Autumn is at once symbolic of plenty, ripening, harvest, and abundance; and, at the same time, a symbol of decay, decline, old age, and even death, with associations of things being past their prime. To understand this we need to look at how writers have depicted autumn in poetry and other literature.
In classical Greek mythology, the goddess of autumn was Carpo, who was part of the Horae or Hours, three goddesses who were the offspring of Zeus and Aphrodite and represented the three seasons: Spring (Thallo), Summer (Auxo) and Autumn (Carpo). Winter didn’t get a goddess not just because the Greeks wanted to preserve the magic number of three and make the group a triad: they didn’t recognise winter as a ‘season’ at all. Although another term for the Horae is ‘Hours’, confusingly, the term is from an Indo-European root meaning ‘years’, which makes more sense.
Meanwhile, the myth of Persephone and Hades was the Greeks’ way of explaining the cycle of the seasons and the reason why crops will grow in the spring and summer and not in the autumn and winter. The story of Persephone and Hades was, therefore, the Greeks’ ‘just-so’ story to explain why we have different seasons: Hades makes off with Persephone into the Underworld, and although her return to earth is agreed by all parties, she has already eaten fruit in the Underworld and this means she cannot fully go back to the land of the living. As a compromise, she spends half the year – the autumn and winter – in the Underworld with Hades, and the other half, spring and summer, on earth.
So much for myth. What about literature, and more specifically, poetry? Let’s start at perhaps an obvious starting-point: Shakespeare. In his 73rd sonnet, Shakespeare writes:
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.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
‘Yellow leaves’ will fall again and again in autumnal literature, although there’s clearly more going on here with the associations Shakespeare brings to bear upon the autumn season. The idea of the trees being bare of leaves reminds him of the choirs of churches and monasteries, with the sweet birds being like the singers in the choir (the birds, of course, have all flown south for the winter). The symbolism of autumn here is focused on bareness, on absence, and on summer’s plenty giving way to autumn’s sparseness.
That much may seem obvious: autumn, when the leaves fall off the trees, is a time of decline, of the starkness of the tree boughs and the sight of fallen leaves turning brown underfoot reminding us that nothing lasts forever, and that everything dies. This is something that a more modern poet, Philip Larkin (1922-85), brilliantly captures in his short poem ‘The Trees’, in which he reflects on the fact that, although the trees appear to be ‘reborn’ every year, losing their leaves in autumn and then regaining them every May, their ‘yearly trick of looking new’ is written in the tree’s rings, which record its age. Trees, too, will die one day.
And in any case, autumn is not all about decay and things dying, as an autumn poem arguably even more famous than Shakespeare’s demonstrates. The symbolism of the Romantic poet John Keats’s poem ‘To Autumn’ (1819) is rich and layered:
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.
Here, the autumn-symbolism is not focused on death and all those rotting leaves, but on fullness and ripeness. The words ‘fruitfulness’, ‘load’, ‘ripeness’, ‘budding’, and ‘o’er-brimm’d’ all connote a time of plenty rather than little: if Keats wished the poet to ‘load every rift with ore’, in his well-known phrase, then in ‘To Autumn’ he loads every line with autumnal abundance. Note how the sun itself is ‘maturing’, but ‘maturing’ itself suggests ripening and coming to fullness rather than ‘growing old’ or ‘waning’.
But because autumn is so often associated with those falling leaves, and with the end of summer, it frequently symbolises the autumn of one’s life, of a more subdued phase in the human lifespan when the ‘summer’ or prime is past and one is entering one’s twilight years. That example of what’s known as pathetic fallacy is common in poetry, but it needn’t always be a wholly negative experience, as A. E. Housman shows in his later poem, ‘Tell Me Not Here, It Needs Not Saying’:
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.
If this suggests that the poet’s own melancholy is being casually identified with this autumnal scene, the end of the poem complicates such an assumption, for he goes on to say:
For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know
What stranger’s feet may find the meadow
And trespass there and go,
Nor ask amid the dews of morning
If they are mine or no.
But the fact that nature is ‘heartless’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it means that nature offers a space for the explorer (or poet) to ‘possess’ and make theirs: nature doesn’t have an opinion about us, but simply exists, for us to enjoy and feel close to, without any expectation of reciprocity. This ties in with another recurring theme in Housman’s poetry: the idea that death, far from being a tragedy, is actually quite a good thing. Who’d want to live forever? So autumn is a reminder of death, and a healthy one.
Similarly, in Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, the ‘yellow wood’ in the poem’s opening line tells us we are in autumn, but the poem seems caught between new beginnings (Frost comes to the fork in the road one morning and then chooses a new path) and growing older and entering one’s twilight years (the autumnal scene is perhaps symbolic of the speaker being past his prime).