How does Keats embody complex themes in the seemingly simple poem "To Autumn"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Keats both celebrates and mourns the bounty and rich beauty of fall. He describes the beauty of the season through the apples bending the trees' boughs with their weight, the gourds swelling, and the many fruits brimming with ripeness. The granary floor is filled with the harvest, and cider mills ooze from turning apples into rich cider.

Nevertheless, the poem also contains language of melancholy. Nature is at its height, but this fact means that the decline of winter, symbolic of death, is soon coming. In the third stanza, the speaker asks, "Where are the songs of spring?" He realizes then, thou, that autumn's music is just as important. We are reminded that spring is far away, winter is coming, and time keeps passing by. Autumn too will pass as spring has. Such language as "wailful" and "mourn" points to the bittersweetness of life, for all things are transitory, and we all will die. Even the gnats intuit that. Therefore, we both seize and enjoy the beauty of the moment but at the same time lament its inevitable passing, wondering why beauty is created only to die, why joy and pain lie side by side.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This ode is about a moment in time but it also is about change and transformation. Therefore, time is a significant theme here. Consider the first two lines: 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 

Autumn is the season when the warm weather is turning cold. This produces condensation and "mist." Autumn is the end of the growing season. It is the season when farmers harvest their crops. Ideally, the harvest is bursting with "fruitfulness." Thus, it is a time when things are ripe and full of life.

Keats is also making a comparison between the progression of seasons and the progression of the day. Spring is morning and rebirth, Summer is the bulk of the day and growth, Autumn is evening and harvest, Winter is night and death. Here, Keats is comparing autumn to the evening. Thus, autumn is a close friend of the "maturing sun" or the sun as it sets at the end of the day. 

Although notions of evening, the end of growth, and the approaching winter might be described in melancholy terms, Keats celebrates autumn for its particular beauty. The first stanza contains imagery of fruits and plants fully ripe and therefore at their peak conditions. Despite the approaching end of things that upcoming winter represents, autumn is a beautiful time and notion in and of itself. 

The second stanza illustrates ideas about the harvest. Keats describes autumn as "the gleaner." That is, one who gathers the grain. Given the suggested notions of evening at maturing age, he also seems to be saying that autumn is a time for gathering the fruits of our life's labor. It is therefore a time to gather, appreciate, and extract from life whatever we can. Perhaps he is suggesting that as we get older, we should appreciate (gather/glean) life especially in these later stages. 

In the final stanza, the speaker (Keats) basically tells Autumn not to worry about the songs of spring. Autumn has its own songs. In other words, this season, the evening, and the mature stage of life all have elements to be celebrated. This poem is about appreciating autumn as a season. But the symbolism provokes the reader to consider the passage of time in order to appreciate the end of the day and the end stages or the penultimate times of life. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial