Summary, analysis and interpretation
The poem “Herbsttag” by Rainer Maria Rilke (published in 1902) is about the finding and missing of a fulfilling lifestyle. Different stanzas deal with different aspects of autumn.
The first stanza’s subject is the change between summer and autumn: summer is described as a past event stressed by the use of past tense (“war” line 1). “Schatten” (line 2) and “Winde (line 3) (shades and winds) are characteristics of the coming autumn. This change is addressed in form of a prayer. The reason for this prayer is quite simple: it is time for autumn to come (“es ist Zeit” line 1) as summer has ended. The expression “Herr” in line 1 (Lord) as well as the interruption of the regular metre stress the stanza’s prayer-like form.
Even though the topic seems to be obvious when taking a look at the title, the first stanza explicitly introduces it defining it in more detail: time and its passing. Time is mentioned together with the image of a sundial (line 2), which is able to measure time. Sundials are related to the sun, an essential heavenly body that stands for daytime and summer. In many cultures, sundials are associated with superior gods as well. The antithesis1 “Schatten” and “Sonnen(uhr)” (line 2) stresses the radical change of time and seasons. After all, sundials cannot measure time as soon as clouds cover the sky. Another image symbolising these changes are the winds.
The second stanza is about the maturing of the crops. Thus, harvest is depicted as a significant activity of this season. The prayer-like form is continued pleading for finishing the crops’ maturing (line 6). While in the beginning of the stanza it is spoken about the fruits (“Früchten” line 4), it is later on talked about wine (line 7). This could be an allusion to the intoxicating effect of wine – a symbol for high spirits and ecstatic feelings.
The passing summer is still present in the second stanza: the metaphor2 “südlichere Tage” (southern days) stands for the summer’s warmth and bright. The crops’ maturity is addressed by the expressions “Vollendung” in line 6 (perfection), “voll” in line 4 (complete) and “Süße” in line 7 (sweetness).
The concept of time is not associated to change but rather to perfection and maturity in this stanza; an essential conclusion of a process that should bear fruits.
The third stanza approaches the various aspects of autumn from different angles. Not nature is in the stanza’s main focus but rather human beings. The form of the poem retreats behind its reflection. Two sentences describe possible consequences of autumn on human beings – even if only metaphorically (line 8, 9ff.). The anaphora3 “Wer jetzt…” as well as the parallelism in syntax put emphasis on its impact on humans: According to these thoughts, humans expect homelessness and loneliness if they do not manage to build a home or find company (“Wer jetzt kein Haus hat”, “Wer jetzt allein ist”). In both cases it is stressed that the current situation will not change for a long time. The image of floating leaves (line 12) reflects an unsteadily wandering (“unruhig wandern[den] line 12), homeless man who is surrounded by nature. By interrupting the regular metre, the word “unruhig” (unsteady) is particularly emphasised.
Activities that are associated with loneliness such as “wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben” (line 10) (being awake, reading, writing long letters) as well as “unruhig wandern” (line 12) (unsteadily wandering) are attributes of this introverted life.
Interpretation of the overall poem
Even though the nature’s view on humans changes between the second and third stanza and the topic switches from maturity and completion to loneliness, the stanzas do not contradict but rather complement each other. Perfection of nature is requested and the consequences of missing perfection of humans’ lives is depicted. The anaphora “wer” (line 8) expresses a condition, namely that loneliness is not part of human nature but is caused by lacking perfection in finding a home and social company.
The poem’s structure illustrates this by the increasing number of lines: while stanza one only consists of three lines including internal rhymes as well (“Fluren” line 3), stanza two has four lines, and stanza three five embracing rhymes. The increasing number of lines creates the image of a lonely walk in autumn avenues that does not come to an end. The image of “Herbsttag” (title) is used ambiguously. At first glance, the literal meaning dominates: “Schatten” (line 2), “Winde” (line 3), “Blätter” (line 12) (shades, winds, leaves). Due to the reference to humans’ loneliness another level of meaning is created: finding a home and a place in human society, finding a fulfilling lifestyle. All this has to happen at the right time as missing a good opportunity might lead to its loss for an indefinite time. This can be an allusion to the human’s age (autumn of life – high age) or to the approaching of dark and bad times such as illness or failure.