Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Last of the leaves

Autumn Leaves, Millais
Melancholy and beautiful, “The Leaf Burners” is one of my favorites of the lost poems of the First World War.  The poem’s meditative tone, alliterative sounds, and kennings – compound words used to rename nouns, such as “tree-shaker” for the wind – recall the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, a distant warrior culture that found meaning and solace in the natural world.

The Leaf Burners

Under two oak trees
      on top of the fell,
With an old hawthorn hedge
      to hold off the wind,
I saw the leaf burners
      brushing the leaves
With their long brooms
      into the blaze.
Above them, the sky
      scurried along
Pale as a plate,
      and peered thro' the oaks,
While the hurrying wind
      harried the hedge.
But fast as they swept
      feeding the leaves
Into the flame
      that flickered, and fumed,
The wind, the tree-shaker,
      shaking the boughs,
Whirled others down
      withered and wan —
Summer's small folk,
      faded, and fain
To give up their life;
      earth unto earth,
Ashes to ashes,
      life unto death.
Far on the fell,
      where the road ran,
I heard the men march,
      in the mouth of the wind:
And the leaf burners heard
      and leaned down their heads,
Brow upon broom,
      and let the leaves lie,
And counted their kin
      that crossed over sea,
And left wife and wean,
      to fight in the war.
Forth over fell,
      I fared on my way ;
Yet often looked back,
      when the wind blew,
To see the flames coil
      like a curl of bright hair
Round the face of a child —
      a flower of fire,
Beneath the long boughs
      where, lush and alive,
The leaves flourished long,
      loving the sun.
Much I thought then
      of men that went forth,
Or dropt like the leaves,
      to die and to live;
While the leaf burners
      with their long brooms
Drew them together
Connaught Road Cemetery, photo by Julie Thomson
      on the day of their death.
I wondered at that,
      walking the fell —
Feeling the wind
      that wafted the leaves
And set their souls
      free of the smoke,
Free of the dead,
      speeding the flame
To spire on the air —
      a spark that should spring
In me, man of men;
      last of the leaves.
            -- Ernest Rhys

The poem describes a simple country scene as winter approaches: leaf burners use long brooms to push fallen leaves onto a bonfire.  As the leaf-burners work, they are watched by a sky that scurries along, “pale as a plate,” by the hurrying wind, and by a solitary wanderer or fell-walker (fell is a dialect word used in northwest England to refer to a hill or area of high land). 

As fast as they sweep, the leaf-burners cannot keep up with the leaves that are continually dropping, whirled by the wind, “withered and wan.”  Fallen leaves, and fallen men on the battlefield -- the poem joins the two.  The brown leaves that were once young and green, “Summer’s small folk,” are now faded, and yet they are willing – even pleased – to “give up their life.” The phrase “ashes to ashes,” although describing the burned leaves, also recalls the Anglican burial rite and reminds us that in the midst of death, there is the promise of resurrection: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12: 7). 

From the hillside, the leaf-burners hear on the nearby road, "in the mouth of the wind," the marching steps of men walking to war.  The sound causes the leaf-burners to pause, resting “brow upon broom,” as they remember their loved ones who have “left wife and wean” to fight in the Great War (wean is a Northern English/Scottish term for an infant).  The lonely hill walker also pauses to remember the millions of missing soldiers who, like the leaves, were once “lush and alive…loving the sun.”  The wanderer likens the men to the leaves, hoping that the countless soldiers’ sacrifice was not meaningless, but that they dropt “to die and to live,” their souls set free from their bodies to soar like sparks above the bonfire.  

Ernest Rhys, a Welsh-English writer, published “The Leaf Burners” in 1918.  Better known as the founder of the Everyman Library, Rhys is largely forgotten as a poet, with the exception of “Lost in France,” (or “Remembering Jo”) a short poem that was included in the 2014 Poems on the Underground.  I can find no record of “The Leaf Burners” ever having been reprinted. 

Ernest Rhys

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