The Falling Leaves
Today, as I rode by,
I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree
In a still afternoon,
When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky,
But thickly, silently,
They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon;
And wandered slowly thence
For thinking of a gallant multitude
Which now all withering lay,
Slain by no wind of age or pestilence,
But in their beauty strewed
Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.
Margaret Postgate Cole
Margaret Cole (nee Postgate) was a pacifist in the First World War and an active supporter of the Second World War. She was a lifelong socialist and active in education reform in England. It is in knowing this information that the reader can formulate what this poem is trying to do and why the poet write the thing in the first place. Being a pacifist in WW1 and mentioning the “Flemish clay,” we are led to believe that this was meant perhaps, as a form of protest at the total futility of war, like many of Wilfred Owen’s poems were; from the front but saying why did we go to a Flemish field and waste so much blood? It is also possible to suggest that her later poetry may have been totally different from this because of her stance change.
So, we get to the poem itself. Count the lines and we see twelve lines of poetry, so unlike the beautiful poems that are usually two lines longer [sonnets] and usually have a regular rhythm and symmetry to them, this one alters and changes the length of lines to suit her need to say something short and specific, for dramatic emphasis. For example, she begins with “Today, as I rode by,” signifying that this is from the point of view of an officer, or at least someone who had the privilege and luxury of being on horseback. Normal soldiers were foot soldiers, who marched for miles, trudging through the Flanders mud. So this person who is speaking is from the privileged classes. It is a nice, to the point, short line, followed by a longer one for emphasis.
The next line then follows with “I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree” which immediately makes a reader who knows something of symbolism and metaphor think about the leaves themselves and how they can be seen to represent or symbolize the soldiers themselves, falling in the mud at the onslaught of the German guns. Indeed, one could argue it from the other side and the Germans seeing the British falling before their onslaught. Either way, the loss of human life that we ‘remember’ each November is evident from the beginning in this poem. Then she follows with the fact that it is a “still afternoon” when this is taking place. Stillness reflects calm normally, but in the terror of warfare, stillness can be equally terrifying, so we are led to believe that terror and conflict exists here in the stillness of the day, “when no wind” exists in a situation that brings forth the men “whistling to the sky,” in their adventure.
Now notice the word “But” on the next line. Words like this usually signify a change. Something is good, but it will change. Someone is poor, but they win the lottery. Here, the reader expects a change and gets one with “But thickly, silently.” These are words that are so strong and so powerful in their usage and meaning. The event that follows happens heavily and quietly, like a dream before the soldier’s eyes as his comrades fall “like snowflakes wiping out the noon.” Now, we see sadness and despair coming into the poem whereas the previous sense of bravery and honour is passing.
Then the reader is led along a path of misery with words that suggest a slow movement from this soldier as he sees so much death and decay all around him. He wanders “slowly” through the ranks, “thinking of a gallant multitude” who have gone before him into battle and who are now lying dead in his tracks. It is a simmering sight of sacrifice he sees, where “all withering lay,” rotting and smelling of death. He makes note that they are “slain by no wind of age or pestilence,” meaning that it was not sickness of the body that killed them or old age and decay, but rather the inhumanity of one nation to another just because of a desire to have more land. Now the reader sees the true poet/pacifist of the First World War coming out in her writing, shouting from the roof tops her belief about how wrong this all is and how we are wrong to send our men [and now women] off to war. To her, it is all a needless waste.
Then we get a repetition of the word “But” again and this time, the change has to go the other way. Instead of being a horrible sight, the soldier [or more likely, the poet] sees the men not as horrid and unsightly, but “in their beauty strewed like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.” Snowflakes are beautiful to behold. Snowflakes falling is something beautiful to see. To match the two images together like this is stunning to say the least, but it also shows how someone can use the English language to describe something so that her horror of war as well as her belief that it is indeed right and good to die for your country to great effect. This is a poem therefore, that reflects a depth of emotion and the use of symbolic metaphor to show a belief system that still exists to this day.