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On "Heart of Autumn"


Calvin Bedient (1984)

[Bedient views "Heart of Autumn" as the climactic poem to a long career, and he dwells on it for several pages, extracting a range of different insights from it.]

Life begins in demand, ends in an acceptance of necessity – demand proving superfluous before what starts to demand us, even though death is not at all what we thought we had raged to possess or to be possessed by. Passion is originally a grasping, finally a handing over, grateful for being done. It begins by provoking fate, concludes by suffering it.

Yet even the line between life and death can be stormed in rage, as "Heart of Autumn" delights to imagine. To take the initiative from death – Warren’s Audubon dreams of someday waking to do this – to be all passion to the last, is one of passion’s most extravagant schemes of transgression.

In "Heart of Autumn" the climactic, freeing, explosive energy of departure is ambiguous in that, bent on the peace of the inanimate, it makes itself the opposite: an unbearably ecstatic rage of animation. What is death that life should never be so alive as when soaring it meet it? …

[Bedient’s commentary leads him to the lines beginning "Now, today, watching" and ending "but not why I am here":]

In self-pity, with doleful, mesmerizing double strokes, the poet plucks the string of the enviable word "know" as he maunders in deadbeat, sagging verse. Of course he had to pick up the bow of his passion and notch himself into it, or we should all of us have been left mouldering. We must not stand stock still on this wind-tossed autumn day, in total ignorance of his destiny.

And so the miracle happens: [Bedient quotes the poem’s last 8 lines.] A poet of strong-arming imaginative passion – "This is happening. / This is happiness" – Warren has no trouble convincing us of this transformation.

… Once again in Warren, destiny means a physical sympathy with the world (breathing with the rhythm of stars, feeling the strong heart of time stroke by stroke against one’s own, being consumed away at sunset), but by way of prelude: an embrace preceding a departure. This closeness seems a necessary consummation; for the otherness that death is to life, the body has always been to the mind, and the physical world to the body. Dying closes the gaps.

From Calvin Bedient, "His Varying Stance," Chapter 4 in In the Heart’s Last Kingdom: The Major Poetry of Robert Penn Warren (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1984), 205, 206-208.


John Burt (1988)

Warren’s characteristic poetic method, as we have seen, is a simultaneous evasion and experience of primary truth. Warren attempts, through his alternations of confrontation and retreat, to apprehend a possessing truth without, in turn, becoming possessed by it. The shape of such poetry, its course of movement toward and away from a magnetic but destructive center, also dictates a particular presentation of the objects of Warren’s poetic concern. …

[Burt comments at length on several poems, including "Heart of the Backlog" and "Time as Hypnosis," with which he ends.]

… Even when we reel back from mortal confrontations, we remain ready, and perhaps sooner or later will be moved, to stake everything on the wild and impossible gamble that God’s love may be but the last and most mysterious word for death.

That is the gamble Warren makes in the "Hawk" poem which concludes Now and Then, "Heart of Autumn," in which the poet imagines his own death as the act of becoming one of his own birds, an act that he endows with the inevitability of the autumnal migrations of birds and that makes final sense of a career whose inner logic has not always been clear to him: [Burt quotes the entire poem.]

from John Burt, "Landscape and Death," Chapter 7 in Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism (New Haven: Yale U P, 1988), 112, 119-120.


Patricia Wallace (1993)

[Wallace places Warren’s work among those of friends and mentors, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate – southerners who worked together on The Fugitive poetry magazine published in Nashville in the early 1920s. Her reading of "Heart of Autumn" places the figure of the poet in that poem in tension with the portrait of Warren that Allen Tate used as a basis for his 1924 poem, "To a Romantic," reprinted below.]

To a Romantic
(to Robert Penn Warren)

You hold your eager head
Too high in the air, you walk
As if the sleepy dead
Had never fallen to drowse
From the sublimest talk
Of many a vehement house.
Your head so turned turns eyes
Into the vagrant West;
Fixing an iron mood
In an Ozymandias’ breast
And because your clamorous blood
Beats an impermanent rest
You think the dead arise
Westward and fabulous:
The dead are those whose lies
Were doors to a narrow house.

– Allen Tate (1924)

In "Heart of Autumn" Warren stands, "my face lifted skyward," watching the wild geese "head for a land of warm water." As the geese move across the autumn sky, some of them dropped from the air by rifle blasts, he asks:

Do I know my own story? At least, they know
When the hour comes for the great wing-beat. Sky-strider,
Star-strider – they rise, and the imperial utterance,
Which cries out for distance, quivers in the wheeling sky.

Those sky-striding, star-striding geese – one of a group of magisterial and invigorating birds that recur throughout Warren’s work – are figures for what arises, "fabulous" (as [Allen] Tate imagined it), amidst what falls and fails. Watching them – looking skyward but equally grounded in his body – and hearing their imperial utterance (a kind of clamor), the poet’s own heart stirs until, at last:

[Wallace quotes the poem’s last 6 lines.]

This poem is one incarnation of Warren, the romantic, as major poet, whose heart resounds with the clamorous utterance he hears in the wild geese, whose body feels their wing-beat. "Fierce impulse" drives his lines out of the narrow margins of Tate’s early poem, and the energy and passion of bodily perception drive him to forge his characteristic noun compounds within a rhythm that is tugged by gravity and rises beyond it. The moment of transformation in this poem comes from a yearning far beyond the boundaries of Ransom’s ironies or the abstract and intellectual complexities of Tate, but that yearning is not narrowly "Romantic." The scope of Warren’s feeling includes the knowledge of "pathlessness" and of "folly" (as we know from many other Warren poems and from his novels as well), yet it reaches toward joy. All Warren’s powerful feeling and passionate aspiration in this poem – which, like the geese, falls, then rises again "Toward sunset, at a great height" – were for many years hemmed in by a narrow formalism and model of ironic paradox that dominated much of American poetry before 1945.

From Patricia Wallace, "Warren, with Ransom and Tate" in Jay Parini, Ed. The Columbia History of American Poetry (New York: Columbia U P, 1993), 489-490.


William Pratt

"Heart of Autumn" is a poem about death, the poet's own anticipated death, and it is also a poem of exultation in life. The form is a looser quatrain than his earlier poems, without rhymes, but it has a strong and unmistakable rhythm that is in accord with the central image of the poem, that of the wild geese flying southward in autumn, a familiar sight to Warren from his Kentucky boyhood—though it might just as well have been seen on the farm in Connecticut where he lived during most of his later years. It is an image of flight, but not of fleeing from something menacing, as in his earlier Fugitive poems; rather it is a flight toward something attractive, "toward sunset," clearly a metaphor for death. Warren is picturing the soul's imagined flight into eternity, for which he had been practicing throughout his long career by writing poetry. As he once put it, poetry for him was a "prayerful state" in which much time is spent simply in being passive, waiting for inspiration to come. In the poem, he watches the geese following their "path of pathlessness, with all the joy / Of destiny fulfilling its own name," and he thinks, "I have known time and distance, but not why I am here," and yet this difference between nature's instinctive sense of direction and man's indeterminate fate does not leave him feeling desolate or lonely or separated from nature. The "heart of autumn" is finally the poet’s own heart, mortal yet exultant, thrilling to the "imperial utterance" of the wild geese honking in the sky, and responding with "a fierce impulse / To unwordable utterance": he, too, is rising up and singing, "Toward sunset, at a great height."

from Singing the Chaos: Madness and Wisdom in Modern Poetry. Copyright 1996 by the Curators of the University of Missouri


Lesa Carnes Corrigan

We see Warren in "Heart of Autumn" with his "face lifted now skyward" (CP, 377), watching geese fly south for the winter. These geese, like the ones in the last section of Audubon that the poet recalls from his boyhood, symbolize the unity of nature that the poet longs for but cannot achieve ("I did not know what was happening in my heart") (CP, 266). Some will suffer the same fate as the hawk in "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth," the "boom, the lead pellet" of a hunter's gun, but others will "stagger, recover control, / Then take the last glide for a far glint of water" (CP, 376).

Like the hawk that appears throughout Warren's poetry, the geese are unaware of their "destiny ," whether it be reaching the end of their journey or falling prey to the hunter ("None / Knows what has happened"). Watching the geese instinctively and "Tirelessly" follow the "season's logic," the human observer wonders, "Do I know my own story?" At least the geese "know / When the hour comes for the great wing-beat . . . The path of pathlessness, with all the joy / Of destiny fulfilling its own name." Conscious of both mortality and the inchoate longing for purpose and identity, the speaker reflects on the pathlessness of human life: "I have known time and distance, but not why I am here" (CP, 376). The geese have no reason to "know" themselves; they are themselves. Like Keats's nightingale, they partake of their own immortality by the yearning that they invoke.

The wistful tone of "Heart of Autumn" does not mean that Warren desires a life of instinct rather than of mental action, however painful consciousness may be. We are not like the sheep he describes in "A Way to Love God" whose "stupid" eyes "Stared into nothingness" (CP, 325), nor are we as fortunate as the bear in Audubon who "feels his own fat / Sweeten, like a drowse, deep to the bone" (CP, 254). Instead, the geese become the symbol of human aspiration. They exist in a fullness of being that the poet finds ideal, and although he cannot merge with nature, he can at least identify with the sublimity the geese represent:

Hearing the high beat, my arms outstretched in the tingling
Process of transformation, and soon tough legs,
With folded feet, trail in the sounding vacuum of passage.

While the body may be trapped in time, the imagination can transport the mind into realms of supernal oneness. In this "spot of time," the poet's heart "is impacted with a fierce impulse / To unwordable utterance—Toward sunset, at a great height." For Warren, as for the Romantics, such transcendent vision does not translate into the desire to leave the natural world behind in favor of other worlds. Whatever transcendence that is to be gained must be rooted in the physical world. Yet, despite life's "pathlessness"—"Path of logic, path of folly all / The same" (CP, 377)—joy and strength are the ultimate rewards of the search for knowledge.

from Poems of Pure Imagination: Robert Penn Warren and the Romantic Tradition. Copyright 1999 by Louisiana State UP


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