Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Falling Leaves, by Margaret Postgate Cole

The Falling Leaves

by Margaret Postgate Cole

Margaret Postgate Cole's poem “The Falling Leaves” depicts a woman's reaction to World War I. While out for a ride, the sight of autumn leaves falling makes her think of soldiers dying on the battlefields of Flanders. The poem is a mere twelve lines long, but it has a poignancy that lingers after reading it.

The leaves remind Cole of soldiers dying because of the way they fall to the ground in the stillness. Cole uses alliteration with a soft “w” sound in the fourth line: “When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky.” Had they been blown around in the air, the effect would have been quite different. The number of leaves and the way they fall without a sound creates an eerie atmosphere. Cole uses a simile in line 6, comparing the leaves to snowflakes, another image from nature. She says that the leaves “fell like snowflakes wiping out the noon.” There were so many of them that they must have blocked out the light.

In line 7 Cole states that she slowed her pace from that moment on, as she began thinking about the soldiers dying in the war. She describes them in the following line as a “gallant multitude,” referring to their bravery as well as to the large number killed. In line 9 she once again uses alliteration with the soft “w” sound: “Which now all withering lay.” The image conveys a sense of decay and waste, contrasting with the courageousness of the soldiers when they were alive.

In line 10 Cole uses wind as a metaphor, taking an image from nature for the third time in the poem. She says that the soldiers have not been killed because of old age or disease (“pestilence”). In the penultimate line of the poem Cole refers to the “beauty” of the soldiers, creating a contrast with the image of their bodies “withering” in line 9. The reference to their “beauty” implies that they were still very young when they died. The poem closes with a simile in which Cole again compares the dead soldiers to snowflakes. Snowflakes melt so quickly, and the soldiers' lives were so short. This time the mention of the “Flemish clay” leaves no doubt that she is referring to the battlefields of Flanders.

The entire poem is just one sentence, and the ideas are thus closely knitted together. The lines alternate between long and short, although there is more of a difference in length in the first half than in the second. Cole used enjambment four times to link one line to the next, enabling her to extend a description or an image. In fact lines 7, 8 and 9 are all connected, without any pauses created by punctuation.

The rhyme scheme of “The Falling Leaves” is an unusual one: ABCAACDEFDGF. There is a pattern of sorts, and “lay” and “clay” might be considered half rhymes of “by,” “sky” and “silently.” The unusual pattern does give the poem a more natural feel, as rigid rhyme schemes can sometimes seem contrived. They can also create a lighter tone, whereas “The Falling Leaves” is a poem with a sombre mood.

In the space of twelve lines, Margaret Postgate Cole paints a touching picture, paying tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. The comparison to autumn leaves falling creates an image of vast numbers dying, their lives wasting away just like the leaves withering. The similes of snowflakes emphasise how short the lives of the young soldiers were. It is hard to read “The Falling Leaves” without being moved, remembering the tragic loss of so many men.

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.

Originally published on


  1. The rhyme scheme should actually be ABCABCDEFDEF as 'silently' rhymes with 'tree' and later on 'multitude' rhymes with 'strewed'

  2. This was very helpful as I am doing Conflict poems for my GCSE English and this was one of the poems I had to do.

  3. Could you also do "Bayonet Charge" by Ted Hughes, "Come on, Come back" by Stevie Smith and "next to of course god america i" by E.E. Cummings.
    thanks that would be really helpful.
    BTW your reviews for Flag, Mametz Wood and Hawk Roosting was very helpful. Thanks

  4. note the actual rhyme scheme is very even abc

  5. You're amazing , honestly thank you so much