Watercolor leaves in yellow and red
Miki Lowe

Poem in Autumn

A poem by May Sarton, published in The Atlantic in 1942

May Sarton was a novelist and an avid keeper of journals, but she considered herself a poet above all else. Novels and journals, she said in 1983, are concerned with growth over time, but “the poem is an essence … it captures perhaps a moment of violent change but it captures a moment.” In “Poem in Autumn,” she seizes just that: fall’s fleeting turning point between a memory of warmth and the cold’s inevitable creep. In that suspended instance, she sees the leaves, “touched by death,” take on a shining gold.

In the first stanza, we know death to mean the coming winter. The leaves won’t survive it—they’ll shrivel and fall—but they burst with vivid color on their way out, almost as if they’re aware that time is slipping away. In the second stanza, though, Sarton is no longer talking about foliage: Now it is we, human beings, who are touched by death. We know the end is coming, and that knowledge changes something in us—our senses are heightened, our heartbeats amplified, our grief transmuted into radiance. She is capturing a moment of change, yes—but a moment can last a minute, a season, or a lifetime.

A pdf of the original magazine page, with golden watercolor leaves painted on

You can zoom in on the page here.