The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“To Autumn” is an ode divided in three eleven-line stanzas. John Keats employs an elaborate rhyme scheme, setting off with a semicolon the first four lines as a syntactic unit rhyming abab from the next seven lines, which rhyme cdecdde. An ode is a serious and dignified lyric poem, usually fairly long, written in an elevated style and adhering to a stanzaic form.

In this ode, Keats personifies autumn, attributing human qualities to the season. The first stanza gives a general personification of autumn; in the second and third stanzas, the personification is intensified by apostrophe, a direct address to autumn. Moreover, autumn is personified as a woman whose union with the male sun sets the ripening process in motion: “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.”

In the first stanza, Keats presents the early stages of autumn; the weather is still warm. Late flowers bloom, and the bees think summer will never end, since “Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.” Everything in the stanza comes to repletion: the sun, the vines, the trees, the gourds, the nuts, and the hives are brought into ripeness.

In the second stanza, the ripening process is fulfilled. Autumn, directly addressed as “thou” in line 12, is seen amid her harvested grain or found sleeping on a “half-reap’d furrow,” deceived by the late-blooming poppies that lured the bees in the first stanza to the same deception. Awakened, autumn watches the oozing of apples in the cider press “hours by hours,” as if in halting the time she can hold off winter’s arrival.

The last stanza presents autumn having progressed past ripeness and harvest, heralding the coming of winter. Keats, alluding to spring, admonishes autumn to appreciate her own sounds and her own beauty, exquisitely evoked by the late autumn sun setting on the harvested fields: “While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,/ And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.” The sounds of late autumn are the mournful sounds of natural completeness. The day that had begun so “mellow” in the first stanza is shown “soft-dying” in the last.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 477 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. The Odes of Keats. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. “To Autumn” is discussed in several essays in this collection of scholarly work, particularly in Geoffrey H. Hartman’s “Poem and Ideology: A Study of Keats’s ’To Autumn.’”

Bush, Douglas. John Keats: His Life and Writings. New York: Collier Books, 1967. This biography by a Keats critic is one of the earliest studies to judge the poem the most mature and flawless of the poet’s odes.

Hebron, Stephen. John Keats: A Poet and His Manuscripts. London: British Library, 2009. The process by which the poet’s shaping imagination and artistic sense effectuate the development of the final poem is here on display.

Hirst, Wolf Z. John Keats. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Argues that in “To Autumn” time triumphs over Keats’s usual balance between time and eternity.

Stillinger, Jack, ed. John Keats: Complete Poems. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1982. This authoritative and handy edition of Keats’s poems also has useful commentaries on “To Autumn” and other odes to which it can be usefully compared.

Vendler, Helen. The Odes of John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1983. The final chapter on “To Autumn” shows how the poet’s acquaintance with poems by William Shakespeare, John Milton, William Wordsworth, and other poets contributed to this last of Keats’s odes.