Lesa Carnes Corrigan: On "Heart of Autumn"

We see Warren in "Heart of Autumn" with his "face lifted now skyward" (CP, 377), watching geese fly south for the winter. These geese, like the ones in the last section of Audubon that the poet recalls from his boyhood, symbolize the unity of nature that the poet longs for but cannot achieve ("I did not know what was happening in my heart") (CP, 266). Some will suffer the same fate as the hawk in "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth," the "boom, the lead pellet" of a hunter's gun, but others will "stagger, recover control, / Then take the last glide for a far glint of water" (CP, 376).

Like the hawk that appears throughout Warren's poetry, the geese are unaware of their "destiny ," whether it be reaching the end of their journey or falling prey to the hunter ("None / Knows what has happened"). Watching the geese instinctively and "Tirelessly" follow the "season's logic," the human observer wonders, "Do I know my own story?" At least the geese "know / When the hour comes for the great wing-beat . . . The path of pathlessness, with all the joy / Of destiny fulfilling its own name." Conscious of both mortality and the inchoate longing for purpose and identity, the speaker reflects on the pathlessness of human life: "I have known time and distance, but not why I am here" (CP, 376). The geese have no reason to "know" themselves; they are themselves. Like Keats's nightingale, they partake of their own immortality by the yearning that they invoke.

The wistful tone of "Heart of Autumn" does not mean that Warren desires a life of instinct rather than of mental action, however painful consciousness may be. We are not like the sheep he describes in "A Way to Love God" whose "stupid" eyes "Stared into nothingness" (CP, 325), nor are we as fortunate as the bear in Audubon who "feels his own fat / Sweeten, like a drowse, deep to the bone" (CP, 254). Instead, the geese become the symbol of human aspiration. They exist in a fullness of being that the poet finds ideal, and although he cannot merge with nature, he can at least identify with the sublimity the geese represent:

Hearing the high beat, my arms outstretched in the tingling

Process of transformation, and soon tough legs,

With folded feet, trail in the sounding vacuum of passage.

While the body may be trapped in time, the imagination can transport the mind into realms of supernal oneness. In this "spot of time," the poet's heart "is impacted with a fierce impulse / To unwordable utterance—Toward sunset, at a great height." For Warren, as for the Romantics, such transcendent vision does not translate into the desire to leave the natural world behind in favor of other worlds. Whatever transcendence that is to be gained must be rooted in the physical world. Yet, despite life's "pathlessness"—"Path of logic, path of folly all / The same" (CP, 377)—joy and strength are the ultimate rewards of the search for knowledge.


Criticism Overview
Title Lesa Carnes Corrigan: On "Heart of Autumn" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Lesa Carnes Corrigan Criticism Target Robert Penn Warren
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 20 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Poems of Pure Imagination: Robert Penn Warren and the Romantic Tradition
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