Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Autumn poetry primer, part 6

Today, I am thinking of Dar Williams's song, "The Beauty of the Rain", which includes these lovely lines: "And you'll know the light is fading all too soon. You're just two umbrellas one late afternoon. You don't know the next thing you will say. This is your favorite kind of day, it has no walls. The beauty of the rain is how it falls, how it falls, how it falls." Need I tell you that it continues to be grey twilight and raindrops here? I thought not.

Somehow, this poem by Christina Rossetti's brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti (depicted in the BBC's Desperate Romantics by Aidan Turner - Dear BBC: When will you ship this miniseries over here to the States? I want to see it!) fit today's vibe for me. Also, I enjoyed Rossetti's play with form and inversions, about which I'll say more after the poem.

Here is Rossetti's "The Fall of the Leaf", which was also published at one point as "The Angel of Death". An abbreviated, three-stanza variant of the poem (stanzas 1, 4 & 5) is usually called "Autumn Song", and can be found at the Poetry Foundation and elsewhere, but I confess to having fallen for the original version, which he sent to his mother in a letter dated 5 September 1848 - the year that he started studying art with Ford Maddox Brown and had become a member of the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood". Here's the letter, as well as the poem for your consideration.

Tuesday night [c. 5 September 1848]

Dear Mamma,

William having suggested that you might perhaps like a note from me, I hasten to send you the same, which I would have done before, had I possessed any news which I thought would interest you. At present indeed I have not a jot more than then, except of that class which William gloats over & all others scorn. This accordingly I must proceed to retail.

I have returned this minute from the Queen's Theatre in Tottenham Street whither I went with Collinson and Clifton to witness a profoundly intense Drama entitled “Koeuba, the Pirate Vessel,” wherein are served up a British Sailor & other dainties. One of the pirates wore trouserstraps, which I thought was a touch of nature, considering.

Have you seen Christina's and William's rhyme sonnets? The second of C.'s is really good: so is the second of W's. His third is also good, but for the strange word “queer,” wherein I recognize the influence of Christina's powerful mind. His fourth has some very good lines, but is wretched nonsense as it stands.

By the bye, I will transcribe you a howling canticle written by me yesterday in what agony of tears let the style suggest. I hereby declare that if snobbishness consists in the assumption of false appearances, the most snobbish of all things is poetry.


The Fall of the Leaf
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
  Laid on it for a covering,
  And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

And how the spirit gripes Misfortune
At the fall of the leaf in Autumn,
  As one that makes the end more brief:
  And how the mind with the falling leaf
Falls, till its births are mere abortion?

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the clogged Sense, coiled up and stiff
  At feel of Summer's perishing,
  Dares not pass Winter to reach Spring
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

And how the swift heat of the brain
Hateth because it is in vain
  In Autumn at the fall of the leaf,
  Knowest thou not? and how the chief
Of joys seems not to have much pain.

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels as a dried sheaf
  Bound up at length for harvesting,
  And how death seems a comely thing
In autumn at the fall of the leaf?


The folio of the Great Cyclographic continues its rounds. It is now with Collinson. Calling on him this evening, and finding that he had no sketch ready & did not mean to make one, I designed an angular saint which we mean to send round under his name, to the mystification and sore disgust, no doubt, of the members in general. I expect we shall end by getting kicked out.

The criticisms are becoming more and more scurrilous. Dennis has helped them materially in their downward course by telling Deverell that his last design is a reversion from Retzsch's outline of the same subject.

Collinson has almost finished his poem of the “Child Jesus.” It is a very first rate affair. He has augmented it with two new incidents, by which addition it is now made emblematical of the “Five Sorrowful Mysteries” of the Atonement. He thinks of leaving to morrow for Herne Bay, with the intention of remaining there a few days. I may perhaps accompany him, but have not yet quite decided.

Having exhausted everything, believe me, dear Mamma,
Your affectionate Son,

G. C. Rossetti

Will you tell William that our literary criticisms have not yet commenced? I see no reason why he should not retain “grey meadows.”


Firstly, do you not love that letter? I know I do. Makes me wish (yet again) that I had a regular correspondence in real letters. And think of the talent in that family - so many poets and artists (since Dante was a painter as well as a poet, and his brother William was a poet, as was his sister, Christina). To be part of such a creative family - and circle of friends - must, I think, have been something indeed.

Secondly, about the form of the poem, which Rossetti called a "howling canticle" - each stanza is rhymed AABBA. The poem itself is a variant form of a rondeau, a French form that is best represented by the marvelous poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae. Here, the repeated phrase is "at the fall of the leaf", but in the second and fourth stanzas, Rossetti engages in an inversion by changing the rhyme scheme and tucking the key phrase "at the fall of the leaf" into the middle of the stanza, rather than placing it at the end. In the second stanza, he even shifts the "in Autumn" to the end of the line, in part to suit his rhyme scheme, but in part for purposes of inversion as well.

Thirdly, despite the morose, almost morbid tone of this poem, I find myself decidedly cheerful after having read it. Why is that? Who can say? Perhaps it's because I admired the form so much. Or because Rossetti's assertions of howling and tears seem, well, fake to me. Or overblown. Or maybe it's because I have so very many lights on here at the house that the weight of the grey rain just cant get me down, even though many of my thoughts, like Rossetti's abortive thoughts, seem doomed to short life span and I haven't managed to get my writing groove back yet. Still, something about this poem - it's willingness to wallow - has me thinking of putting pen to paper. And so I shall.


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