Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"The Coming of the Cold" by Theodore Roethke (1941)

Autumn in Kansas looks like this
Living in a place where the seasons are muddied and blurred together is sometimes difficult for someone raised in a prairie climate.  On the Great Plains, in the land of four seasons, time has borders you cross into at regular intervals.  Here in southern California, the seasons we have are more muted; it's beautiful and warm most of the year, and windy for some of the year, and rainy and cool for a bit of the year, and those are seasons.  

Autumn in southern California looks like this

I miss autumn most of all, with a bit of winter thrown in.  I was recently in Sacramento, which had just experienced several days of rain prior to my arrival, and there it smelled and felt wonderfully like autumn.  Sacramento still had palm trees dotting the landscape, but there were also autumn leaves and the smell of damp rot that one associates with late October or November; turkeys and pilgrims; the first frost and migrating geese; when you were a little kid walking to school and seeing your breath and pretending you were smoking a cigarette; football games and Homecoming and hot apple cider, the promise of Christmas, soon but not TOO soon, because the waiting and suspense is most of the fun.

That is what I like most about Roethke's poem.  The sensual imagery and figures of speech that he crafts and employs to describe  autumn.  I love the phrase "the beak of frost" as if winter is some bird that flies in and starts pecking at everything until it is dead.  

I also think this poem is quite likely about the autumn of one's life too, a reminder that all things come to an end, with the snow of old age and death looming.  There is imagery of rotted fruit, thinning orchards, barrenness and bleakness.  Of course, no one wants to hear old age and death described in such stark terms. But there is some truth, at the core, that old age, like autumn and winter, take a bitter toll.


The late peach yields a subtle musk, 
The arbor is alive with fume 
More heady than a field at dusk 
When clover scents diminished wind. 
The walker’s foot has scarcely room 
Upon the orchard path, for skinned 
And battered fruit has choked the grass. 
The yield’s half down and half in air, 
The plum drops pitch upon the ground, 
And nostrils widen as they pass
The place where butternuts are found. 
The wind shakes out the scent of pear. 
Upon the field the scent is dry: 
The dill bears up its acrid crown; 
The dock, so garish to the eye, 
Distills a pungence of its own; 
And pumpkins sweat a bitter oil. 
But soon cold rain and frost come in 
To press pure fragrance to the soil; 
The loose vine droops with hoar at dawn, 
The riches of the air blow thin. 

The ribs of leaves lie in the dust, 
The beak of frost has picked the bough, 
The briar bears its thorn, and drought 
Has left its ravage on the field. 
The season’s wreckage lies about, 
Late autumn fruit is rotted now. 
All shade is lean, the antic branch 
Jerks skyward at the touch of wind, 
Dense trees no longer hold the light, 
The hedge and orchard grove are thinned. 
The dank bark dries beneath the sun, 
The last of harvesting is done. 
All things are brought to barn and fold. 
The oak leaves strain to be unbound,
The sky turns dark, the year grows old, 
The buds draw in before the cold. 


The small brook dies within its bed; 
The stem that holds the bee is prone; 
Old hedgerows keep the leaves; the phlox, 
That late autumnal bloom, is dead. 
All summer green is now undone: 
The hills are grey, the trees are bare, 
The mould upon the branch is dry, 
The fields are harsh and bare, the rocks 
Gleam sharply on the narrow sight. 
The land is desolate, the sun 
No longer gilds the scene at noon; 
Winds gather in the north and blow 
Bleak clouds across the heavy sky, 
And frost is marrow-cold, and soon 
Winds bring a fine and bitter snow.

From Open House, 1941.  

I fear we as a people will all be missing autumn and winter sooner than we know.  

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