‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’: John Keats wrote many a memorable and arresting opening line in his short life, but his opening to his great poem ‘To Autumn’, one of his finest odes, is perhaps his most resonant of all. On one level a straightforward evocation of the season of autumn, ‘To Autumn’ (or ‘Ode to Autumn’ as it is sometimes known) is also a poem that subtly reflects the early nineteenth-century context in which it was written. Such contemporary allusions and references require closer analysis, but before we get to them, here is John Keats’s great autumnal poem.
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,
Drowsed 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 cider-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 redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
‘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.’ So Keats wrote in a letter of September 1819, hinting at the origins of ‘To Autumn’ and the circumstances of its composition.
Images of abundance abound in the first stanza of ‘To Autumn’: ripeness, swell, plump, budding. This opening stanza, in summary, underscores the idea that autumn is indeed a season of ‘mellow fruitfulness’, a time of year when the natural world swells pregnantly with life. From this, in that middle stanza, we move inside the granary store, where the harvest has been gathered and stored up for winter. Here, images of abundance have given way to soporific symbols of tranquillity and dreaminess: ‘Drowsed with the fume of poppies’ has the suggestion of opium dreams about it, while ‘oozings’ – a decidedly Keatsian word – is joined with ‘hours by hours’ to impart the languid passing of time into nothingness. The final stanza takes flight, with its championing of autumn as a fit topic for poetry (spring is obvious, and is well covered by poets; but autumn has been underappreciated as a subject for good verse), its image of the insects ‘mourning’ and the other attention to sounds: the robin whistling, and that final image of the swallows twittering in the skies, getting ready to fly south for the winter.
Probably the most famous poem about the autumn season in all of English literature, Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ is also one of the finest autumn poems in the language. But one of the things which make it so great is its simultaneous existence as at once a timeless and a historical poem: a poem about history and a poem that seeks, in Andrew Motion’s words from his biography of Keats, to escape history. To consider just a couple of examples: the word ‘gleaner’ (‘And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep…’) would have had a more urgent resonance in 1819 when Keats wrote the poem, since gleaning (gathering up leftover grain after the harvest) had been made illegal in Britain the year before. And the word ‘conspiring’ in that third line (‘Conspiring with him how to load and bless…’) might be a nod to the radical British politician Henry Hunt (1773-1835), who was involved in the political protests that turned into the Peterloo massacre in August 1819 – a bloody event, in which 15 people were killed and hundreds injured, which occurred just one month before Keats wrote ‘To Autumn’. Kelvin Everest has suggested that the reaper’s pointed hook in ‘To Autumn’ may be an oblique reference to the cartoon images of the cavalry charging the protesters at the Peterloo massacre, with their swords being transmuted into the hook in Keats’s poem. Can an analysis of Keats’s poem afford to discount these historical resonances?