“Oh, what a glory doth the world put on, these peerless, perfect autumn days….” In 1893, an author at the beginning of her career signed a final copy of a poem she’d just completed–an ode to autumn.
The poet was at a paradoxical point in her literary life the likes of which few, if any, other writers had experienced before. She would go on to have a decades-long career as a best-selling author, but by 1893 she had only published a few letters and articles. And yet, although she was only thirteen years old, she was one of the most famous people in the United States.
Helen Keller had been eagerly writing since she had first gained the ability to do so several years before. Although an illness in her infancy had left her unable to see or hear, an inventive teacher, Annie Sullivan, introduced her to language, and soon she was reading and writing using braille and the assistance of interpreters.
The story of what Keller called “my soul’s awakening” quickly spread, and she soon became a celebrity, corresponding with world leaders and with many of the leading authors of the day, including Mark Twain, Edward Everett Hale, and John Greenleaf Whittier. She began publishing poetry and accounts of her travels, and by the time she was 23, had published “The Story of My Life,” the first of many volumes of autobiography and memoirs that she would write throughout her long life of travel and activism.
The poem she typed in 1893 was, she wrote to a friend, “a word picture of autumn as I see it with the eyes of my soul.” In her own handwriting, she dedicated it to another friend, the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who had helped guide much of her education.
Throughout her career, Keller was occasionally criticized for her use of visual and auditory imagery, but she dismissed these attacks, asserting every author’s right to use the full palette of the imagination. “Blindness has no limiting effect upon mental vision,” she wrote. “My intellectual horizon is infinitely wide.”
- Read the poem aloud to the class, and then invite them to share which phrases prompt the strongest images. As a follow up, invite students to write an additional stanza in the style of Keller’s poem.
- Although Keller’s career as a writer stretched into the 1950s, “Autumn” was written towards the end of the nineteenth century, when she was reading–and often befriending–the great writers of that era. Ask students to examine the poem to identify language or literary techniques that are characteristic of the poetry of that period.
- Introduce Keller’s statement about her mental vision as an author. Encourage your students to identify other poems that describe sensory experiences that the author may not encountered directly, and evaluate their effectiveness as poems.
Do you students have other insights into Helen Keller’s poem? Please let us know in the comments.