John Keats: “To Autumn”
Fall is in the air. So we are reminded here in the Northern Hemisphere, by the arrival of back-to-school catalogs and tiny inedible gourds littering the desks of teachers and bank tellers. No matter how far we are from our school days, fall retains the air of fresh beginnings. And most of us are even further from our agricultural roots, making the weather a superficial consideration. It’s jacket time, and the streetlights snap on earlier. When John Keats walked the English countryside in the autumn of 1819, he witnessed day-by-day the glories—and grueling labor—of the harvest and its aftermath.
In 1819 Keats was 23 years old and fully engrossed in the poetic vocation he had undertaken a few years before. Following some grim years as a surgeon’s apprentice, he had abandoned the medical profession and chose to pore over Shakespeare, Greek myths, and museum artifacts. Full of breathless appeals to heroes and muses, his early published verse helped feed the cliché of the moony Romantic:
But what is higher beyond thought than thee?
Fresher than berries of a mountain tree?
More strange, more beautiful, more smooth, more regal,
Than wings of swans, than doves, than dim-seen eagle?
(from “Sleep and Poetry”)
As florid as they were, his first compositions flaunt all the passion and musicality that he would refine into his most admired and enduring later work. The fanciful turns of phrase seem to unreel so easily, line after line, that it can be hard to appreciate the unease that produced them. “I have been hovering for some time between an exquisite sense of the luxurious and a love for Philosophy,” Keats wrote to his friend John Taylor in 1818. The scholar Walter Jackson Bate broadly diagnosed Keats’s problem as that of a house divided, his writing a struggle to unify sense and thought, the ideal and the real. By 1819, however, Keats was gaining confidence in a hunch he had articulated in a letter to his brothers two years before, which he called “negative capability”—a quality of imaginative open-mindedness in which “a sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” In an 1818 letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse, he imagined the role of the empathic, chameleon-like poet even more powerfully:
As to the poetical Character itself . . . it is not itself—it has no self—it iseverything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. . . .
Over the course of that summer in the country, as he composed the series of odes that would earn him his “greatness” well over a century after his death, you can almost trace the progress of this self-shedding to its realization in “To Autumn.” The poem is well-rounded in every sense—all five senses, to be exact. Visions of abundance and frantic industry yield to delicious indolence, and the poem’s luxuriously light touches, fragrances, and tastes culminate in a delicate but persistent chorus.
The first stanza is a sensory glut, however mild and pretty “mists and mellow fruitfulness” may seem. The trees and vines that climb high and crawl low are full of mature fruit and nuts; the flowers keep blooming, the beehives are overflowing with honey. It has taken all summer to grow the sweetest, densest, most delectable portion of the harvest (try to imagine a rhapsody on midsummer’s snap peas and kale). The end of summer is literally the fruition, the completion of a phenomenon of natural and manual labor. Sibilance (“mists,” “close bosom,” “bless,” “moss’d,” “swell,” “sweet,” “cease,” “cells”) and o-sounds, both long and short (“mellow,” “bosom,” “load,” “round,” “gourd,” “more,” “flowers”), help build this impression of combined pleasure and effort. Just as the mouth must work to voice a phrase such as “To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells / With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,” so is this harvest fantasia really a story of effort; the sun and season must “conspire” to “load and bless,” “bend,” “fill … to the core,” to “swell” and “plump” and “set” and “o’er-brim.” Nature has been hard at work. The stanza’s headiness and sensuality derives not just from gorgeous visions of fruit and flowers, but also from the outlay of energy, compressed into present-tense, monosyllabic verbs.
But it is summer, not autumn, that has “o’er brimm’d” the bees’ “clammy cells” (the honeycombs of their hives). Early autumn is really summer’s climax. If the sun is “maturing,” it will eventually fully mature, and then . . . what? Keats lends only the hyperproductive bees the burden of thought (“they think warm days will never cease”), setting this ode apart from his others (such as “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode to Psyche”), in which the poet’s own anxieties propel his subjects. In this final ode, the poet’s ego is absent, signaling his developing powers of negative capability.
The poem isn’t a raw record of sensation, of course. It retains touches of formal rhetoric associated with the ode. “Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?” the poet asks at the beginning of the second stanza, shifting his metaphoric imagination to see autumn as a harvester at rest. The spectacular labors of the first stanza are over; though the flowers live on and the fields are only “half-reap’d,” time has passed. The slowing of time is sensual, though the pleasures are subtler when contrasted with the visual riot of the first stanza. The sounds of the second stanza are softer, too, all f’s and w’s: “hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind,” “half-reap’d furrow,” “fume,” “twined flowers.” The drowsy, gentle imagery betrays a dramatic compression of time: the reaper has already amassed a “store” in his granary, the wind winnows (the next step in preparing grain) its contents, and the lush growth has become overgrowth (“twined flowers”). Autumn is next conceived as a “gleaner,” a kind of harvest scavenger who painstakingly picks over what the scythe (the “hook”) has left behind. Finally, Autumn, as if it has all the time in the world, watches the cider ooze through the press, drop by drop. The apples that weighted the “moss’d cottage trees” have now ripened, fallen, and been crushed. The harvest is over. Autumn, who conspired with the sun to put summer into overdrive, sending the bees into a frenzy of effort, is now under its own spell, “drows’d with the fume of poppies.”
The third stanza breaks the spell momentarily for the reader as well, opening with more rhetorical posturing. “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?” The rhetorical questions, exhorting the reader not to think about spring, of course immediately bring to mind that tender season, now played out. Spring’s promise of growth and hopeful expenditure of energy, and summer’s overwhelming bounty, are done. It is the fate of any creation. In two of Keats’s odes composed just a few months before, he tries to reconcile the surrender of life’s beauty to death by affirming its endurance in art, myth, and memory. “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! / No hungry generations tread thee down,” he proclaims in “Ode to a Nightingale,” while the figures in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” are “For ever panting, and for ever young; / All breathing human passion far above. . . .” But now Keats won’t leave the sensual realm for the visionary or philosophical, achieving the “fellowship with essence,” as he phrased it in his early long poem, Endymion, which we associate with the Romantic ideal (“I live not in myself, but I become / Portion of that around me,” wrote Keats’s contemporary Lord Byron in 1816).
The poem’s last stanza offers a mild gesture toward “resolution” in an ever-unfolding present tense. It is early evening, and the emptied fields look warm under a pink-tinted sky. The images and sounds are specific, but the vision is comprehensive: down by the river, we hear the “wailful choir” of the gnats, while over on the hillside the lambs bleat. In the hedges the crickets sing, the robin harmonizes in the garden, and swallows twitter overhead. Keats indulges in the pathetic fallacy to strike the melancholy note (the gnats are mourning!), but as the song progresses the poet doesn’t project any further emotions onto the choristers; they bleat, trill, whistle, and twitter, as is their nature. It is getting late, and the prospect of decay is everywhere, but its touch is light: “soft-dying day,” “bourne aloft / Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies.” It’s hard not to notice, after a few readings, that although the closing scene is imbued with a sense of mortality, autumn’s song sounds much like spring’s. After all, the birds and the lambs, although now “full-grown,” would have sung and bleated in May as well. The four distinct seasons, with all their sensuous variety, are one forward motion whose end is always death. We may rely on it, and must rely on it; the harvest is our means of surviving the cold that follows.
Though Keats doesn’t make any overt attempt to reconcile autumn’s tragic nature, that his consciousness makes music of the creatures’ noises reminds us that this is a poetic creation. As much as the poet has absorbed his senses in an essence apart from himself, making no evaluations or claims for transcendence, he has taken pains to rescue and preserve the season whole—diminishment and all. Like the Greek figures on Keats’s urn, the scene is forever unfolding, round and perfect in its paradox of action and stasis. It is always not yet winter.
“I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death,” Keats wrote to his would-be love, Fanny Brawne, that summer. He had watched his own brother die of tuberculosis just a few months before, and his medical training would have made clear to him the likelihood of his own fate. As he roamed the stubble-plains of Winchester in September, tubercular bacteria were already colonizing his lungs. A few months later, the illness worsened and his doctor advised him to curb his writing to preserve what was left of his vitality. That summer of 1819, the season of Keats’s flourishing that culminated in “To Autumn,” would be the poet’s own autumn.