Calvin Bedient: On "Heart of Autumn"

[Bedient views "Heart of Autumn" as the climactic poem to a long career, and he dwells on it for several pages, extracting a range of different insights from it.]

Life begins in demand, ends in an acceptance of necessity – demand proving superfluous before what starts to demand us, even though death is not at all what we thought we had raged to possess or to be possessed by. Passion is originally a grasping, finally a handing over, grateful for being done. It begins by provoking fate, concludes by suffering it.

Yet even the line between life and death can be stormed in rage, as "Heart of Autumn" delights to imagine. To take the initiative from death – Warren’s Audubon dreams of someday waking to do this – to be all passion to the last, is one of passion’s most extravagant schemes of transgression.

In "Heart of Autumn" the climactic, freeing, explosive energy of departure is ambiguous in that, bent on the peace of the inanimate, it makes itself the opposite: an unbearably ecstatic rage of animation. What is death that life should never be so alive as when soaring it meet it? …

[Bedient’s commentary leads him to the lines beginning "Now, today, watching" and ending "but not why I am here":]

In self-pity, with doleful, mesmerizing double strokes, the poet plucks the string of the enviable word "know" as he maunders in deadbeat, sagging verse. Of course he had to pick up the bow of his passion and notch himself into it, or we should all of us have been left mouldering. We must not stand stock still on this wind-tossed autumn day, in total ignorance of his destiny.

And so the miracle happens: [Bedient quotes the poem’s last 8 lines.] A poet of strong-arming imaginative passion – "This is happening. / This is happiness" – Warren has no trouble convincing us of this transformation.

… Once again in Warren, destiny means a physical sympathy with the world (breathing with the rhythm of stars, feeling the strong heart of time stroke by stroke against one’s own, being consumed away at sunset), but by way of prelude: an embrace preceding a departure. This closeness seems a necessary consummation; for the otherness that death is to life, the body has always been to the mind, and the physical world to the body. Dying closes the gaps.

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Criticism Overview
Title Calvin Bedient: On "Heart of Autumn" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Calvin Bedient Criticism Target Robert Penn Warren
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 20 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication His Varying Stance
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