Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In this poem, Keats uses personification and sensuous imagery to convey the idea that the season of fall is just as beautiful as the season of spring, even though its beauty is different and perhaps less conspicuous. The speaker describes autumn as the “Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,” personifying both the season and the sun to suggest that they are friends who conspire together about how to “load and bless” the vines with fruit and the trees with apples. Images of abundance, like trees “ben[t] with apples,” “plump . . . hazel shells,” and “o’er-brimm’d” cells full of honey in the bees’ hive, all lend positive connotation and beauty to the season of fall. The bees even appear to be intoxicated by the “flowers” that continue to bloom as fall overtakes summer, “Until they think warm days will never cease.”
The season of fall, in fact, provides such abundance that the “granary” and “cyder-press” produce plenty. As the poem progresses, these and other places of productive harvest move toward the end of their usefulness that year: the furrows are “half-reap’d,” the “cyder-press” issuing its “last oozings.”
In the final stanza, the speaker dismisses the “songs of spring” and insists that autumn “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.” Autumn’s own beautiful songs are seen in the clouds that “bloom” in the “soft-dying day,” the “rosy-hue[d]” plains, the bleating of the “full-grown lambs,” and the sounds of the “Hedge-crickets,” robins, and swallows. These lovely images—full of words like “bloom,” “soft,” “music,” and “rosy” that connote loveliness and tactility—help to convey the idea that autumn is just as beautiful as spring and deserves equal praise for its part in the cycle of seasons.
In letters from 1818, Keats describes the true poet as “the most unpoetical of any thing in existence” because of his propensity to assume the identity of “some other body.” A poet of this skill writes “for the mere yearning and fondness . . . for the beautiful” and is comfortable with “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats is exactly this kind of poet, and ultimately, his position as a writer of “no self . . . everything and nothing . . . light and shade” allows him to “fill” what he writes about. In “To Autumn,” Keats’s lack of reference to personal identity (as well as his direct address and personification of autumn) refines his full assumption of the season he depicts and its implications on both human and nonhuman cycles of life and mortality. As Keats writes, “with a great poet the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration”—and in the case of “To Autumn,” attention to nature’s beauty allows one to comfortably consider even questions of mortality without hope of a satisfying answer.
Indeed, one might say that “To Autumn” is not so much a poem with a distinct idea or thesis about autumn as it is a poem that embodies autumn. Keats, resourceful here as ever, finds a trove of rich images to convey the feeling of autumnal abundance: the ripe apples whose heft bends the “moss’d cottage-trees,” as well as the swelled gourd and the plumped hazel shell. Likewise, the poem’s final stanza paints an autumnal landscape that evokes an ambiguous mixture of emotions. The “wailful choir” of mourning gnats is accompanied by a symphony of lambs bleating, crickets singing, robins whistling, and, in the final line, “gathering swallows twitter[ing].” This tapestry neither conveys a unified emotion nor a clear thesis. Rather, it contains and depicts the complexities and ambiguities of the season. It is a time of abundance and looming austerity, of joy and sorrow, of “the light wind [that] lives or dies.”