Analysis

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Last Updated on June 26, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464

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, though its beauty is different. The speaker describes autumn as the “Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,” personifying both the season and the...

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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, though its beauty is different. 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” on 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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 362

“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

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

“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 of the red-breast, and the twittering of the swallows as they gather for their flight toward summer. The sudden chorus of sounds breaks the heavy silence of the second stanza, where in the midday heat of a fall day all sounds were hushed. The music brings autumn to a fitting close; the cycle of nature has been completed, and winter has come with a natural sweetness as the day dies softly to the mournful sound of the gnats.

In addition to the rich imagery, Keats uses an intricate structure and rhythm to bring the day and the season to their “soft-dying” close. The first stanza pictures early morning and pre-harvest ripening: “Seasons of mist,” “maturing sun,” and “warm days.” In the second stanza, it is midday and mid-season. The time is ripe for harvesting; cider presses are in full use, and the afternoon induces sleep. The last stanza pictures the evening and post-harvest sounds as the sun sets over stubbled fields, awakening the mournful sounds of evening.

The first stanza is replete with single-syllable verbs that receive strong primary stress: “load,” “bless,” “fill,” “swell,” and “plump.” In the second stanza, well-chosen alliteration and assonance induce the hushed appearance of the time of day and of season: “Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind.” Some of the words in the third stanza are onomatopoeic, imitating the natural sounds they portray: “bleat,” “wailful,” “twitter,” and “mourn.”

Commentary

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Last Updated on June 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1258

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 immediate surroundings. The third stanza contrasts autumn’s “songs” with those of spring, strongly emphasizing the beauty of the end of the season of natural growth that began months earlier.

The imagery of “To Autumn” is an important resource in conveying its theme. The sensory appeals in the poem are multiple. One particularly important such appeal in the first stanza is the sense of motion reflected in many of the verbs, such as “load,” “bind,” “run,” “fill,” “plump,” and “swell.” The summer sun and the bees have generated a harvest. In the second stanza, nature’s store is depicted as “sitting” on the floor of a granary, and the air is full of the smell of flowers. The growing apples in the first stanza give way to a “cyder-press” in the second. The harvest is not depicted as gleaned but as itself a “gleaner,” the grain itself personified in the image of a girl with hair swept by the wind.

In the third stanza, aural imagery predominates. Autumn, like spring, has its songs: bleating lambs, crickets, and birds. The scene has shifted away from granary and cider press to the outside world after the harvest, a principal image being the stubble of the harvested grain. Keats, describing one of his walks, also praised the sight of this stubble in a letter to a friend written only two days later. “To Autumn” includes no image of the actual cutting of the grain. Stubble is not for him a mere aftermath, for the stubble is “rosy” under the sun, as significant and admirable as the grain that has been harvested. Perhaps no poet has depicted natural change so brilliantly and yet managed at the same time to sustain the abiding presence of the temporal moment.

The movement of the poem from ripeness, to garnering, to the stubbly field is just one of the processes that unfold in “To Autumn.” Autumn represents the culmination of the year’s propagating forces, and the poem’s imagery also marks a trend from morning, with an image of the sun ready to shine upon and “bless” the fruit that is ripening, to afternoon details of heat and summer listlessness, and finally to the evening scene of crickets and gathering birds. Thus, the poem’s movement might also be reckoned as directional: from east to west, the course of the sun as it appears to the human eye. Also implied is movement from the sun’s “maturing” to its southward recession in autumn, when the swallows gather to fly in that direction.

Another process pertains to the working life of the poet. In a sonnet written early in the preceding year—“When I have fears that I may cease to be” (1818)—Keats uses much of the same imagery to refer to his own work. He portrays the poet as a gleaner and his poem as comparable to ripe grain. As a former medical student, Keats had considerable insight into his own physical condition, and he sensed that his poetic mission might be aborted. The tubercular disorder that would kill him showed its warning signs only a few months after he wrote “To Autumn.” Therefore, although the poem is not overtly metaphorical, any reader familiar with Keats’s health and prior poetry is likely to see the poem as pertaining to the autumn of his life. It does not, however, refer in any explicit fashion to his approaching infirmity or death, for he catches and holds in place the splendor of the season at hand. Like a fine painting, it makes an enduring spectacle.

The tone of this poem is quite different from that of “When I have fears.” There is nothing negative, nothing morbid in the later work. The stubble is not a ruined field but a beautiful evening sight. The poem is not about an interrupted harvest or the fear of its failure but about its fulfillment. The swallows depicted in the last line of the poem are “gathering.” An Englishman lives in a latitude that sees this gathering as an October preparation for a retreat to the south; the swallows will return the following spring. Keats, in an earlier version, used the past tense, saying the swallows “gather’d.” The result of the change is an emphasis not on a finished act but on a living, moving one. A phase of nature is retained as indelibly here as the dancers are held in place in “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

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 feeling of sadness or depression. The theme that joy can only be appreciated in juxtaposition with sadness is explicitly stated at the close of “Ode on Melancholy”: “Ay, in the very temple of delight/ Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine.”

“To Autumn” implictly illustrates the union between joy and melancholy: life can only be lived to its fullest extent if death is present at its very conception. The beauty and joy experienced in “To Autumn” are heightened by the passage of time and the coming of winter. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820), spring is frozen in its perfection: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed/ Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.” Yet this, Keats declares, is a “Cold Pastoral.” In “Ode to a Nightingale,” the nightingale, “immortal Bird,” sings “of summer in full-throated ease”; the singing, however, is “too happy in thine happiness.” Yet, in “To Autumn,” the beauty and joy of the dying day are reflected in and complemented by images evoking sadness: the sun setting on the stubble fields and the wail of the gnats.

Keats composed this poem on September 19, 1819, after a long walk. He wrote to one of his friends about the contentment that he felt on that autumn afternoon:How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik’d stubble fields as much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—this struck me much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.

That contentment, because it directly evokes sadness and implies acceptance of the process toward death beyond grief, is mirrored in Keats’s poem.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 216

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.

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