A Short Analysis of D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Autumn Rain’

‘Autumn Rain’ is not one of D. H. Lawrence’s most famous poems. He wrote a great deal of poetry, and whilst some of it falls short of the greatness we associate with his novels and short stories, ‘Autumn Rain’ shows his delicate control of poetic syntax and his inventiveness with imagery. Here is ‘Autumn Rain’ and a few words of analysis.

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,
the winds that tread
out all the grain

of tears, the store
in the sheaves of pain

caught up aloft:
the sheaves of dead
men that are slain

now winnowed soft
on the floor of heaven;
manna invisible

of all the pain
here to us given;
finely divisible
falling as rain.

‘Autumn Rain’ was published in the magazine The Egoist in February 1917, but written the previous autumn. The First World War was raging, and this may lurk behind the reference to ‘dead / men that are slain’ and the unusual description of the skies as ‘heaven’s fields’ – perhaps summoning the Elysian Fields, the abode of the dead in Greek mythology which was reserved for heroes who died nobly in battle.

The short lines and three-line stanzas of ‘Autumn Rain’ run on – the whole poem is one meandering sentence – and give the vague impression of falling raindrops on the page. The rhymes are uneven, although they begin more regular, with leaves/wet/lawn and sheaves/set/drawn and so on. Throughout, the emphasis is on falling, a word which, as ‘fall’ or ‘falling’, comes at us four times in this short poem.

The image of the rain in ‘Autumn Rain’ is complex: we begin with the falling leaves of the plane tree (it is autumn, after all) foreshadowing the falling of the droplets of rain; the rain itself is depicted in earthy terms, as ‘seeds’ falling from heaven (heaven itself has ‘fields’, remember), and then as tears (‘the grain / of tears’), and then as ‘sheaves of dead / men that are slain’. (Note that Lawrence writes ‘men that’ rather than the expected ‘men who’: the men have been reduced to things, bodies that have been slain.) The bodies of those dead men, probably those killed (or ‘fallen’, as Laurence Binyon’s poem had it) in battle, are refined or ‘winnowed soft’ in heaven, with the men being almost reincarnated as the falling raindrops, those ‘seeds’ of heaven.

This image is a little too clever for its own good and risks being overly convoluted. But ‘Autumn Rain’ is nevertheless a fine poem, even if it tries to do too much with its central image. It hints at the dead of the Great War without directly becoming a ‘war poem’. It is a grounded nature poem but also one which is open to the numinous or transcendent. Lawrence’s poetry appeared in the earliest imagist anthologies earlier on in the First World War, and in ‘Autumn Rain’ we see an imagistic eye for detail.