To Autumn

Notes on To Autumn by John Keats

This poem has a sense of conflict and ambiguity similar to earlier dramatic and questioning odes. It was written when the French Revolution had happened, creating a sense of freedom.. This shows how Keats writes when he's inspired- 'if poetry comes not naturally as leaves to a tree, then it better not come at all'.
Poem has elevated style, like a celebration, but also lamenting the death that Autumn brings. Keats had also just lost his brother to TB, and had caught the illness himself.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Sinister? As the sun ages, things die. But the ‘maturing sun’ could indicate wisdom.

Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

Energy and beauty– but that life is going to be harvested at its prime as we are about to find out.
He has so much to say.


To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a
sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later
flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For
Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Nature semantic field

‘bees’ ‘cease’ and ‘cells’ - sibilance. Illustrates continual supply– but too claustrophobic?
The bees are offered abundant pollen. But they are soon to be disappointed in the belief that the ‘warm days will never cease’

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Free, relaxed, detached, aloof

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Autumn personified as a fertile, beautiful woman. As with other female presences in Keats poems– charm co-exists with cruelty.

Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers

Implies clemency but it is only a delayed death for the flowers
‘Hook’ has a harsh, clinical sound.
The execution of life abruptly ends the sleepy mood of the first stanza.
Sense of ambivalence with this beautiful yet destructive presence

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

‘patient’- she is immortal, and can spare time to watch the destruction
‘oozings’- sinister; drawn out destruction

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Calling to Autumn– wild desperation?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

‘clouds bloom’- Juxtaposition of the two words. ‘clouds’ = looming, imminent death. ‘bloom’ = life blossoming, creation.
‘soft dying’- another juxtaposition. ‘ soft’ = calm, beautiful. ‘dying’ = death, the end.

And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Semantic field of death and closing down
‘Lambs’- Autumn’s children, pathetically innocent; don’t know what’s round the corner.

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

This last line seems positive but...

‘gathering’ - like vultures?
‘swallows’ - swallowed?
‘twitter’ - secretive, hiding something


More notes on To Autumn, looking at form and language

Summary

Keats' speaker opens his first stanza by addressing Autumn, describing its abundance and its intimacy with the sun, with whom Autumn ripens fruits and casues the late flowers to bloom. In the second stanza, the speaker describes the figure of Autumn as a female goddess, often seen sitting on the granary floor, her hair "soft-lifted" by the wind, and often seen sleeping in the fields or watching a cider-press squeezing the juice from apples. In the third stanza, the speaker tells Autumn not to wonder where the songs of spring have gone, but instead listen to her own music. At twilight, the "small gnats" hum above the shallows of the river, lifted and dropped by the wind, and "full-grown lambs" bleat from the hills, crickets sing, robins whistle from the garden, and swallows, gathering fro their coming migration, sing from the skies.

Form

Like "Ode on Melancholy", "To Autumn" is written in a three-stanza structure with a variable rhyme scheme. Each stanza is eleven lines long (as opposed ten in "Ode on Melancholy"), and each is metered in a relatively precise iambic pentameter. In terms of both thematic organization and rhyme cheme, each stanza is divided roughly into two parts. In each stanza, the first part is made up of the first four lines of the stanza, and the second part is made up of the last seven lines. The first part of each stanza follows an ABAB rhyme scheme, the first line rhyming with te third, and the second line rhyming with the fourth. The second part of each stanza is longer and varies in rhyme scheme; the first stanza is arranged CDEDCCE, and the second and third stanzas are arranged CDECDDE. (Thematically, the first part of each stanza serves to define the subject of the stanza, and the second part offers room for musing, development, and speculation on that subject. However, this thematic division is only very general.)

Themes

In both its form and descriptive surface, "To Autumn" is one of the simplist of Keats' odes. There is nothing confusing or complex in Keats' paean to the season of Autumn, with its fruitfulness, its flowers, and the song of its swallows gathering for migration. The extraordinary achievement of this poem lies in its ability to suggest, explore, and develop a rich abundance of theme withour ever ruffling its calm, gentle and lovely description of Autumn. Where "Ode on Melancholy" presents itself as a strenuous heroic quest, "To Autumn" is concerned with the much quieter activity of daily observation and appreciation. In this quietude, the gathered themes of the preceding odes find their fullest and most beautiful expression.
"To Autumn" takes up where the other odes left off. Like the others, it shoes Keats' speaker paying homage to a particular goddess; in this case, the deified season of Autumn. The selection of this season implicitly takes up the other odes' themes of temporality, mortality and change. Autumn in Keats' ode is a time of warmth and plenty, but it is perched on the brink of winters' desolation, as the bees enjoy "later flowers", the harvest is gathered from the fields, the lambs of spring are now "full grown", and in the final line of the poem, the swallows gather for their winter migration. The understated sense of inevitable loss in the final line makes it one of the most moving moments in all of poetry; it can be read as a simple, uncomplaining summation of the entire human condition.
Despite the coming chill of winter, the late warmth of Autumn provides Keats' speaker with ample beauty to celebrate; the cottage and its surroundings in the first stanza, the agrarian haunts of the goddess in the second, and the locales of natural creatures in the third. Keats' speaker is able to experience these beauties in a sincere and meaningful way because of the lessons he has learned in the previous odes. He is no longer indolent, no longer committed to the isolated Imagination (as in "Psyche"), no longer attempting to escape the pain of the world through ecstatic rapture (as in "Nightingale"), no longer frustrated by the attempt to eternalize mortal beauty or subject eternal beauty to time (as in "Urn"), and no longer able to frame the connection of pleasure and the sorrow of loss only as an imaginary heroic quest (as in "Melancholy").
In "To Autumn", the speaker's experience of beauty refers back to earlier odes (the swallows recall the nightingale, the fruit recalls joy's grape, the goddess drowing among the poppies recalls Psyche and Cupis laying in the grass), but it also recalls a wealth of earlier poems. Most importantly, the image of Autumn winnowing and harvesting (in a sequence of odes often explicitly about creativity) recalls an earlier Keats poem in which the activity of havesting is an explicit metaphor for artistic creation. In his Sonnet "When I have Fears", Keats makes this connection directly:
"When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain"

In this poem, the act of creation is pictured as a kind of self-harvesting; the pen harvests the fields of the brain, and books are filled with the resulting "grain". In "To Autumn", the metaphor is developed further, the sense of coming loss that permeates the poem confronts the sorrow underlying the season's creativity. When Autumn's harvest is over, the fields will be bare, the swaths wit their "twined flowers" cut down, the cider-press dry, the skies empty. But the connection of this harvesting to the seasonal cycle softens the edge of the tradegy. In time, spring will come again, the fields will grow again, and the birdsong will return. As the speaker knew in "Melancholy", abundance and loss, joy and sorrow, song and silence are as intimately connected as the twined flowers in the fields. What makes "To Autumn" so beautiful is that it brings an engagement with that connection out of the realm of mythology and fantasy and into the everyday world. The development the speaker so strongly resisted in "Indolence" is at last complete; he has leaned that an acceptance of mortality is not destructive to an appreciation of beauty and has gleaned wisdom by accepting the passage of time.


What is Keats ' 'To Autumn' about and what aspects of style have you noticed?

The title is the first striking aspect of this poem. Keats has addressed his work specifically to the season; it is not an 'ode to', which would make it less personal, but a direct communication instead. This suggests an intimacy, almost a friendship, and here the elements of classic mythology, which sit at the roots of Romanticism, are apparent. The ancient Greeks had many deities that represented natural objects and occurrences - Helios, the sun god, or Hephaestus, god of fire, for example - in an attempt to explain the world around them. Keats adopts this culture with the personification of Autumn into a living, conscious entity with thoughts and feelings:

'Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless' (Lines 2 & 3, Stanza I)

In this sense, the indication that Autumn is a deity suggests that the poem is, in fact, an offering or a gift - adding a hint of worship to the title, as opposed to a simple message to a familiar acquaintance. The word 'bless' emphasises this as it has distinct religious overtones.
Autumn is a short season, and, at only three stanzas long, this reflected in the short and concise structure of the actual poem. However, Autumn is also a time of richness and abundance before the scarcity of winter and Keats has used extensive vocabulary and language to draw a detailed picture in the mind of the reader of this brief, colourful season.
The first stanza concerns itself with extolling the beauty and floridity of Autumn, appealing to the senses of sight and taste. The visual sense is the first to be addressed - 'Mists and mellow fruitfulness'. The use of 'mellow' conjures up an associated colour; one of warmth and age, the parchment yellow of ripened pears perhaps, or the sienna of fallen leaves - all of which fall under 'fruitfulness'. However, we are reminded to keep our other senses aware with the mention of 'mists' - sometimes our vision can be clouded and we have to rely on something other than sight. Taste is an obvious choice for the season of harvest: Keats refers to the 'sweet kernels' and fruit with 'ripeness to the core'. However, most description is used to fully conveying Autumn's bounty giving the impression that, for a short time span, the land is overwhelmed with nourishment:

'Conspiring with him how to load and bless....
...To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees ...
To swell the gourd and plump the hazels shells...
For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells.' (Lines 3, 5, 6, 7 & 11,Stanza I)

A sense of fullness and lethargy is created in the language used. Line seven in particular uses long, slow verbs to create an atmosphere of calm and inertness: an atmosphere that continues through the second stanza, where Keats creates actual scenes to paint a specific picture in the mind of the reader.
All the images are of the ceasing of human civility to take in the hypnotic spell of Autumn - the gentle wind, the incense of the poppies, the slow pressing of apples, the quiet bubbling of a brook. Keats is recreating the sensations of Autumn by employing various techniques. Both alliteration and onomatopoeia are apparent in this stanza:

'thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind' (Line 4. Stanza II)

The effect of the onomatopoeia is to evoke another sense - that of sound. The final two words read like a gentle whistling, and Keats is completing a three-dimensional picture for the reader. The clear indication here is that to fully appreciate the gifts and unique, sensuous experience Autumn brings, it is not enough merely to observe. This insight makes it apparent that Keats writes from first-hand experience. The alliteration continues the 'sound' of the whistling as a continuous drone, creating a lullaby effect to match the sleepy ambience of the first stanza. This relaxed, heavy feeling is emphasised again by the language used:

Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers' (Lines 5 & 6, Stanza II)

'Drows'd' and 'swath' both include long, slow vowels which serve to slow the rhythm and pace of the poem and force the reader to dwell on each word, lingering on the poem as the unseen characters linger at their work. The concept of 'twined flowers' conjures up the image of damp, heady overgrowth where the wildlife escape the heat of the day and even the insects are still. Time moves slowly in this stanza:

'Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.' (Lines 9 & 10, Stanza II)

The slow vowels in 'oozings' and 'cyder-press', coupled with the 'patient look' and 'watchest' make the time seem indeed like hours on end. The whole stanza is designed to create the sensation of a lazy, warm afternoon, rich in stimulation for all the senses, made all the more precious by the knowledge that the chill of winter is not far away. The overall image of Autumn so far is one extolling the great beauty and bounty of this particular season. Keats' deep respect for nature runs throughout the poem: the idea that nature 'blesses' us with her gifts shows the poet's understanding of the dependence of all living things on the earth's fertility and fruitfulness. He treats it almost with reverence, addressing it as if it were a living force and a presence - a view that displays the romanticism of Keats' poetry.
There is no resentment at the way humans are ultimately tied to the earth. Instead, Keats chooses to celebrate the fecundity that keep us alive, expressing gratitude rather than hostility. The need to live in harmony with nature is stressed vividly with the scenes in the second stanza. Note the characters are not described as people, but as Autumn itself.

'Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting carelessly on a granary floor...
... Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep.' (Lines 1,.2, 3 & 4. Stanza III)

This suggests that the essence of Autumn is in everybody and with it the maturity and 'mellowing' that age brings. The activities suggested are all connected with the harvest, a time when the earth's gifts can be collected and used to survive - the gathering of the wheat and corn, the pressing of the apples to produce a luxurious drink. The poet sees this time as one for joy and festivity, despite winter's deathly grip on the verge of tightening. Destroying nature would literally destroy the essence of survival, and co-existence is an important theme here. This attitude towards nature, and especially towards this particular season, speaks much of Keats' attitude to life itself. To celebrate fertility, as he does, is to celebrate new life. Why, then, does he choose the son where death begins to make itself known? The rich colours of the leaves add to the glory of the but they are like a swansong: a sign that the vegetation is dying.

'Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.' (Line 2, Stanza I)

'Maturing' is the key word here that unlocks the deeper meaning of 'To Autumn'. It denotes experience, wisdom, knowledge and an ability to accept the inevitable. Autumn can be described as the 'twilight months' of the year; a time when the buds have bloomed and are in their full glory; a time when the young have grown and are ready to face the challenges of survival; a time when the old live out their last days before the onset of winter. If Autumn were a metaphor for life, then it would represent those of middle age, who have the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom of years of experience to draw from. The old are often overshadowed by the energy and vitality of the young; yet Keats, by richly describing the glory and blessings of Autumn, tells us that maturity an experience can offer just as much, if not more. The final stanza makes this point clear:

'Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.' (Lines 1&2, Stanza III)

The reaping of the harvest is symbolic of reaping the benefits of such qualities, or the 'music' of the season. However, death is an important factor here. As with winter ever closer as Autumn draws on, so maturity and age beckons the inevitable. Here Keats reveals the full extent of his acceptance. He takes a broad, cinematic view of the earth, expanding on the close description of the first two stanzas to reflect on the passage of time as Autumn - and ultimately life - draws to a close:

'While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue.' (Line 3, Stanza III)

Yet the demise is made to seem almost welcoming: the transience to winter - to death - is pleasant and 'soft', a gentle passing that is beautiful to experience and not to be feared. There is no morbidity here, only a quiet acceptance that life on earth must end for each one of us. However, not all life dies. The poem ends with the sounds of various creatures, a stubborn message that the cycle of the seasons will continue and life will return, as the poet reminds us in his final line:

'And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.' (Line 11, Stanza III)


Keats's Composure - Article by Joe Sutcliffe

Sometime, it is illuminating to adopt a biographical approach to criticism. Joe Sutcliffe examines 'To Autumn' in relation to Keats's anxieties about personal difficulties and about criticisms of the personal nature of his earlier poetry.

'To Autumn' is often interpreted as a peaceful evocation of the beauties of the English countryside, To me, it is more a subtle, troubled attempt by Keats to make some kind of sense out of dying young. It is hard to determine how much of this comes from a consciousness of his own impending death, and how much derives from more general thoughts about mortality. Nevertheless, it seems evident that the poem has a sense of conflict and ambiguity similar to the earlier, more obviously dramatic and questioning odes. The season of autumn is presented as a fertile and beautiful woman ('thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind') but, as with other beautiful female presences in Keats's poems (La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the personified Grecian Urn, Lamia), the charm co-exists with a potential cruelty and indifference.

Autumn: Kind and cruel

This ambivalence is apparent in the second stanza where we see Autumn as, if not exactly a Grim Reaper, at least a cool presider over the destruction she brings in her harvest. She sleeps insouciantly while the flowers await their fate at the hands of her 'hook' - a harsh, clinical sound which jars against the softer rhymes earlier in the poem and abruptly ends the preceding gentle, sleepy mood: 'Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook'..

On first reading, 'Spares the next swath', in the following line, implies clemency. In factm the image points to a delayed execution for the flowers. There is a similar effect here to that created by the final image of stanza 1, where the bees are offered unexpected and abundant pollen, but are soon to be disappointed in their belief that 'warm days will never cease'. The final image of stanza 2, Autumn watching the cider-press, also contains a hint of cruelty. Her patience is an aspect of her own immortal existence and contrasts with the slow crushing of the apples. The fact that she watches their 'last oozings hours by hours', emphasises the drawn-out nature of their destruction.
Each of these verbal pictures connects back to the opening of the poem and the perhaps surprising use of 'conspiring' in line 3. The sinister, calculating sense of the word fits the presentation of Autumn as a force which blesses with energy and beauty ('And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core') only for that life to be harvested in its prime. This is a knowledge of which Autumn's children are pathetically innocent: the 'full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn' but they do not know what is around the corner. Autumn sits 'careless' on her granary floor: the word means both free and relaxed, and also detached and aloof. The doubleness of 'careless' is similar to Keats's use of 'viewless' in 'Ode to a Nightingale' ('the viewless wings of poetry') where the sense of both incomparably sublime and without clear vision is relevant.

'To Autumn' is full of such 'about to' images, which create an anticipatory tension beneath a surface of calmness and gentleness. Gradually, as we move through the stanzas, this tension becomes more apparent. The first stanza describes plans of 'close bosom-friends', Autumn and the sun. It is curiously static grammatically: its chain of infinitives stems from 'Conspiring with him how to...' and constitutes one long sentence. Stanza 2 presents Autumn as midway through her work: lying on a 'half-reap'd' furrow; then as a gleaner half-way across a brook (F.R. Leavis saw the movement of the eyes from the end of one line to the next as evocation of the gleaner's transition across the brook); and finally watching the near completion of the crushing apples. Stanza 3 describes the passing of Autumn and the implicit expectation of winter. This is hinted at through daylight turning into evening ('soft dying day'), the presence of a robin, and the reference to swallows 'gathering' to migrate for warmer skies. It is also the reason for the elegiac 'music' of the final stanza, with its subtle but repeated allusions to death: 'the soft-dying day.. in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn.. as the light wind lives or dies'. The mention of 'sallows' (a Spenserism for 'willows'), a tree conventionally associated with sadness, adds to this mood, as does the poem's final image of the departing swallows. ('Swallows twitter' could, in fact, be an echo of the most well-known elegy of Keats's day, Gray's 'Elegy written in a Country Churchyard', with its 'swallow twitt' ring from the straw-built shed'.)

Thinking about dying?

When Keats wrote the poem in September 1819, he may have known that he himself would soon die of tuberculosis, though it is impossible to tell exactly what he knew. On the one hand, he had pressing concerns about his health. He had been suffering from a persistent sore throat since the previous summer (one of the recognised symptoms of tuberculosis) which worsened until February 1820, when he knew that he had the fatal illness. He had also lost his brother Tom, aged 19, to tuberculosis in December 1818. Having nursed Tom throughout his illness, and as a former medical student, he might have begun to fear the worst. His mother's death through tuberculosis (when Keats was five) might have strengthened a sense of familial connection. On the other hand, there is no direct evidence of Keats writing in his letter about his fear of developing the illness. In fact, in many of the letters he sounds upbeat and hopeful about the future (then again he might have wanted to protect his friends and family but not drawing attention to such worries).

Perhaps he was thinking about Tom when wrote 'To Autumn' (as he had done earlier in 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'). Perhaps he was thinking about premature death on a general level ('Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies!- Ode to a Nightingale'). Perhaps he was wondering whether he was to die young like Thomas Chatterton, a celebrated poet who committed suicide aged 17. Keats actually mentions Chatterton in a letter written to his friend Reynolds two days after he had written 'To Autumn'; 'I always somehow associate Chatterton with autumn'. Whatever the precise state of his feelings and knowledge about his health, he is occupied in the poem more deeply than merely 'gaping after weather', as he jokingly tells Reynolds.

Calmness is suffering

If Keats was thinking about dying at a young age, why should he choose to shape such a personal subject matter in the form of an ode; a traditionally public and formal genre? And why should he decide to write in the well-trodden territory of English pastoral writing; autumn being a distinctly conventional inspiration for poets? In 'To Autumn', I think Keats is trying to find a meaningful perspective for the painful consciousness that he might die young, like Tom and Chatterton. By placing his own worries in the context of the processes of nature, he perhaps finds a degree of calmness, and his feelings of frustration and potential self-pity perhaps struggle towards an understanding that his pain is not unique.
The source of such comfort may derive partly from Keats's reading of Wordsworth. Keats was in broad sympathy with Wordsworth's philosophy of man's intimate and mysterious unity with nature. In a letter to Reynolds of 3 May 1818, Keats identifies Wordsworth's Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey as the best example of poetic under-standing of human suffering:
'We feel the 'burden of the Mystery', To this Point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive, when he wrote 'Tintern Abbey' and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages.'

Wordsworth's poem 'A slumber did my Spirit Seal' also seems comparable to 'To Autumn' in its mystic presentation of a dead young child at one with nature: 'Rolled round in earth's diurnal course /With rocks and stones and trees!'
In Hyperion, begun in late 1818 and abandoned at the time of writing 'To Autumn', Keats was already exploring the need to accept suffering with dignity and courage. The poem tells the story of the Titans (a group of mythical gods) and their dethronement by a new set: the Olympians of Ancient Greece. Oceanus, the Titan god of the sea, offers an explanation for the fall of his kind and suggests that they patiently give way to the accession of the Olympians. They have fallen, he says, 'by course of Nature's law' and it would be futile and self-destructive to fight the inevitable. The story of the fall of the Titans seems to be of similar value to Keats as the playful but melancholic contemplation of seasonal cycles (another aspect of 'Nature's law') in 'To Autumn'. The Titans' sudden and to them inexplicable fall from power parallels his own experience.
Keats was writing The Fall of Hyperion, his second attempt at the Titan-theme, at the same time as 'To Autumn'. In this poem, Keats allegorically and self-consciously shows the narrator becoming a true poet. By engaging in the tragic suffering of Moneta and the misery of the Titans, he places his own anxieties in the context of an abstract, eternal story, and together with the beauty of Moneta's presence, this gives his understanding and assurance:

'But for her eyes I should have fled away.
They held me back, with a benignant light...
... they saw me not,
But in blank splendour, beam'd like the mild moon,
Who comforts those she sees not, who knows not
What eyes are upward cast.

'Ode on Melancholy' (May 1819) is almost a blueprint for this psychological patterning. Its explicit message is that the poet should cultivate his sensibility by turning away from cliched Graveyard School images and self-pitying, self-generated depression ('Make not your rosary of yew berries') and instead turn towards contemplation of external beauty in Nature.

Response to criticism

There is perhaps a further explanation as to why Keats should choose to express his thoughts about dying in such an apparently oblique way. In The Fall of Hyperion, he condemns self-absorption through Moneta's attack on the narrator as a 'dreamer' who 'venoms all his days'. This might be a sensitive, self-correcting response to criticism of his poetry by figures such as Byron, and magazines such as The Edinburgh Review and Blackwood's. The usual charges against his work were of vulgar sentimentality, pretentious straining for effect, and a cloying prettification of nature. Byron, for instance, mocked Keats's limited knowledge of the natural world and of the Classics, found his eroticism embarrassing, and thought his self-conscious attention to the act of imagining and writing poetry puerile and tiresome: 'Johnny Keats piss a bed poetry ...always working himself up into a state ..frigging his imagination'. (I have not, though, been able to find any evidence of Keat's knowledge of Byron's criticisms.)

Keats does seem aware of the possible dangers of navel-gazing when writing poetry. In 'Ode on Indolence' (May 1819) he concludes his thoughts by rejecting poetry in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner, claiming it will only reveal him as 'a pet lamb in a sentimental farce'. The image is dismissive of cosy, predictable and naive expressions of emotion which lay themselves open, however heartfelt, to derision. It sounds slightly bitter. Keats was prepared to accommodate some of the criticism directed at him, particularly in regard to 'Endymion' (1817). Evidence of this is discernible in the more careful and detached narrative style of 'Lamia' (Summer 1819) and in the changed ending of 'The Eve of St Agnes' (January 1819) where the reappearance of the old and palsied Beadsman and Angela after the romantic happy ending is an attempt to make the poem seem, in his own words, 'less smokeable'. There is no direct evidence that Keats was deliberately looking for a more detached style in 'To Autumn', but this appears to be the direction that his writing was moving towards in late 1819, as, for example, in his desire to make The Fall of Hyperion, 'more naked and Grecian' and in his attempts at drama, Otho the Great and King Stephen: A Tragedy.

'To Autumn'

Intriguingly, The Oxford English Dictionary records usage of a verb 'to autumn' in 1771, originating from the Latin autumnare, which mean to ripen, to bring maturity. Perhaps Keats dropped the word 'Ode' from the title in order to hint that 'To Autumn' is a lyrical poem about the process of ageing and dying young - 'Ode' appears in all the other five titles of poems of this kind. Even if Keats was unaware of the existence of this no doubt obscure verb, it is perfectly possible that he invented such a meaning: his delight in the unusual vocabulary of Spenser, Milton and Chapman (archaisms by Keats's day) is evident across his poetry, and when he felt the need he was quite capable of adopting a word and changing it for his own purposes (see William T.Arnold's introduction to The Practical Works of John Keats, pp. 48-9). We could see the pleasure Keats derived from writing 'To Autumn' as part of the solace the poem's meditation brings. It seems appropriate that he chose a word to do with calmness and balance when telling Reynolds that he had just written a poem about the beauty and warmth of Autumn: 'this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it'. Like the gleaner crossing her brook, it may have kept him, momentarily, 'steady'.


To Autumn

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.



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