I’m really obsessed with Keats’s “To Autumn”; I think it’s a perfect and magical piece of writing, with effects that resonate and evolve for a lifetime. I got familiar with the poem in my first year of graduate school, when I took a memorable course called “Keats and Critique.” The course explored the premise–popular among the Victorians who installed him belatedly as a great English poet–that Keats was done in, in part, by his bad reviews. And it’s true that when they were bad, they were vicious.
When I reread this poem–or, as lately, recite it and write it out as outlets for its hold upon my ear and brain–I fend off impulses to thrust it upon innocent passers-by, pointing out its most bewitching features. I don’t so much have a reading of it as a set of things I notice in it, a collection that grows slowly over the years. Here are just a few of these amateur observations, truly off the top of my head; consider yourself one of those unsuspecting bystanders.
The first stanza describes an ample, apparently endless autumn bounty.
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-brimmed their clammy cells.
Throughout the poem there’s a (deceptive) sense that time is suspended. In this stanza, that’s accomplished in large measure by the repeated use of infinitive verbs: “to load and bless”; “to bend”; “[to] fill”: “to swell”; “[to] plump”; “to set.” The last line, explaining how the bees are fooled, links this sense of time drawn out to the abundance described throughout the stanza. Tees bent under the weight of fruit, the filling, swelling, plumping, budding, overbrimming of nature–all of this burgeoning–is mimicked in the poem’s language, where phrases spill over the bounds of their lines and a gratuitous second instance of “more” in line nine performs the word’s own meaning. The stanza is literally fruitful: “fruit” appears three times in its 11 lines, including an instance as something that fills (vines) and one as something that is filled (with ripeness).
The next stanza switches gears, presenting autumn as an allegorical figure.
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.
Again, time is on hold. The personified Autumn is an indolent creature, “sitting careless” in a workplace, “sound asleep” in the fields, watching the press rather than operating it. Even in the most industrious of the four attitudes described here, she is only like a gleaner. The work of her hook, in her previous guise, is to “spare”; it’s at rest. All of this is in contrast with the busy industry of the first stanza, though the sense of time stood still persists. Until that last line, that is, when a sense of ending finally sets in–in the “last oozings,” significant both for the adjective’s meaning and for the noun’s sound, and in the invocation of hours. There’s also the gently diminishing length of the four views of Autumn offered here: they fill three lines, three lines, two, and two. (Note, though, they stop short of approaching zero.)
The third and last stanza masterfully dissolves into sounds, capturing a last, momentary stasis before winter sets in.
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.
There are so many interesting things going on here. The use of “bloom” as a transitive verb; the singular, whistling red-breast set against the plural plains, gnats, sallows, lambs, crickets, swallows, and skies; the seemingly unnecessary designation of the gnats as “small.” Autumn’s music, it must be said, is a gentle, symphonic, glorious, consoling…dirge. “Soft-dying” describes not only the day but the season and the year as viewed through the prism of this poem, and by extension human life (it also provides a coda to the soft-lifting of stanza two). From its flirting with the notion of birth, through the use of the homophones “borne” and “bourn” (not to mention rhyming them with “mourn”), to the invocation of lambs on the threshold of adulthood and a wind that flits easily from death to life, it looks to the seasonal cycle for consolation for the life-cycle. It tries to touch mortality with rosy hue. It softens you up for the final blow, which takes place off the page–delivered, we imagine, softly.
P.S. By coincidence, Anecdotal Evidence also posts on Keats, death, and beauty today.