I've been thinking about the assertion in my last post that there are more poems about autumn than about any other season. I'm not going to back it up with any metrics, but I have an inkling it's true. And I have an inkling I know why it's true.
First of all, spring and autumn both have a more powerful grip on the poetic imagination than summer and winter. Both are voluptuous, abundant; both have infinite variety. Winter has undoubtedly a spare, silent poetics of its own (Christina Rossetti's “Winter my Secret”), and summer inspires a kind of warm, blowsy doggerel (“Sumer is icumen in”). But both are more active than reflective: in winter the action is survival; in summer, play. Spring and autumn induce an imaginative contemplation, not only because of their richer colours and more profuse growth, but because they bring change. They are heralds and harbingers, and therefore more eloquent than the seasons they usher in. They are full of a promise which summer and winter never quite fulfil (CS Lewis' “What the bird said early in the year”).
But why does autumn beat spring? Partly because spring is perfection, and as Samuel Johnson said, you can't praise perfection. But partly I think because autumn is beauty in the act of mortality (Keats' “Ode on Melancholy”). Autumn is the pith and resin of that everlasting truth in the seeds of all creation that nothing lasts. As Gertrude tells Hamlet, all that lives must die. This thought has obsessed the poets since the very beginning. What we are most enraptured by is what soonest falters and fades. There is no halting the turn and fall of leaves, but they are rapturously beautiful in their fall, and to hymn that fall is the closest we get to immortality (GM Hopkins' “As kingfishers catch fire”). Autumn is an opera of the great paradox of human being: life is death.