How do you apply the Ecocriticism approach to John Keats's "To Autumn?"

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

At the outset, I think that it should be noted that Keats might not readily accept any sort of literary theory with social or political implications attached to his work.  Keats's entire aesthetic philosophy differed vastly from someone like Byron or Wordsworth in their political leanings. While Romantic thinkers usually did not have a problem applying their work to political or social contexts, Keats always seemed distant from doing so.  He was more animated about the aesthetic of the work and pursuing an ability to delve into the negative capability of his own thoughts.  While I think that there is much in way of an Ecocritical approach that can be taken in analyzing "To Autumn," it might not be something that Keats himself would openly embrace.

In applying an Ecocritical approach to literature, some basic definition is needed. The Ecocritical approach to analyzing literature seeks to establish the tendencies of environmental understanding to a particular work:  " [a] study of the relationship between literature and the environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmentalist praxis.”  Ecocriticism is more than “simply the study of Nature or natural things in literature; rather, it is any theory that is committed to effecting change by analyzing the function–thematic, artistic, social, historical, ideological, theoretical, or otherwise–of the natural environment, or aspects of it, represented in documents (literary or other) that contribute to material practices in material worlds."  The idea of literature being connected to environmental awareness and the idea of a praxis type of change being generated towards the individual's view of the environment can be seen in Keats' reflective attitude towards Autumn.

The opening stanza of the poem reflects an acceptance of the condition of being in the world. For the speaker, presumably Keats, speaking to the season itself is a way in which he is able to communicate this acceptance of consciousness and its limitations. This can be seen in the language of the stanza.  Lines such as "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" and "Until then think warm days will never cease,/ For Summer has o'er brimm'd their clammy cells" reflect Keats's view of the human condition.  It is an understanding that is only accomplished through the natural world.  Keats opens his work by striking a relationship with Nature as more than an object.  He suggests that the natural world can reflect conditions about what it means to be human.  Keats demands a reevaluation of the individual's relationship with the natural world.  Nature is the participant in a dialogue about the condition of consciousness and enables the capacity for negative capability regarding the human predicament.  Keats' work is thus demanding the Ecocritical tenet that  "moral questions about human interactions with nature" be raised. Individuals cannot simply discard the natural world given the primacy Keats places upon it.

Keats sees nature as a vibrant being.  It is not an object or something passive in Keats' construction.  The Ode reveals it to be endowed with vitality and facilitates an understanding about the position of human beings in a larger and cosmic order.  This can be seen in the opening and closing of the second stanza, where Keats personifies Autumn, the natural world, as a figure of divinity.  The idea of "Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store" and "Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours" reveal a condition of the natural world that enables the individual to better understand their own mortal predicament.  The Ecocritical approach would view Keats's placement of Autumn as a divine force as deliberate, reflecting a type of restoration associated with the reverence of nature.  For Keats, the only way for individuals to better understand their own place in the world is through a reconfiguration of the natural world.  Through this conceptualization, the poem can be seen in an Ecocritical light.

The final stanza's call to songs can be seen as a metaphor for the mourning of the natural world. Keats wishes to link the pleas he offers to the natural world as one that seeks to clarify the condition of human beings.  However, the Ecocritical approach would see the closing stanza of the poem as one that asserts that individuals must reconstruct their own notions of the natural world. The Ecocritical approach would see the imagery used in the last stanza as reflective of "analyzing the function of the natural environment."  The calling out to the songs of Spring, the "wailful choir," and the songs sung by the different creatures at the end of the poem are all conditions in which the poem demands reflection about the relationship that human beings have towards the natural world. This call to change resonates the Ecocritical call for praxis regarding literature and the natural world.  As mentioned, Keats might not necessarily embrace this socio- political read of his work as it tends to blur the aesthetic that he clearly sought to achieve. However, the essence of Ecocriticism is to establish the grounds to examine a relationship between a work sample and the natural world.  This can be seen in "To Autumn."