by Michael Woods
The title of this poem refers to monastic chants sung in liturgical services.
Gregorian chant is very meditative, soothing and consoling. This appears to be the effect created in the metaphor, 'but grasses are plainsong' as they offer consolation for the sad observer who has to acknowledge through the evidence of the senses that it is light through leaves and not the 'Midas touch' that has 'turned the wood to gold'. The demythologising of autumn signals a casting off of childish perceptions for those of the adult. Although this may be inevitable, it is also painful.
The striking use of visual imagery in the first stanza is fused with the auditory sense: 'in phrases of light, / trees sing their leaves.' This suggests both an anticipation of a whole 'Grammar of Light' explored in Mean Time (discussed in the Detailed Commentaries section of these notes) and a clear perception that 'phrase' is also a musical term linking with the word 'sing'. The overall effect is that of trees seeming to proclaim themselves through their autumnal colours and, possibly, in an aural sense as a breeze blows through them. This reading is supported by the concentration on the 'plainsong' of grasses in the second stanza.
The persona in the poem addresses him or herself as 'Lost One' despite being in their 'homeland'. This person is also 'Stranger' because the changes within have made what was once familiar a place where he or she can no longer feel entirely at home. This bleak feeling is intensified in the final stanza, as the person seems to feel almost like an orphan, 'no one's child'. The words 'kneel' and 'absolve' that precede and follow this phrase suggest reverence for nature and a belief that it has some metaphysical efficacy in eradicating feelings of guilt or loss. The whole poem is suffused with the impulses and manifestations of nature so in this respect it might be considered homage to the Romantic tradition. Certainly, the restorative power of nature is strongly in evidence and therefore recalls Wordsworth. The religious connotations of 'plainsong', 'chanting', 'kneel', 'absolved' and 'evening bell' suggest great reverence for a place that is 'Home, Home, / Home', the rhythm of which suggests in itself the chanting of plainsong. The solidity of the 'stone' in the persona's 'palm' is the solid, symbolic reminder of reality and it is 'telling the time' rather than the church bell. Geological and ecological rhythms replace the theological in their plainsong. The clapper of the bell is also known as a 'tongue' and this points to the relationship between the concrete physicality of stone 'telling the time' and the abstraction of utterance within linguistic systems known as language. The internal rhyme of 'bell' and 'telling' draws attention to their sound identity but also alerts the reader to the idea that the ecclesiastical signalling of the passage of time is effaced by tangible stone.