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Shakespeare, Keats and Dylan Thomas wrote, in Sonnet 73, To Autumn and Poem in October respectively, not about a season but about death. When poets write about one thing, they usually mean something else. For the end of the year, read the end of the poet. But of all the poems that have been written about death in the guise of autumn, these three stand out. They do so for several reasons, but principally because each did not only use the English language, but helped to make it.
Shakespeare’s poem, which begins ‘That time of year thou may’st in me behold’, is a conventional Elizabethan sonnet. It expresses a simple idea in three different ways, then uses it to make a point. Getting older is compared in the first quatrain to autumn, in the second to twilight, in the third to a fire going out. In the final couplet, the ageing poet comforts himself with the thought that his lover loves him anyway. Most Elizabethan poets borrowed their ideas from Roman, Italian and French originals. Shakespeare, like Spenser and Sidney before him, wrote cover versions. The difference was the language. The form was borrowed, the ideas were borrowed, but the language was English.
Most of the words in Sonnet 73 are monosyllabic. In the whole poem there are no words of more than two syllables. That makes the poem very English, almost medieval, like the ruined cathedral in line four: ‘Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.’ Short words and simple syntax did more than hark back to pre-Reformation times, they laid the foundations for modern English and explain why so many of Shakespeare’s lines have entered the English language. Count, in the second quatrain, the stressed syllables, listen to the alliteration in the third and fourth lines.
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.
There is drama too, as you might expect from Shakespeare, in the sudden appearance of Death himself in the last line, coming as it does after three very ordinary lines describing a very ordinary, everyday event. The line is really a continuous hiss made up of alternating e’s and s’s.
Keats’s poem, nearly two hundred years old and still one of the best known in the language, owes a lot to Shakespeare – the words, the metre, the half-hidden rhymes, the alliteration – but nothing to anyone else. The form and the voice are his own, a complex rhyme scheme of his own invention (ababcdedcce) and a voice which we call Romantic to distinguish it from what we call Classical or Augustan, but for which a better name would be Young and Rebellious. ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,’ as Wordsworth wrote about the French Revolution, ‘but to be young was very heaven!’
The poem begins with an invocation (‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!’) and continues to evoke the season to which it is addressed until, in the third and final stanza, the poet asks himself a question (‘Where are the songs of spring?’) and, though he tries to put it from his mind (‘Think not of them’), cannot. ‘Thou hast thy music too,’ he says, but it is the cold, slow music of death that brings the poem to a close.
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river-sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
The sounds in these closing lines are as thin (count the i’s) as in the first two stanzas they are round (count the o’s and u’s):
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’erbrimmed their clammy cells.
Shakespeare put his best poetry into the mouths of his characters. When Keats describes Autumn ‘on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, drowsed with the fume of poppies,’ it is impossible not to think of Enobarbus on his first sight of Cleopatra (‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, burned on the water’) or Oberon on Titania’s bed (‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’). The Romantic poet is a character in his own poem.
Dylan Thomas was perhaps the last inheritor of that Romantic tradition. His voice is an actor’s voice. ‘It is spring, moonless night in the small town,’ says First Voice in Under Milk Wood. ‘It was my thirtieth year to heaven,’ says the poet in Poem in October. He heard the morning beckon, he says, and set foot that second in the still sleeping town and set forth. In language as mystical as it is poetic, he describes his journey.
My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farm and the white horses
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
‘There,’ he says, ‘could I marvel my birthday away but the weather turned around.’
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sun light
And the legends of the green chapels.
Romantic as Keats or Goethe, he cannot think of childhood without also thinking of death. In Fern Hill he ‘sang in his chains like the sea’, here ‘a boy in the listening summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy to the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide’ and, in the final stanza, ‘the true joy of the long dead child sang burning in the sun’. The fallen leaves become a symbol of death.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
After Shakespeare, playwrights wrote less in poetry and more in what Ben Jonson called ‘the words that men do use’. The expressive voice gave way to the imitative voice. Poetry withdrew to become a kind of private theatre in which every poem was a soliloquy, while in the theatre they went on talking to each other in ordinary English. But poetry gets smaller audiences than drama and its influence on language is diminished.
Dylan Thomas was perhaps the last English poet whose voice was widely heard and who wrote lines that everyone knows. Try as he might to be obscure, he could not help writing, in his singing voice, a few poems that everyone could understand about experiences that we all share, poems that take a well-worn idea and make it fresh again.