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…..
By denying and ignoring
The waste of nations warring.
“November” was first published in The Old Farmer’s Almanac 1939 as “October” and was later published as “November” in A Witness Tree, after it was realized that A Boy’s Will included a poem titled “October.” The manuscript title was “In Praise of Waste,” but it also held several other titles, including “For the Fall of Nineteen Thirty Eight” and “Lines Written Last Autumn” (Cramer, 139).
Autumn is a season Frost wrote about frequently. October and November are transitional months, and since Frost was very much concerned with the transition from fall to winter, the two months tend to figure prominently in several of his poems about nature.
The poem has a subtext of war. The leaves become a metaphor for the soldiers who, too, initially leave on what seems to be the way “to glory” but often make it only partway down the lane to war, before being brought down in a rain of bullets. “’Tis over” can refer to a season, but it is also what is said when a war or battle has ended. We save and keep leaves in books, as we save and keep mementos of loved ones. We boast of what we can save and keep safe, but we neglect to pay due attention to what we waste and what is lost through our wasting. We lose pleasure in weeping. We also, on a far more cataclysmic level, waste human life and nations entire, by “denying and ignoring” their warring.
Frost moves from something as ordinary and easily accepted as the leaves falling from the trees in autumn to what we have come to treat as inevitable—war. But war is something brought about by people, not by seasons, and it is a waste that we could avoid. We cannot keep the seasons from destroying the leaves. Pleasure weeping is an oxymoron that ruefully describes humankind’s inclination to war.
Mark Richardson finds that “November” and “The Lost Follower” illustrate Frost’s point in the introduction to King Jasper that poetry should confine itself to “melancholy” (159). He also interprets the last seven lines of the poem to suggest that “nothing we ‘keep’ is ever really preserved, no matter what our efforts, from the inexorable tendency toward decay symbolized by the season of fall” (159). Tyler Hoffman writes that the “accretion of syntactic parallels symbolizes the fact that every new day will bring with it mounting destruction” (81).
November symbolizes not only the end of a season but a “denying and ignoring” of what is to come, even when its coming is within the sphere of human control.
Cramer, Jeffrey S. Robert Frost among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s Own Biographical Contexts and Associations. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 1996. Hoffman, Tyler. Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry. Hanover, N.H.: Middlebury College Press, 2001. Monteiro, George. “A Pre-publication Version of Robert Frost’s ‘November,’ ” Robert Frost Review (Fall 1991): 5–6. Richardson, Mark. The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics. Chicago, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1997, 159–160.