“To Autumn” is rich in imagery, evoking the perceptions of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Each stanza highlights one of the senses. The first stanza especially evokes the senses of smell and touch. The sharp smell of the early-morning mist, the mellowness of ripe apples, and the sweet-smelling flowers attracting bees all work together to tempt the reader into believing that summer will never end. Nothing appears static in this stanza; the fruit, the nuts, and the honeycombs swell, bursting into ripeness, spilling out of their shells.
Keats emphasizes the sense of sight in the second stanza by inviting the reader to see autumn as harvester, her hair “soft-lifted by the winnowing wind,” checking, cutting, and gleaning the crops. The sights evoke a certain lassitude. Autumn moves slowly amid her stores; she sleeps, “drows’d by the fume of poppies”; idly, she watches the “last oozings hours by hours.” The frantic movements so prevalent in the first stanza are slowly replaced by stasis in the second stanza until time seems no longer to move toward winter.
Although visual beauty is evoked by the sun going down on the “stubble-plains,” it is the sense of hearing that sets the tone in the last stanza. The reader and autumn are reminded that the songs of spring have been replaced by a different but no less beautiful music. One hears the mourning sound of the gnats, the bleating of the full-grown lambs, the whistling song of the red-breast, and the twittering of the swallows as they gather for their flight toward summer. The sudden chorus of sounds breaks the heavy silence of the second stanza, where in the midday heat of a fall day all sounds were hushed. The music brings autumn to a fitting close; the cycle of nature has been completed, and winter has come with a natural sweetness as the day dies softly to the mournful sound of the gnats.
In addition to the rich imagery, Keats uses an intricate structure and rhythm to bring the day and the season to their “soft-dying” close. The first stanza pictures early morning and pre-harvest ripening: “Seasons of mist,” “maturing sun,” and “warm days.” In the second stanza, it is midday and mid-season. The time is ripe for harvesting; cider presses are in full use, and the afternoon induces sleep. The last stanza pictures the evening and post-harvest sounds as the sun sets over stubbled fields, awakening the mournful sounds of evening.
The first stanza is replete with single-syllable verbs that receive strong primary stress: “load,” “bless,” “fill,” “swell,” and “plump.” In the second stanza, well-chosen alliteration and assonance induce the hushed appearance of the time of day and of season: “Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind.” Some of the words in the third stanza are onomatopoeic, imitating the natural sounds they portray: “bleat,” “wailful,” “twitter,” and “mourn.”
Because this poem is exquisite, readers are often oblivious to the many images that Keats employs. Indeed, the poem is loved by many persons who might wonder if knowledge of the images could add anything to their appreciation. The fact remains, however, that Keats created the images as an integral part of the poem, and therefore to understand them is one way of following the processes of his thought and poetic art. The images throughout the poem suggest ripeness, harvest, rest, and beauty after labor. The trees are loaded with apples; the machinery (cider press, reaping hook) is that which is used at the time of harvest; the light is red and mellow—rosy—and is reflected in nearby plains of cut grain; and the sounds are those of twilight and night—not threatening but restful.