John Keats' "To Autumn"

Updated on April 15, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Keats

Source

Introduction and Text of "To Autumn"

John Keats' speaker in "To Autumn" is celebrating the unique qualities of beauty along with melancholy that permeate the fall season. The poem plays out in three stanzas. Each well-crafted stanza contains eleven rimed lines. The rime-scheme of the first stanza is ABABCDEDCCE. The rime-scheme of the second stanza as well as the third stanza is ABABCDECDDE.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
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;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Reading of "To Autumn"

Commentary

Beauty tinged with melancholy offers an enticing subject in the season of autumn.

First Stanza: Drama of Summary

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;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

In the first stanza, the speaker is overheard dramatizing a summary that describes the autumn season along with what may often occur during that colorful time of year: "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run." The speaker allows the season of autumn to "conspir[e]" with the sun in order to create the luscious grapes and other fruits that will be harvested soon.

The season works with the sun to motivate the trees to "bend with apples," and to "fill all fruit with ripeness to the core," and "To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells." The marvelous season encourages the flower-power of the plants "for the bees," and the bees "think warm days will never cease."

Second Stanza: Directly Addressing the Fertile Season

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

In the second stanza, the speakers then shifts his concern from merely describing to directly addressing the fecund season, as he speaks to autumn as if it were a human being: "Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find / Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, / Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind."

Autumn has now been transformed into a woman, whose "soft-hair" is being blown about pleasantly on a gentle wind. The fascinatingly personified autumn may also be located in the fields that are drowsing "with the fume of poppies."

At other times, this autumn personified may be seen as "a gleaner thou dost keep / Steady thy laden head across a brook." Autumn may also be found "by a cyder-press" as it watches the tasty cider being pressed from the apples that had been seen bending the trees.

Third Stanza: The Season as Friend

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

The third stanza now finds the speaker shifting his gaze once again: he continues to speak to autumn as if the season were a human being, a friend even. However, the speaker now is making a single-sided comparison of autumn with spring. He queries the season with intensity: "Where are the songs of Spring?" And then he repeats his inquiry: "Ay, where are they?"

The repetition encourages his listeners and readers to sense that the speaker is, in fact, in the process of complaining about the loss of the song of spring, but then he warns the personified autumn not to be bothered about that lack of songs, because autumn possesses a music of its own: "Think not of them, thou hast thy music too." The speaker then renders a catalogue of the sounds which throng the season of ripe autumn.

As a setting for those sounds of autumn, the speaker creates a marvelous image: "While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day / And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue." The reader or listener can then intuitively hear the music of a "wailful choir" of small gnats "mourn[ing]," "river-swallows, borne aloft," "the light wind lives or dies."

Readers and listeners can also listen to, "full-grown lambs" bleating, "[h]edge crickets" singing, "with treble soft / The redbreast whistles," and "gathering swallows twitter in the skies." Keats' marvelous images have provided his audience with more than enough beauty through melancholy to make the fall season a favorite, making that season compete with spring and summer while giving winter a definite run for its money.

Life Sketch of John Keats

John Keats' name is one of the most recognizable in the world of letters. As one the most accomplished and widely anthologized poets of the British Romantic Movement, the poet remains a marvel, having died at the early age of 25 and leaving a relatively scant body of work. That his reputation has grown more stellar through the centuries attests to the high value placed on his poetry. Readers have come to recognize that Keats works are always enjoyable, insightful, and pleasantly entertaining.

Early Years

John Keats was born in London, October 31, 1795. Keats' father was a livery-stable owner. His parents both died while Keats was still a child, his father when Keats was eight years old, and his mother when he was only fourteen. Two

London merchants took up the responsibility of raising the young Keats, after being assigned to the task by Keats' maternal grandmother. Thus Richard Abbey and John Rowland Sandell became the boy's principal guardians.

Abbey was a wealthy merchant dealing in tea and took on the main responsibility for Keats' rearing, while Sandell's presence was fairly minor. Keats attended the Clarke School at Enfield until he was fifteen years old. Then guardian Abbey ended the boy's attendance at that school so that Abbey could enroll Keats in medical study to become a licensed apothecary. Keats, however, decided to forgo that profession in favor of writing poetry.

First Publications

Lucky for Keats, he became acquainted with Leigh Hunt, an editor of influence at the Examiner. Hunt published Keats' two most widely anthologized sonnets, "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer" and "O Solitude." As Keats' mentor, Hunt also became the medium through which the Romantic poet gained acquaintance with the two most important literary figures of that period, William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Through the influence of that literary royalty, Keats was able to publish his first collection of poems in 1817, at the young age of 22.

Shelley recommended to Keats, likely because his young age, that the young poet should hold off on publishing until after he had amassed a more sizable collection of works. But Keats did not take that advice, perhaps out of the very fear that he would not live long enough to amass such a collection. He seemed sense that his life would be short.

Facing the Critics

Keats then published his 4000-line poem, Endymion, only a year after his first poems at been brought out. It appeared the Shelley's advice has been spot on when critics from the two most influential literary magazines of the period, The Quarterly Review and Blackwood’s Magazine, immediately attacked the young poet's herculean effort. Although Shelley agreed with the critics, he felt obliged to make it known that Keats was a talented poet despite that work. Shelley likely went too far and blamed Keats' worsening health issues of the critical attacks.

In the summer of 1818, Keats engaged in a walking tour in the north of England and into Scotland. His brother Tom was suffering from tuberculosis, so Keats retuned home to care for his ailing sibling. It was around his time that Keats met Fanny Brawne. The two fell in love, and the romance influenced some of Keats' best poems from 1818 to 1819. Also during this time, he was composing his piece titled "Hyperion," which is a Milton influenced Greek creation story. After his brother died, Keats ceased working on this creation myth. Later the next year, he took up the piece again, revising it as "The Fall of Hyperion." The piece remained unpublished until 1856, some 35 years after the poet's death.

One of Most Famous British Romantics

Keats published a further collection of poem in 1820, titled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. In addition to the three poems that make up the title of the collection, this volume includes his incomplete "Hyperion," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode to a Nightingale," three of his most widely anthologized poems. This collection received great praise from such literary giants as Charles Lamb, and others, in addition to Hunt and Shelley—all wrote enthusiastic reviews of the collection. Even the incompleted "Hyperion" was eagerly accepted as one of the finest poetic achievements of British poetry.

Keats was now very ill with tuberculosis in its advanced stages. He and Fanny Brawne had continued to correspond, but because of Keats' ill health as well as the considerable time it took for him to engage his poetic muse, the two has long considered marriage an impossibility. Keats physician recommended that the poet seek a warm climate to alleviate suffering from his lung disease, so Keats relocated from cold, wet London to the warmth of Rome, Italy. The painter, Joseph Severn accompanied Keats to Rome.

Keats is one of the most famous names in the British Romantic Movement, along with, William Blake, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Felicia Dorothea Hemans, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charlotte Turner Smith, and William Wordsworth, despite Keats' dying at the young age of 25 years. The young poet succumbed to tuberculosis, the disease that had plagued him for several years, in Rome on February 23, 1821. He is buried in Campo Cestio, or the Protestant Cemetery or the Cemetery for Non-Catholic Foreigners.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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