"To Autumn" is a poem written by Romantic poet John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821). The work was composed on 19 September 1819 and published in a volume of Keats's poetry that included "Lamia" and "The Eve of Saint Agnes" in 1820. "To Autumn" is the final work in a group of poems known as Keats's "1819 Odes." Although Keats had little time throughout 1819 to devote to poetry because of personal problems, he managed to compose "To Autumn" after he was inspired following a walk near Winchester one autumn evening. The work marks the end of his poetic career as he needed to earn money and could no longer devote himself to the lifestyle of a poet. A little over a year following the publication of "To Autumn," Keats died in Rome.
The poem has three stanzas, each of eleven lines, that describe the tastes, sights, and sounds of autumn. Much of the third stanza, however, is dedicated to diction, symbolism, and literary devices with negative connotations, as it describes the end of the day and the end of autumn. "To Autumn" includes an emphasis on images of motion, growth, and maturation. The work can be interpreted as a discussion of death, an expression of colonialist sentiment, or as a political response to the Peterloo Massacre. "To Autumn" has been regarded by critics as one of the most perfect short poems in the English literature, and it is one of the most anthologized English lyric poems.
During the spring of 1819, Keats wrote many of his major odes: "Ode on a Grecian Urn", "Ode on Indolence", "Ode on Melancholy", "Ode to a Nightingale", and "Ode to Psyche". After the month of May, he began to pursue other forms of poetry, including the verse tragedy Otho the Great in collaboration with friend and roommate Charles Brown, the second half of Lamia, and a return to his unfinished epic Hyperion . His efforts from spring until autumn were dedicated completely to a career in poetry; he switched between writing long and short poems, and his goal for each day was to compose more than fifty lines of verse. He devoted his free time to studying works such as Robert Burton 's Anatomy of Melancholy to further his own ideas.
Although Keats managed to write many poems in 1819, he was suffering from a multitude of financial troubles throughout the year. These troubles were compounded with his concerns over his brother, George, who, after emigrating to America, was badly in need of money. Keats was distracted by his and his brother's fiscal problems, but on 19 September 1819 he set aside time to write "To Autumn". The poem marks the final moment of his poetry career. He could no longer afford to devote his time to the composition of poems and began working on more lucrative projects. In addition to his monetary problems, Keats's declining health and personal responsibilities provided more obstacles to his poetic efforts.
On 19 September 1819, Keats walked near Winchester along the River Itchen. In a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds written on 21 September, Keats described the impression the scene had made upon him and its influence on the composition of "To Autumn": "How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it [...] I never lik'd stubble fields so much as now [...] Somehow a stubble plain 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." Not everything on Keats's mind at the time was bright; the poet knew in September that he would have to finally abandon Hyperion. Thus, in the letter that he wrote to Reynolds, Keats also included a note saying that he abandoned his long poem. Keats did not send "To Autumn" to Reynolds, but did include the poem within a letter to Richard Woodhouse, Keats's publisher and friend, and dated it on the same day.
The poem was revised and included in Keats's 1820 collection of poetry titled Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. Although the publishers Taylor and Hessey feared the kind of bad reviews that had plagued Keats's 1818 edition of Endymion , they were willing to publish the collection after the removal of any potentially controversial poems to ensure that there would be no politically motivated reviews that could give the volume a bad reputation.
Like many of Keats's 1819 odes, the structure of the poem is that of an odal hymn . While the earlier 1819 odes perfected techniques and allowed for variations that appear within "To Autumn", Keats dispenses with some aspects of the previous poems (such as the narrator ) and ensures that the poem deals only with concrete concepts. There is no dramatic movement in "To Autumn" as there is in the earlier poems, and the poem attempts to discuss the poetic process without a progression of the temporal scene, an idea that Keats termed as "stationing". Some of the language of the poem resembles phrases found in earlier poems Keats had written and there are similarities between the lines of "To Autumn" and lines in poems such as Endymion , Sleep and Poetry , and Calidore.
Keats relies heavily on monosyllabic words and consonantal sounds – especially bilabial consonants – along with an emphasis on long vowels to control the flow of the poem. His syntax lacks hiatus and there is only a single instance medial inversion of an accent within the poem. However, he does incorporate the Augustan inversion (a reversal of an accent at the beginning of a line) approximately 4.2% of the time. Within his measure, Keats incorporates spondees in approximately 13.9% of his verses. The rhyme follows a pattern of starting with a Shakespearean ABAB pattern which is followed by CDEDCCE rhyme scheme however in his second and third stanza it changes to CDECDDE. The verse differentiates itself from his previous odes through use of 11 line stanza s, instead of 10, with a couplet placed before the concluding line of each stanza.
Between the manuscript version and the published version of "To Autumn" Keats tightened the language of the poem. One of Keats's changes emphasized by critics is the change in line 17 of "Drows'd with red poppies" to "Drows'd with the fume of poppies", which emphasizes the sense of smell instead of sight. The later edition relies more on passive, past participles, as apparent in the change of "While a gold cloud" in line 25 to "While barred clouds". Other changes involve the strengthening of phrases, especially within the transformation of the phrase in line 13 "whoever seeks for thee may find" into "whoever seeks abroad may find". Many of the lines within the second stanza were completely rewritten, especially those which did not fit into a rhyme scheme. Some of the minor changes involved adding punctuation missing from the original manuscript copy and altering capitalization changes between the versions.
The first stanza of the poem describes natural processes, unlike the following which deal more with sensual observations, as it presents a harvest in its final stages. The Stanza provides a union of maturation and growth, two oppositional forces within the work, and this union instills an idea within nature that the season will not end:
- 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;
- 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. (lines 1-11)
The second stanza reverses the images of the first stanza and describes the process of harvesting. Autumn, a harvester, is not actually harvesting but exists in a stasis. Only near the end of the stanza is there movement:
- 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 cider-press, with patient look,
- Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours. (lines 12-22)
Within the final moments of the poem, there is an introduction of the harvest and Autumn is manifested in the role of a harvester. The end approaches within the final moments of the song and death is slowly approaching alongside of the end of the year. However, Autumn is replaced by an image of life in general, and the songs of autumn becomes a song about life in general:
- 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. (lines 23-33)
"To Autumn" is thematically connected to many of Keats's 1819 odes. For example, his "Ode to Melancholy" introduces the acceptance of the process of life, and the concept is taken up again within "To Autumn". There is a union between the ideal and the real which leads to fulfillment. Of all of Keats's poems, "To Autumn" most closely describes an actual paradise while focusing on the archetypal images that are connected with autumn. Within the poem, the season of autumn represents the growth, the maturation, and finally an approaching death. The poem also defends art's role in helping society in a manner similar to Keats's "Ode on Indolence" and "Ode to Psyche". "To Autumn" describes a system in which nature and culture are two separate parts of the universe, and nature is turned into culture by an artist. Civilization is furthered by man's ability to use nature for agricultural cultivation. The artist, like the farmer, has to process nature into a consumable object, which in turn allows people sustenance. The end of the poem is joined in song as nature gives way to civilization, which represents the self-sacrificing of both nature and the artist for society.
The three stanzas of "To Autumn" are able to suggest both a movement from summer to early winter and also day turning into dusk. This progression is joined with a shift from the sensation of touch to sight and then to sound, creating a three part symmetry which is missing in Keats's other odes. Although there is process and the suggestion of motion within the poem, there is a lack of action. Within the second stanza, autumn is described through metaphor as an exhausted labourer in lines 14–15. Near the end of the stanza, the steadiness of the gleaner in lines 19–20 emphasizes a motionlessness within the poem. The individuals are burdened or merely watch the events surrounding them. The poem as a whole creates within the imagination an image of death and a finality that is welcomed. There are no contrary ideas that are common within the other odes of 1819. Instead, "To Autumn" puts forth the idea that progression is no longer necessary as maturation has taken over, and growth and death are in harmony. Along with this harmony, the placing of the couplet before the end of each stanza creates a suspension of closing within the poem. This suspension within the poem reinforces the theme of continuation.
In a 1979 essay, Jerome McGann argued that while the poem was indirectly influenced by historical events, Keats had deliberately ignored the political landscape of 1819. Countering this view, Andrew Bennett, Nicholas Roe and others focused more on the political aspects of the poem, Roe arguing for a direct connection to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. Later, Paul Fry further argued against McGann's stance when he pointed out, "It scarcely seems pertinent to say that 'To Autumn' is therefore an evasion of social violence when it is so clearly an encounter with death itself [...] it is not a politically encoded escape from history reflecting the coerced betrayal [...] of its author's radicalism. McGann thinks to rescue Keats from the imputation of political naïveté by saying that he was a radical browbeaten into quietism". In regards to other political aspects, post-colonial critic Alan Bewell interpreted the themes of Keats's ode in the context of British imperialism. He claimed "To Autumn" promoted the moderate climate of Britain over tropical climates.
Critical and scholarly praise has been unanimous in declaring "To Autumn" one of the most perfect poems in the English language. A.C. Swinburne placed it with "Ode on a Grecian Urn" as "the nearest to absolute perfection" of Keats's odes; Aileen Ward declared it "Keats's most perfect and untroubled poem"; and Douglas Bush has stated the poem is "flawless in structure, texture, tone, and rhythm"; Walter Evert, in 1965, stated "To Autumn" is "the only perfect poem that Keats ever wrote – and if this should seem to take from him some measure of credit for his extraordinary enrichment of the English poetic tradition, I would quickly add that I am thinking of absolute perfection in whole poems, in which every part is wholly relevant to and consistent in effect with every other part."
Early reviews of "To Autumn" focused on it as part of Keats's collection of poems Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. An anonymous critic in the July 1820 Monthly Review claimed, "this writer is very rich both in imagination and fancy; and even a superabundance of the latter faculty is displayed in his lines 'On Autumn,' which bring the reality of nature more before our eyes than almost any description that we remember [...] If we did not fear that, you as is Mr K., his peculiarities are fixed beyond all the power of criticism to remove, we would exhort him to become somewhat less strikingly original,—to be less fond of the folly of too new or too old phrases,—and to believe that poetry does not consist in either the one or the other." Josiah Conder in the September 1820 Eclectic Review argued, "One naturally turns first to the shorter pieces, in order to taste the flavour of the poetry. The following ode to Autumn is no unfavourable specimen." The Edinburgh Magazine ran a review in 1820 which simply said, "The ode to 'Fancy,' and the ode to 'Autumn,' also have great merit.
Mid-19th century critics viewed the poem favorably. A review in the October 1859 National Review explained that there are "four exquisite odes,—'To a Nightingale,' 'To a Grecian Urn,' 'To Melancholy,' and 'To Autumn,'—all so pregnant with deep thought, so picturesque in their limning, and so suggestive." In 1865, Matthew Arnold used the poem as evidence that Keats was a better poet than Percy Bysshe Shelley . John Dennis, in an 1883 work about great poets, wrote that "the 'Ode to Autumn', ripe with the glory of the season it describes—must ever have a place among the most precious gems of lyrical poetry." The 1888 Britannica declared, "Of these [odes] perhaps the two nearest to absolute perfection, to the triumphant achievement and accomplishment of the very utmost beauty possible to human words, may be that of to Autumn and that on a Grecian Urn".
At the turn of the 20th century, a 1904 analysis of great poetry by Stephen Gwynn claimed, "above and before all [of Keats's poems are] the three odes, To a Nightingale, On a Grecian Urn, and To Autumn. Among these odes criticism can hardly choose; in each of them the whole magic of poetry seems to be contained." Sidney Colvin, in his 1920 biography, pointed out that "["To Autumn"] opens up no such far-reaching avenues to the mind and soul of the reader as the odes To a Grecian Urn, To a Nightingale, or On Melancholy, but in execution is more complete and faultless than any of them." Following this in a 1934 analysis of Romantic poetry, Margaret Sherwood stated that the poem was "a perfect expression of the phase of primitive feeling and dim thought in regard to earth processes when these are passing into a thought of personality."
Harold Bloom, in 1961, described "To Autumn" as "the most perfect shorter poem in the English language." Following this, Walter Jackson Bate, in 1963, claimed that "[...] each generation has found it one of the most nearly perfect poems in English." Later in 1973, Stuart Sperry wrote, "'To Autumn' succeeds through its acceptance of an order innate in our experience – the natural rhythm of the seasons. It is a poem that, without ever stating it, inevitably suggests the truth of 'ripeness is all' by developing, with a richness of profundity of implication, the simple perception that ripeness is fall." In 1981, William Walsh argued that "Among the major Odes [...] no one has questioned the place and supremacy of 'To Autumn', in which we see wholly realized, powerfully embodied in art, the complete maturity so earnestly laboured at in Keats's life, so persuasively argued about in his letters." Literary critic and academic Helen Vendler, in 1988, declared that "in the ode 'To Autumn,' Keats finds his most comprehensive and adequate symbol for the social value of art."
In 1997, Andrew Motion summarized the critical view on "To Autumn": "it has often been called Keats's 'most ... untroubled poem' [...] To register the full force of its achievement, its tensions have to be felt as potent and demanding." Following in 1998, M. H. Abrams explained, "'To Autumn' was the last work of artistic consequence that Keats completed [...] he achieved this celebratory poem, with its calm acquiescence to time, transience and mortality, at a time when he was possessed by a premonition [...] that he had himself less than two years to live". James Chandler, also in 1998, pointed out that "If To Autumn is his greatest piece of writing, as has so often been said, it is because in it he arguably set himself the most ambitious challenge of his brief career and managed to meet it." Timothy Corrigan, in 2000, claimed that "'To Autumn' may be, as other critics have pointed out, his greatest achievement in its ability [...] to redeem the English vernacular as the casual expression of everyday experience, becoming in this his most exterior poem even in all its bucolic charm." In 2008, Stanley Plumly wrote, "history, posterity, immortality are seeing 'Ode to a Nightingale,' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' and 'To Autumn' as three of the most anthologized lyric poems of tragic vision in English."
- Bate 1963 pp. 526–562
- Gittings 1968 pp. 269–270
- Motion 1999 p. 461
- Bate 1963 p. 580
- Keats 2008 p. 184
- Bate 1963 p. 585
- Evert 1965 pp. 296–297
- McGann 1979 pp. 988–989
- Bate 1963 p. 499
- Bate 1963 pp. 581–582
- Ridley 1933 pp. 283–285
- Bate 1962 pp. 182–184
- Bate 1962 p. 183
- Ridley 1933 pp. 285–287
- Bloom 1971 p. 432
- Bate 1963 p. 582
- Bate 1963 pp. 582–583
- Bate 1962 p. 522
- Bate 1963 pp. 581–583
- Vendler 1988 pp. 124–125
- Sperry 1973 p. 337
- Bloom 1968 pp. 95–97
- Wagner 1996 pp. 110–111
- McGann 1979 pp. 988–1032
- Strachan 2003 p. 175
- Fry 1995 pp. 123–124
- Bewell 2008 pp. 635–638
- Bennett 1991 qtd. p. 159
- Evert 1965 p. 298
- Matthews 1971 qtd. p. 162
- Matthews 1971 qtd. p. 233
- Matthews 1971 qtd. p. 215
- Matthews 1971 qtd. p. 356
- Arnold 1865 p. 109
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- Baynes 1888 p. 23
- Gwynn 1904 p. 378
- Colvin 1920 p. 422
- Sherwood 1934 p. 263
- Bloom 1993 p. 432
- Bate 1963 p. 581
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- Walsh 1981 p. 118
- Vendler 1988 p. 124
- Abrams pp. 51–52
- Chandler 1998 p. 430
- Corrigan 2000 p. 156
- Plumly 2008 p. 343
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