Odes to Autumn

After the green shoots of spring and the exuberance of summer, we have autumn, the season for poignant reflections. To usher in this season, I’ve chosen autumn poems from both eastern and western traditions. Some are rueful, even melancholic which is perhaps fitting for a season that is known as fall. But there is also a poem with a merrier tone.

Asian Poems

Over the centuries, Asian poets have mastered the art of writing poetry that captures the essence of nature and the depth of controlled passion with an austere richness of imagery. Here are five Asian poems that showcase this poetic tradition.

The sudden shower
has not yet dried.
From the leaves
of black pines,
wisps of fog rise
in the autumn dusk.

– Priest Jakuren

I love this poem for the painterly way it describes the landscape. The cold rains of autumn have yet to dry when wisps of white fog start to rise, standing out against the dark background of the pine trees. Priest Jakuren (1139 – 1202) was a member of the Bureau of Poetry in 1201. This poem and a few others of his are included in the classic compilation, One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each assembled by the renowned poet and scholar, Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241).


The next poem is by Onakatomi No Yoshinobu who lived in the better part of the 10th century. He was a court official and one of the compilers of the Imperial Anthology, Gosen Shu.

The deer on pine mountain,
where there are no falling leaves
knows the coming of autumn
only by the sound his own voice.

– Onakatomi No Yoshino


Next is a haiku (three-line poem) by the great haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644 – 1694)

In the autumn night,
breaking into
a pleasant chat.

– Matsuo Basho

Context of this haiku: After the end of the summer when the temperature begins to slowly drop, you will hear people mentioning the word “Jugoya”. Jugoya, otherwise known as the “night of the 15th”, is the mid-autumn in the Japanese calendar. This is a time for celebrating the autumn harvest, for moon gazing, and for “pleasant chats”.


From Japan, we move over to China, a country with a 3000 poetry tradition. The golden age of Chinese art and culture is the Tang dynasty (619 – 907). The following poem is by Li Bai (Li Po), the greatest of the Tang poets. It is delightful in its use of whimsical imagery.

Autumn night –
A worm digs silently
into the chestnut.


Also by Li Bai is a poem that has a melancholic tone characteristic of many ancient Chinese poems.

The autumn air is clear,
the autumn moon is bright.
Fallen leaves gather and scatter,
the jackdaw perches and starts anew.
We think of each other;

when do we meet again?
My feelings are hard this hour, this night!

The poem in Chinese:

秋 风 清,
秋 月 明,
落 叶 聚 还 散,寒 鸦 栖 复 惊。
相 思 相 见 知 何 日?
此 时 此 夜 难 为 情!


Western Poems

Besides the autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the haze

Still is the bustle in the brook
Sealed are the spicy valves
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many Elves

Perhaps a squirrel may remain
My sentiments to share
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind
Thy windy will to bear!

In this elegant poem, Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1866), considered as one of America’s greatest poet, pines for the golden mood of summer which is gone. What remains between autumn and the snowfall of winter are a few ‘prosaic’ days. Even the brook is dry and the elves are asleep. This poem is more than a statement of the passing of seasons. Dickinson expresses a simple wish – that she will experience sunshine in her heart even as the cold and darkness of winter approaches. Don’t we all?


In a departure from the sombre moods of most autumn poems, my final selection is a poem that brims with joy and hope. The poet is the American author and anti-slavery reformer, John Jay Chapman (1862 – 1933).

The poets have made autumn sorrowful;
I find her joyous, radiant, serene.
Her pomp is hung in a deep
azure sky
that turns about the world by
day and night,
nor loses its bright charm.
And when the trees resign
their foliage,
loosing their leaves upon the
cradling air
as liberally as if they ne’er had
owned them, –
they show the richer for the
that weds them with
the clarity of heav’n.

– John Chapman

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