Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The double progression through the day and the season point to a theme that recurs in many of Keats’s poems, the theme of transience. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” this theme is treated with anguish and rebellion; in “To Autumn,” the theme is treated with serenity and acceptance.

The first stanza tries to prolong summer, yet the sun is qualified by the adjective “maturing,” hinting that he matures the harvest as well as grows old himself. The second stanza pictures autumn as a reaper, a harvester of the now-ripened crops; the image of the reaper also calls up death itself. Death, however, is momentarily suspended, found sleeping in a “half-reaped furrow.”

In the last stanza, the notion of death, the natural completion of the process begun in the first stanza, gathers strength as gnats are mourning, the sun is setting, and the swallows gather to escape the coming of winter. The idea of rebirth and spring is subsumed in the question “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?” Yet the music of autumn, of completion and death, is not only accepted but also enjoyed for having its own fulfilling sounds. Death is not to be shunned or feared but accepted as the natural end of life.

Another theme, closely linked with the theme of transience, is the juxtaposition of melancholy and joy that pervades this and many of Keats’s poetic works. Melancholy can be defined as a certain...

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