Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
'To Autumn' Analysis
'To Autumn' is one of the most popular poems in the English-speaking world and is considered by many critics to be one of Keats's finest creations. It is a shortened ode, a formal poem of meditative reflection.
Over the years it has been interpreted in several different ways, the most recent being a political reading of the poem by a prominent Marxist poet. This article will explore all the various alternatives, from literal to allegorical, and focus on rhyme, metre (meter in American English), syntax, allusion and language.
Suffice to say that, despite these alternative approaches, the poem has retained its reputation as a masterpiece of form and content, and elicits positive reaction wherever it is read.
John Keats wrote in a letter to a friend, Leigh Hunt: 'We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us...Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters one's soul.'
Keats would be happy to know that much of his poetry is still considered great art and affects even the post-modern mind (and soul). But the question has to be asked - Can a poem written by a leading poet be totally immune to the social, political and cultural environment it is born into at that time?
Certainly, Keats was aware of the social and political upheavals of his day, including the infamous massacre of working protestors at the Battle of Peterloo in Manchester in the summer of 1819. He did have radical leanings but tended not to express them in his poetry, unlike say, Shelley.
So, is 'To Autumn' simply about the season and nothing else?
'To Autumn' seems to have been written following a walk Keats took on Tuesday 21st September 1819, when living in Winchester. He wrote a letter to a friend, John Hamilton Reynolds:
'How beautiful the season is now - How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather - Dian skies - I never liked stubble-fields so much as now - Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm - in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it.'
Keats's composition, based on his observations and imaginative sensitivity, was inspired by an autumnal walk. This simple act produced a work of art that has enthralled and intrigued readers ever since.
Critics will make of it what they will but there is no mistaking the central themes contained within each stanza:
- The fecundity and natural bounty of the season.
- The cessation/culmination of that now managed process.
- The cyclical nature of time, change.
What is also clear is that the speaker visualises Autumn as a god or goddess of sorts. This divine spirit is a close bosom-friend of the sun, conspiring with him to load and bless; is sitting carelessly...drowsed...sound asleep...with patient look; is still full of music, of a different kind, despite the inevitable melancholic change.
'To Autumn' Line by Line Explanation
'To Autumn' is many things to many different people:
- A literal exploration of autumn
- An allegory of part of life's journey
- A metaphorical depiction of creative processes
- An illustration of political energies in the workplace
There is no doubt that personification is at work in this wonderfully balanced ode. From the first three lines, it is crystal clear that the sun, a male symbol associated with Apollo the Greek god, is conspiring with a partner, who is a close bosom friend, of the opposite sex.
This female could be Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture and natural fertility. They combine their energies to load, bless, bend, fill, swell, plump and set all the flora; harvest time has arrived and there is a bounty, secretly produced by these powerful spirits.
Note the sensuous language, the soft consonants enhancing - m, h and f - the contrasting short and long vowels reflecting the tension at work as the whole plant world comes to fruition.
The first stanza is one long sentence, taking in cosmic sun and microcosmic bee and cell, building into a heaped and humming climax, onomatopoeia filling the last line.
After all the hard work through the late summer months comes the question - a direct question based again on imaginative sensitivity - perhaps this female spirit, this goddess, near exhaustion, now relaxes, even sleeps? Stasis has been reached.
The speaker suggests that her hair is soft-lifted by winnowing wind, an alliterative, onomatopeiac line that conjures up whistling or the whinny of horses. This female spirit overlooks various aspects of the harvest now that the reaping, threshing and gleaning have finished - she takes her time as the apple juice ferments.
Note the languid, slow feel of the last line (22) with its slow, long vowels, almost an adagio.
The second and third questions appear, asking about the inspirational music of Spring. But that enlivening season and its song have gone, replaced by more sombre music.
Think not of them....is the speaker reassuring the female spirit that Autumn too has a valid role to play in the cycle of life. There is no turning back the clock. The language of lines 25 - 29 speaks for itself - soft-dying day, wailful, mourn, sinking, dies - things are coming to an end and the atmosphere is one almost of lament.
- The rhythms in line 29 enhance the feeling of the seasonal changes about to take place. Note the spondee and the pyrrhic alongside the iambic which alters the pace, reflects the gnats river dance and gives a lilt to the cadence.
This melancholic mid-section of the final stanza has to be acknowledged, but the ending is one of inevitable renewal and positive change. The hedge-cricket, the robin red-breast and the swallows are communicating, the latter about to journey south to find warmth and a new life.
Rhyme and Literary Devices Used
The poem is a modified ode, 33 lines split into 3 stanzas each eleven lines long. The poem as printed here is a true version of the form originally penned by Keats, with individual stanzas marked 1,2 and 3.
The rhyme scheme is common for the opening quatrain of each stanza but changes for the septet in the first stanza:
1. ababcdedcce .... all full rhyme eg sun/run (but note bees/cease)
2. ababcdecdde .... all full rhyme except find/wind (slant rhyme)
3. ababcdecdde .... all full rhyme
The full rhymes tend to strengthen sense, make things familiar and bring harmony, and throughout the ode this is true (find and wind in Stanza 2 is the only mild exception).
Internal slant rhymes and echoes reinforce the idea of a continuum:
mellow/close/load and mists/mossed.
oft/soft and seen/seeks/thee/half-reaped/gleaner.
clouds/loud and sallows/swallows.
There are several examples of alliteration, in lines:
10. they think
15. winnowing wind
Alliteration, though for the internal ear, adds texture and variety and interest for the reader.
What Is the Metre?
'To Autumn' has a basic iambic rhythm, that is, a da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM stress pattern, with the first syllable unstressed and the second stressed. For example, line 4:
With fruit / the vines / that round / the thatch- / eaves run;
So this is iambic and there are five feet - iambic pentameter. This is the most common metre in traditional English poetry.
- Keats however chose to mix things up a little. He used both spondee (DA-DUM) trochee (DA-dum) and pyrrhic (da-dum) in certain lines, to deviate from the steady plod of the iambic. Depending on the context, this change can bring altered pace and emphasis and also challenges the reader to work a little harder amongst the sounds.
The spondee occurs in lines 2, 16,18, 27, 29, 30, 31, 32:
- Close bos / om-friend / of the / matur / ing sun;
The trochee occurs in lines 1, 12, 13, 17, 18, 20, 23, 25
- Season / of mists / and mel / low fruit / fulness,
The pyrrhic occurs in lines 2, 5 and 29:
- Or sink / ing as / the light / wind lives / or dies;
Allusions and Meanings in the Poem
Line 2, maturing sun: causes plants to mature.
Line 4, thatch: covering of a roof made of straw or cut reed;
eaves: overhang of roof.
Line 5, mossed: covered with moss.
Line 7, gourd: family includes squash, pumpkins, and cucumbers;hazel: the hazel tree that produce edible hazelnuts.
Line 11, o'er: poetic form of over; thus the cells are overfilled.
cells: honey-filled cells or honeycomb in the beehive.
Line 1, store: an abundance, a great quantity; a storehouse or warehouse; thee: archaic, you, Autumn personified.
Line 3, granary: a storehouse for grain, often after it has been threshed.
Line 4, winnowing: to separate the chaff from the grain by fanning or by means of the wind; thy: archaic, your.
Line 5, furrow: a cut or trench made by a plough (plow in USA); poetic usage, a ploughed field.
Line 6, drowsed: made sleepy.
hook: a sickle or scythe, used to harvest grains and other crops.
poppy: poppies used to grow in fields of grain. Certain poppies are the source of opium.
Line 7, swath: the sweep of a scythe in mowing; the path cut in one sweep of a scythe.
twined: poetic form of entwined or twisted.
Line 8, gleaner: a person who gathers what the reapers have left in a field. Gleaning was made illegal shortly before Keats wrote the poem.
Line 10, cider-press: apparatus that squeezes apples to make cider.
Line 3, barred clouds: thin, horizontal clouds which resemble bars or strips.
Line 4, stubble: the dried stumps of wheat and other grains left after reaping.
Line 6, sallows: member of willow family.
borne aloft: carried high.
Line 7, bourn: domain or realm.
Line 8, croft: a small enclosed field.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP,2005
© 2017 Andrew Spacey