By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘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.
‘To Autumn’: context for the poem
‘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, while Keats was living in Winchester, Hampshire, in southern England.
It is worth bearing in mind that Keats’s poem is ‘To Autumn’, and it’s notable that he addresses the season directly in this poem, and personifies it. Look how in the second stanza, for instance, we find autumn sitting on a granary floor, asleep on the furrow of a field, resting its head against a brook, or watching the cider-press squeeze the last few drops of juice from the apples. This transforms the abstract entity that is the season of autumn into a living, breathing, sentient being.
‘To Autumn’: summary of poem
Let us summarise ‘To Autumn’ and the main thrust of Keats’s argument:
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;
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.
‘Close bosom-friend’ doesn’t just highlight the relationship between the season of autumn and the sun; the bosom-image summons the maternal and nurturing aspect of the season, which sees fruits coming to maturity as well as the sun, things ripe for the picking.
The bees think the summer heat will last forever because the ‘clammy cells’ of their hives have been filled to the full with honey from the nectar provided by summer flowers.
It’s almost too much: ‘swell’, ‘plump’, ‘more, / And still more’, and ‘o’er-brimmed’ all suggest plenty verging on excess, as if it’s all too much. Keats’s poetry is full of such images of excess, and here it’s as if autumn is threatening to burst out – not just ripe but over-ripe.
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…
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 word ‘winnowing’, especially when paired with ‘wind’ to create the pleasing alliteration (not to mention consonance and assonance), denotes the soft and natural way the wind separates wheat from chaff, leaving the best part of the wheat to be harvested by the farmer (we’re back to granaries here).
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.
The final stanza takes flight: Keats champions 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, and Keats refuses to yearn nostalgically for a return to springtime because autumn has arrived. No: revel in autumn and all it brings.
And the emphasis is on what flies and soars: the 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. We’ve left the earth behind are soaring in the skies – that being the last, flighty word of Keats’s poem – with the winged creatures of the season.
‘To Autumn’: analysis of poem
For the critic Christopher Ricks, in his study Keats and Embarrassment, ‘To Autumn’ is the finest of Keats’s odes because the poet recognises the ways in which physical sensation – and the poem is full of vividly described physical sensations – can be both delightful but also disgusting.
The latter quality is hinted at through Keats’s use of words like ‘clammy’ and ‘oozings’ to describe, respectively, the cells of the beehives and the produce from the cider-press; these could easily be distasteful, and they temper the poem’s exuberant celebration of autumnal life with a more grounded and realistic awareness of the less salubrious or pleasant aspects of the natural world.
The great modernist poet-thinker T. E. Hulme, who contrasted the romantic impulse (limitless, sentimental, idealistic) with the classical impulse (restrained, down-to-earth, realistic) actually lauded parts of Keats’s output as embodying the classical spirit. Despite his reputation as a great English Romantic poet whose work is half in love with exuberance and excess, Keats, for Hulme, is far more critical of unchecked romanticism than many earlier Romantics, such as William Wordsworth.
‘To Autumn’ is a fine example of this ambivalence and groundedness:
the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies
Here, even the ‘small gnats’, which are ‘borne aloft’, are alternatively ‘sinking as the light wind lives or dies’ – much as the wind lives or dies, the gnats may fly or sink. Nature encompasses both, and behind the laudatory tone of ‘To Autumn’ lurks a recognition that autumn is not only to be lauded, but should be reflected and described in a way that is true to its complexities and vagaries.
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?
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.