The autumn leaves
Are too heavy with color.
The slender trees
On the Vulcan Road
Are dressed in scarlet and gold
Like young courtesans
Waiting for their lovers.
The winter winds
Will strip their bodies bare
The sharp, sleet-stung
Caresses of the cold
Will be their only
This is a good example of being able to enjoy and understand a poem even if you don't really get every reference or why the artist made certain choices – in fact, a certain amount of incomprehension about the artist's intentions can actually enrich your reading by leading you down suggestive paths. There are two things here that seem a bit puzzling: why does a poem written entirely in English by an American poet have a French title? And is there some particular significance to Vulcan Road?
The French title lends a certain wistful elegance to the comparison between the slender trees and the young courtesans who will eventually be stripped by winter. Perhaps the use of French is meant to distance or aestheticize the picture. For much of Hughes's career, the assumption was that every poem by a black American was inherently a political poem – Hughes might simply be signaling to us that he is claiming the freedom to write a poem that is more about capturing a sad and beautiful thought than it is about protest (Hughes certainly wrote quite a few political poems, so there is some legitimacy in taking the political as a first approach in reading him). For a Harlem Renaissance writer like Hughes, Paris may represent a certain level of freedom and respect; black American artists like Josephine Baker and Richard Wright (and, later, James Baldwin) made their homes there and were lionized in a way that would not have been possible in the segregated United States (not that there was not an element of racism in the French showing how much they appreciated the occasional and distinguished black artist who came there for refuge from the racist oppression of the wealthy, powerful, and Philistine United States). Another possibility is that for many Americans, French is the language of romance, and its use may play into the erotic imagery of the poem: certainly courtesan brings to mind Belle Époque Paris rather than any American category. Or Hughes may simply have liked the music of the French words.
And the Vulcan Road: Vulcan was the Roman god of fire and the forge – fire connects with the flame-like scarlet and gold of the autumn leaves, and brings a little underlying heat to the image. He was also the husband of Venus, goddess of love, who betrayed him with Mars, the god of war. So there is a love angle here, too, and again it lends a poignant tone, since the deity invoked is not the goddess of Love herself, but her betrayed husband (perhaps hinting at future grief for the young courtesans?). Vulcan Road might have meant something else to Hughes – it might have been an actual road he lived on or walked down. But reducing it to an autobiographical detail would cut the reader off from a resonant consideration of what the name is really doing here.
I picked this poem hoping we would be entering autumn by now (we officially enter the season this week, but I was thinking more generally of autumn weather, and an autumn-like feeling in the air). But we seem to be stuck with more of the deadening heat of summer. Anyway. If you've been to New England, or other areas in which masses of trees change color with the onset of winter, then you know the brilliant display Hughes invokes: the masses of leaves are too heavy with color; even the names of the colors – scarlet and gold rather than red and yellow – are weighed down with stately and imperial connotations. This magnificence lies heavily on the slender trees; their youth seems weighed down by their fancy dress. Hughes compares them to courtesans: prostitutes, yes, but of the most elegant and privileged sort. These are not desperate streetwalkers; they are kept women, able to refer to their men by the dignified term lovers. They are still young. It sounds romantic, but of course as courtesans these young women are in an ambiguous position.
Hughes tells their future using two nicely balanced echoing phrases: But soon / And then. Youth is fleeting, as poets (and life) have always told us. The line about the winter winds stripping their bodies bare is both a literal statement about what happens to trees as the weather gets colder and windier and the daylight hours decrease and a metaphorical image of the young courtesans as they age in a cold and indifferent world. Winter often represents the onset of age and death; just as we saw the trees / young women bowing under the weight of their splendid leaves / garments, so now, imposed on their youth as by a double-exposure, we see them stripped bare in their age. Stripped bare might connote poverty, but could also be erotic (there is always an undercurrent of the erotic here, implicit in the slender bodies of the trees / girls seen as young lovers – perhaps another reason for the French title is that as you read the poem in its context the use of French might summon up, in the far reaches of the reader's mind, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur / In the shadow of blooming young girls, the second volume of Proust's great novel).
The poem ends with a vivid and also suggestive and ambiguous description of sharp, sleet-stung / Caresses of the cold. The sharpness of the caresses is enhanced by the s and t sounds stinging through sleet-stung. Is this an unpleasant sensation? It's difficult to say. Depending on how you feel about the cold, and how hot it is when you read this poem, the sensation might sound revivifying – refreshing you, giving you an awareness that you are still alive. And though these caresses are cold, and their only Love, still, their old age is neither without caresses nor loveless. Perhaps Hughes is suggesting the primary importance of our physical being, not only in youth, but in age? Is cold and stinging love better than no love? Can we ever escape the longing for love? Do we have a choice?
The poem is from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad editor and David Roessel Associate Editor.