comes down upon the autumn sun, and with
A sober gladness the old year takes up
His bright inheritance of golden fruits,
A pomp and pageant fill the splendid scene.

In the next stanza, he captures the colors, the mood, and the spirit of the season:

There is a beautiful spirit breathing now
Its mellow richness on the clustered trees,
And, from a beaker full of richest dyes,
Pouring new glory on the autumn woods,
And dipping in warm light the pillared clouds.
Morn on the mountain, like a summer bird,
Lifts up her purple wing, and in the vales
The gentle wind, a sweet and passionate wooer,
Kisses the blushing leaf, and stirs up life
Within the solemn woods of ash deep-crimsoned,
And silver beech, and maple yellow-leaved,
Where Autumn, like a faint old man, sits down
By the wayside a-weary. Through the trees
The golden robin moves; the purple finch,
That on wild cherry and red cedar feeds,
A winter bird, comes with its plaintive whistle,
And pecks by the witch-hazel, whilst aloud
From cottage roofs the warbling blue-bird sings;
And merrily, with oft-repeated stroke,
Sounds from the threshing-floor the busy flail.

The poem ends with a reminder to listen to the voice of the leaves and to be attuned to their “eloquent teachings”:

O what a glory doth this world put on
For him who, with a fervent heart, goes forth
Under the bright and glorious sky, and looks
On duties well performed, and days well spent!
For him the wind, ay, and the yellow leaves
Shall have a voice, and give him eloquent teachings.
He shall so hear the solemn hymn, that Death
Has lifted up for all, that he shall go
To his long resting-place without a tear.

In an earlier poem “Autumnal Nightfall” (1825), Longfellow writes about what the yellow leaves can teach us:

Leaves, that the night-wind bears
To earth’s cold bosom with a sign,
Are types of our mortality,
    And of our fading years.

To Longfellow, Fall means change, wisdom, an end and a beginning. A contradiction.

Fall, he suggests, is a poignant reminder of our mortality.

As a memento mori, it also paradoxically makes us aware of all the beauty that surrounds us. Yes, the weather gets chilly, and the changing colors of the leaves signal their decay, but there’s an eerie calm about the shift—

with “The moon unveil[ing] her brow,” and “her urn glow[ing] bright; the magnificent leaves that are “brighter than brightest silks of Samarcand,” “the red harvest moon,” and “the wind scatter[ing] the golden leaves.”

Longfellow reminds us of the importance of being present.

How beautiful is it that it’s just started raining as I’m writing this post? I will go, sit on my balcony, and enjoy it.

Do you have any favorite quotes about the fall? What’s your favorite thing about the season?

4 thoughts on “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Autumn

  1. Hi Neri: Thank you for sharing those poems and your insightful commentary. What a wonderful way to usher in the fall. Is it just me, or do these poems seem to be even more poignant in the context of the coronavirus pandemic? On an another topic, since you have been home for a few months, what do you miss most about America? Cheers Alex

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Alex, it’s nice to hear from you–thanks for reading. You know, I haven’t thought about it that way, but yes, you’re absolutely right. The poems are even more poignant in the context of the pandemic.

      Hm, what I do miss most about America? To be honest, with the pandemic and move, I haven’t even thought of America since I came back. BUT I know I’ll miss the diners and all the wonderful local coffee shops (and having coffee to-go). What would you miss if you left?


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