The best poems about Fall (or autumn) selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Now the leaves are falling fast’: so begins W. H. Auden’s ‘Autumn Song’, which features below in this compilation of ten of the best autumn poems in all of English literature. The following classic autumnal poems (or, to our readers in the US, the best poems about Fall) all capture, in their own way, the moods and sights of the autumn season, so as the leaves are already beginning to fall, let us turn the leaves of our poetry anthologies and discover some of the greatest autumn poems literature has to offer. Click on the title of each poem to read it.
1. Anonymous, ‘Merry it is while summer lasts’.
Miri it is while sumer i-last
With foulës song;
Oc now neghëth windës blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this night is long,
And Ich with wel michel wrong
Sorwe and murne and fast.
This poem heads our list of great autumn poems because it was written the earliest – some time in the thirteenth century – but it’s also a convenient starting-point since this little medieval poem focuses on the fading of summer and the coming of autumn. Click on the link above to read the poem, and a little more information about it: it’s number 2 on our list of great medieval poems.
2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang …
This celebrated sonnet by the Bard uses autumnal imagery to reflect the coming of old age – although Shakespeare was probably only in his early thirties (if that) when he wrote the poem. A great example of the pathetic fallacy. (The reference to ‘bare ruined choirs’ in this poem was interpreted by William Empson as a reference to the Dissolution of the Monasteries.) Click on the link above to read the poem in full.
3. John Clare, ‘Autumn’.
The thistledown’s flying, though the winds are all still,
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill,
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot;
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot…
John Clare (1793-1864) is often overlooked in accounts of Romantic poetry, but he wrote sensitively and originally about the English countryside and his poetry displays a fine eye for local detail. This autumnal poem earns its place on this list for the line ‘Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun’ alone. Click on the link above to read this wonderful autumn poem in full.
4. John Keats, ‘To Autumn’.
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 …
Well, this poem was always going to make the list, wasn’t it? Probably the most famous poem about the season in all of English literature, Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ is also one of the finest autumn poems in the language. Jonathan Bate has a fine analysis of this poem in his book of eco-criticism, The Song of the Earth, which points up all of the contemporary allusions to early nineteenth-century politics and history.
‘How beautiful the season is now — How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather — Dian skies — I never liked stubble-fields so much as now — Aye better than the chilly green of the Spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.’ So Keats wrote in a letter of September 1819, hinting at the origins of ‘To Autumn’ and the circumstances of its composition, while Keats was living in Winchester, Hampshire, in southern England.
Click on the link above to read the whole of Keats’s classic autumn poem, and learn more about these allusions.
5. Christina Rossetti, ‘From Sunset to Star Rise’.
Go from me, summer friends, and tarry not:
I am no summer friend, but wintry cold,
A silly sheep benighted from the fold,
A sluggard with a thorn-choked garden plot.
Take counsel, sever from my lot your lot,
Dwell in your pleasant places, hoard your gold;
Lest you with me should shiver on the wold,
Athirst and hungering on a barren spot…
This sonnet is not one of the best-known poems by Christina Rossetti (1830-94), but it’s a real gem of a poem. Spoken by a woman who has chosen to ostracise herself from society and her friends – perhaps, as some critics have suggested, because she is a fallen woman – ‘From Sunset to Star Rise’ uses autumnal imagery and the disappearing summer to reflect on fallenness and sin as part of human nature. Click on the link above to read all of Rossetti’s poem.
6. A. E. Housman, ‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’.
Tell me not here, it needs not saying,
What tune the enchantress plays
In aftermaths of soft September
Or under blanching mays,
For she and I were long acquainted
And I knew all her ways.
On russet floors, by waters idle,
The pine lets fall its cone;
The cuckoo shouts all day at nothing
In leafy dells alone;
And traveller’s joy beguiles in autumn
Hearts that have lost their own …
Autumn was the season of choice for A. E. Housman (1859-1936), who elsewhere wrote ‘I love no leafless land.’ Yet he wrote about leafless lands, and the sense of loss they convey, poignantly time and time again – and no better than here, in this poem from his 1922 volume Last Poems.
‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’ is probably A. E. Housman’s finest poem about nature, and a good example of how, whilst he has a reputation for indulging or even wallowing in the emotions, his work is shot through with a more pragmatic and unsentimental, even stoic, view of ‘man’s place in nature’.
Click on the link above to read all of this wonderfully wistful and nostalgic poem.
7. Adelaide Crapsey, ‘November Night’.
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall …
Crapsey (1878-1914) is not much remembered now, but she left one important poetic legacy: the cinquain, or five-line unrhymed stanza form, modelled on the Japanese haiku. A number of her cinquains touch upon autumnal themes, and ‘November Night’ is the finest of these. (Though as Crapsey was an American poet we should probably describe ‘November Night’ as a great Fall poem.)
8. T. E. Hulme, ‘Autumn’.
Like Crapsey, T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) favoured short, often unrhymed lyrics, and he was arguably the first modernist poet writing in English. ‘Autumn’, written in 1908, establishes a delicate relationship between the ruddy moon, the red face of a farmer, and the time of year – autumn – through an unspoken connecting word, ‘harvest’. Eschewing rhyme and regular verse line lengths, and bringing the language of autumn poetry down to earth in the most literal sense, Hulme also manages to capture the wistful magic of the season of autumn. This poem marked the start of modernist poetry in England. (We have more classic poems about the moon in a separate post.)
9. D. H. Lawrence, ‘Autumn Rain’.
The plane leaves
fall black and wet
on the lawn;
the cloud sheaves
in heaven’s fields set
droop and are drawn
in falling seeds of rain;
the seed of heaven
on my face
falling — I hear again
like echoes even
that softly pace
heaven’s muffled floor …
This delicate poem, whose short lines and short stanzas suggest the droplets of falling rain, was first published in 1917, and the casualties of the First World War may be hinted at by Lawrence’s ‘dead / men that are slain’. The harvest time and Christian redemption are united under the rain falling from heaven. Click on the link above to read all of Lawrence’s autumn poem.
10. W. H. Auden, ‘Autumn Song’.
This is one of Auden’s ‘Twelve Songs’ along with the more famous ‘Stop all the clocks’. ‘Autumn Song’ is a fine lyric about the brevity of youth and life’s disappointments, and takes the falling leaves of autumn as its starting point.
This concludes our pick of the ten greatest autumn poems in English. But what have we missed off? Are there any must-read autumn poems you’d recommend? Any classic poems about Fall that make you fall in love with the season? You can find more great poetry in our selection of classic summer poems, and our pick of classic American poems. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.