A poem that uses leaves as a metaphor for the pointless slaughter of war is ‘November’ The poem starts off as one of celebration and hope as the leaves fly from the tree. The leaves can be seen as representing young soldiers who have left the safety of their families and their homes and are going off to fight in a faraway place. Frost’s use of the adjective ‘migratory’ is suggestive of great movement and the leaves mimic the journeying of birds as they migrate across the globe. Frost’s use of the collective pronoun ‘we’ shows that the speaker is joined by others, possibly representing the older generation of parents and grandparents who are seeing their offspring fly the nest. This is a glorious expedition, one undertaken with much anticipation. Yet the tone of the poem changes in line three as the leaves only reach ‘part way down the lane’.
Their journeys are cut short by the brutal wind and rain which leaves them ‘beaten down and pasted’- as Mark Richardson suggests they are ‘brought down in a rain of bullets’ (Richardson, 2001)This mirrors the horrifying experiences of many of the young soldiers who fought in both the first and second World Wars. Millions of young me were cut off in their prime, their lives, like the journey of the leaves, were short. The suddenness and totality of the ‘one wild day of rain’ is indicative of the massive loss of life that was suffered in individual battles during the wars. For Frost this was particularly poignant as he had first-hand experience of this as his close friend Edward Thomas was killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras in 1917.
In ‘To E.T’ written in commemoration of Thomas Frost, laments the many things that he was not able to say to Thomas before he died ‘I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain/ Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained’. This mood of lamentation, loss and missed opportunity captured by Frost in ‘To E.T’ would have been familiar to all the families of soldier who perished in war.
The wind and the rain within ‘November’ are shown to be ambivalent about the loss of the leaves claiming sardonically ‘Tis over’, as though it is no great loss. Just like in ‘Once by the Pacific’, Frost casts Nature as being unconcerned with loss and destruction, whether that loss and destruction concerns plants, animals or humans. As Mark Richardson writes ‘Ours is a fallen world, not subject to any but a ‘divine’ redemption – and that, one gathers, is not forthcoming’ (Richardson, 2001, p. 241) Like many of Frost’s poems that consider the place of mankind in the universe, the conclusion is one of a grim nihilism – that we are alone to sort things out as we may. What is more harrowing is that rather than coming together to create a supportive and inclusive world, humans are conditioned to war and kill.
The poem takes on an even more bitter tone with the declarative ‘A year of leaves was wasted’. The speaker can see the senselessness of the loss and deplores the waste of a generation of leaves, of men. Frost’s use of the apostrophe ‘Oh’ directs the speaker from the ‘we’ of his companionship with those who watched the leaves ‘go to glory’ to a ‘we’ which incorporates all of mankind. The poem moves from description to accusation as the speaker savagely lambasts people for their boasts of ‘storing’ ‘saving’ and ‘keeping’ inconsequential things such as money, land and reputation but only at the expense of ignoring the loss of the elements of life that truly matter like pleasure, sleep and love. As George Bagby notes ‘Frost expands the sense of waste even more vehemently to include both grief and sleep. He sees natural processes, political processes, emotional processes – half of every element of human experience – as sheer waste. Any repetitive or cyclical process, whether natural or emotional or political involves loss and destruction’ (Bagby, 1993, p. 60)
Tyler Hoffman states that ‘Frost describes the waste of leaves at the end of fall and our deluded sense of our own conservationist ethic’. This delusion is highlighted at the end of the poem through the accusation that people ignore the wanton waste of war because it makes their lives easier to lead as they do not have to call into questions their own beliefs and positions. In a break from the traditional form of the sonnet, Frost runs onto a fifteenth line. Hoffman states that his ‘superfluity points to the abundance of resources soon to be squandered by men in a world consumed by war. (Hoffman, 2001, p. 82) It could also be that so much deliberate death and destruction goes against any natural form. Death is a natural part of Nature’s cycle, but it is not cruel and unusual. Only man is responsible for unnecessary slaughter and butchery. That Frost slips from the fourteen-line structure of the sonnet mirrors how man has slipped away from the fundamental principles of Nature. This waste of human life is something that is completely avoidable, but which has sadly become an expected and acceptable part of human existence.
We saw leaves go to glory, Then almost migratory Go part way down the lane, And then to end the story Get beaten down and pasted In one wild day of rain. We heard " 'Tis Over" roaring. A year of leaves was wasted. Oh, we make a boast of storing, Of saving and of keeping, But only by ignoring The waste of moments sleeping, The waste of pleasure weeping, By denying and ignoring The waste of nations warring.