John Keats wrote one of his best poems, “To Autumn,” on Sunday, September 19, 1819. Its remarkably quick completion exemplifies Keats’s accomplishments generally. The poem was written rapidly in a life notable as one of the briefest and most compact of all the great poets’ lives. It is the last of the odes that Keats composed from May to September of 1819 and thus one of the last poems he ever wrote. At the beginning of the following year, the signs of his tuberculosis appeared, and on February 23, 1821, he died in Rome at the age of twenty-five. Keats’s poetic career lasted only five years, and he wrote intensively for only three of those years.
Keats wrote five poems that he called odes during these middling months of 1819; “To Autumn” is designated by its title as an ode, and its form and manner echo those other poems, so critics generally classify it thus. The ode is a Greco-Roman classical form. Its two greatest early practitioners were the Greek Pindar and the Roman Horace. Keats’s odes resemble Horace’s more than they resemble Pindar’s. They comprise stanzas that incidentally bear some resemblance to the very nonclassical sonnets he had already written. In all the odes except “Ode to Psyche” (1820), the stanzas are of regular length.
For “To Autumn,” Keats chose an eleven-line length instead of his more usual ten-line pattern. He always begins his odes with an initial abab rhyme scheme, then switches to a different pattern in the second four lines and reuses rhymes from this second set of lines in the two or three following lines. In “To Autumn,” the seventh and eleventh lines rhyme. Having established a scheme for one stanza, he repeats it in the others. Many poets do not like rhymes at all, and Keats himself refers to “dull rhymes” in one of his poems, but once he establishes such a pattern, he repeats it precisely, with different rhyming words in each stanza—in as many as ten stanzas in “Ode to Indolence” (1848).
In addition to the end rhymes and the varied iambic movement of the lines, Keats creates many sound effects such as internal rhymes (“reap’d” and “sleep”), alliteration (“mists” and “mellow”), and assonance (“touch” and “stubble”). These patterns, intricate and subtle, may be studied at great length. Most of these effects can be found in an early version of the poem, suggesting that although they are to some extent calculated, they primarily demonstrate an ear innately sensitive to sound.
A more important characteristic of the ode as Keats practiced it is its dedication to a specific theme, well reflected in the titles he chose for his work. However, to say that “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820) is only about an urn is to neglect the intense provocativeness of the figures on the urn. The emotional appeal of “To Autumn” is similarly rich. In the first of the poem’s three stanzas, Keats develops the “mellow fruitfulness” of autumn; in the second, he considers nature’s gifts, both those heaped in a granary and those in the...
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