Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Falling Leaves by Margaret Postgate Cole

Margaret Postgate Cole

Margaret Postgate Cole was a pacifist, and this poem seems to reflect something of her feelings towards the First World War. Written quite early in the war, it still reflects a sense of the trememdous waste of life in the trenches. Written and set in autumn, it parallels the death of the leaves on the trees to the deaths of the soldiers in war, both in quantity, and implicitly in the way in which they are now so common as to have become part of the landscape. The image of dead men falling as thick as 'snowflakes' should be shocking, but instead creates a powerful sense of the transience of life.

The poem's form is not quite a sonnet (glad you counted the lines anyway!) but has a two-part structure that might remind us in some ways of 'Futility'. In the same way as that poem, the two parts of the poem seem to echo each each other and develop the ideas within it. Here, there is a repeated rhyming scheme: ABCABC DEFDEF which accentuates the ways in which the two halves of the poem reflect on each other. The general metre is iambic, with some notable exceptions, such as the anapaestic dimeter of line 3 (in a still afternoon) and every second line is a pentameter, giving a hesitant, almost broken effect to the speaker's tone, as though ideas and lines are left incomplete, and as though there are long pauses for thought. The poem is actually one long sentence (might this remind us of the long, unbroken but jumbled speech of 'next to of course god america i'?), something which contributes to this sense of pensive, layered speech, as though each clause were an additional small thought added to the central idea.

The poem opens with a fairly jaunty iambic trimeter followed by a pentameter which seems to enact the steady beat of a walking horse introduced as an idea in the first line 'today as I rode by', with the internal rhyme between 'leaves' and 'tree' created by the assonance on those long vowels emphasizing the slow pace of the poem, further flowed by the anapaestic line 4 (interesting to note that this is the reverse of the fast dactylic rhythm of 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', though it shares something of the same feel of hoofbeats). I'm suggesting that it is a horse here, partly because of the date--at this time, cars were not so common--and partly because the whole poem seems to me to have a slightly archaic feel in terms of language--even for the time of writing, the use of 'thence' or 'pestilence' or 'strewed' or 'slain' seems a little old-fashioned--and so 'riding' in a car or a bus would seem at odds with the mood of the poem. It would also make it more difficult to 'wander slowly themce' unless you got out of the vehicle but that's another story.

Line 4 introduces an interesting image, because its negation of the idea of the autumnal wind ('no wind whirled them') nonetheless vividly calls up the idea of the wind, the alliteration on 'w' turning the line almost into a tongue-twister which has to be spoken slowly. The idea that the leaves are not  ' the sky' may also be a subtle reference to Postgate Cole's atheism--she does not believe that the dead soldiers are going to be restored, or are going to heaven--once they fall, that is where they stay,'withering'. The 'dead rhyme' of 'afternoon' and 'noon' contributes to the deadening effect of this first part of the poem, the leaves falling 'thickly, silently' suggesting the numbers of fallen men and the ways in which their deaths seem to be unnoticed by most of the public.

This poem, as we discussed in class, plays with two semantic fields--one is the pastoral semantic field of autumn and nature, and is established in the first half of the poem, and the second is the semantic field of death and war, introduced in the second half of the poem. Particular words and phrases in the second part of the poem echo the first half, and make us look at it again perhaps in a different way, so the 'no wind' in l.4 is repeated as 'no wind of age or pestilence', and the simple simile 'like snowflakes' in l.6 becomes extended to 'like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay' at the end of the poem. If you need reminding of how semantic field work, look again at Pink and her song 'Just Like a Pill' which creates its sometimes shocking effect by mingling the semantic fields of drug abuse, hospital care, and romantic love

The poem is deceptively simple. The analogy between the men and the leaves is so direct that the poet hardly needs to enlarge it--once the thought is introduced in line 8, with the mention of the 'gallant multitude', each succeeding line seems to layer more weight on the idea, until the men and the leaves become interchangeable in their 'beauty' both 'withering' alike in England or in Flanders. The trochee that starts line 10 emphasises the word 'slain' by stressing it, and also stresses that we never in this poem find out what it is that has 'slain' the men. There is no mention of bullets or bombs; they seem to die as naturally and inevitably as the falling leaves themselves. the poem is very different to those of Owen or Sassoon (though actually, not so different to 'Futility', which also doesn't go into gory detail), and reflects Postgate Cole's distance from the experience of the front lines. The soldiers who die here are seen in an almost Rupert Brooke-like way, as forever young and forever beautiful, 'like snowflakes'--perfect but transient as they 'melt' into the clay of Flanders. If you were being very attentive here, you might remember the idea of 'clay' in 'Futility' again, and think of this further connection between the two poems.

This poem is one of the few in the 'conflict' cluster that comes from a poet writing during The Great War that is, World War 1, from 1914-1918). As such, it is an interesting comparison  to Owen's perspective on death in 'Futility' (which might suggest that the death of soldiers in war is pointless), and the earlier writing of Tennyson in 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' (which might suggest that the death of soldiers in war is heroic). Postgate Cole seems to almost take a middle view--the poem suggests that the soldiers who die are 'gallant', and has none of the bitterness you occasionally get from Owen and Sassoon, but instead focuses on a simple image of falling leaves, through this image expressing a sense of sadness and loss at the deaths of the fallen

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