The Striking Beauty of Autumn
This poem was written by Keats in September, 1819. He was greatly struck by the beauty of the season. The air was fine, and there was a temperate sharpness about it. The weather seemed “chaste”. The stubble-fields looked better than they did in spring. Keats was so impressed by the beauty of the weather that he recorded his mood in the form of this ode.
One of Keats’s Finest Poems
The Ode to Autumn ranks among the finest poems of Keats. The treatment of the subject is perfectly objective or impersonal. The poet keeps himself completely out of the picture. He only describes certain sights and sounds without expressing his personal reaction to these sights and sounds. The poem is a perfect Nature-lyric. No human sentiment finds expression; only the beauty and bounty of Nature during autumn are described.
An Autobiographical Element in the Poem
Sometimes this ode is taken as having an autobiographical quality: it is possible to connect its serenity with the way of Keats’s own life. However, it is almost certain that he simply tried to catch the spirit of an autumn afternoon.
2. CRITICAL SUMMARY
The Progress of Thought and Feeling in the Poem
Here is a poem in which a season has been personified and made to live. In the first stanza, the poet describes the fruits of autumn, the fruits coming to maturity in readiness for harvesting. In the second stanza, autumn is personified as a woman present at the various operations of the harvest and at cider-pressing. In the last stanza, the end of the year is associated with sunset; the songs of spring are over and night is falling, but there is no feeling of sadness because autumn has its own songs. The close of the ode, though solemn, breathes the spirit of hope.
The Fruits of Autumn
Autumn is a season of ripe fruitfulness. It is the time of the ripening of grapes, apples, gourds, hazelnuts, etc. It is also the time when the bees suck the sweetness from “later flowers” and n\ake honey. Thus autumn is pictured in the stanza as bringing all the fruits of earth to maturity in readiness for harvesting.
The Occupations of Autumn
In the second stanza, autumn is seen in the person of a reaper, a winnower, a gleaner, and a cider-presser. Reaping, winnowing, gleaning and cider-pressing are all operations connected with the harvest and are, therefore, carried on during autumn. Autumn is depicted firstly as a harvester sitting carelessly in the field during a winnowing operation; secondly, as a tired reaper fallen asleep in the very midst of reaping; thirdly, as a gleaner walking homewards with a load on the head; and fourthly, as a cider-presser watching intently the apple-juice flowing out of the cider-press.
The Songs of Autumn
Autumn is not altogether devoid of music. If spring has its songs, autumn too has its sounds and songs. In the evening, when the crimson light of the setting sun falls upon the stubble-fields, a chorus of natural sounds is heard. The gnats utter their mournful sounds; the full-grown lambs bleat loudly; the hedge-crickets chirp; the robin’s high and delicate notes are heard; and the swallows twitter in the sky. In this last stanza the close of the year is associated with sunset and night-fall.
3. CRITICAL APPRECIATION
Its Faultless Construction
This is the most faultless of Keats’s odes in point of construction. The first stanza gives us the bounty of Autumn, the second describes the occupations of the season, and the last dwells upon its sounds. Indeed, the poem is a complete and concrete picture of Autumn, “the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”.
The bounty of Autumn has been described with all its sensuous appeal. The vines suggesting grapes, the apples, the gourds, the hazels with their sweet kernel, the bees suggesting honey—all these appeal to our senses of taste and smell. The whole landscape is made to appear fresh and scented. There is great concentration in each line of the first stanza. Each line is like the branch of a fruit-tree laden with fruit to the breaking-point.
Its Vivid Imagery
The second stanza contains some of the most vivid pictures in English poetry. Keats’s pictorial quality is here seen at its best. Autumn is personified and presented to us in the figure of the winnower, “sitting careless on a granary floor”, the reaper “on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep”, the gleaner keeping “steady thy laden head across a brook”, and a spectator watching with patient look a cider-press and the last oozings therefrom. The reaper, the winnower, the gleaner, and the cider-presser symbolise Autumn. These pictures make the poem human and universal because the eternal labours of man are brought before the eyes of the reader.
The Poet’s Keen Observation of Nature
The third stanza is a collection of the varied sounds of Autumn—the choir of gnats, the bleating of lambs, the singing of crickets, the whistling of red-breasts, and the twittering of swallows. Keats’s interest in small and homely creatures is fully evidenced in these lines. The whole poem demonstrates Keats’s interest in Nature and his keen and minute observation of natural sights and sounds. Keats’s responsiveness and sensitivity to natural phenomena is one of the striking qualities of his poetry.
Its Objectivity and its Greek Character
The poem is characterised by complete objectivity. The poet keeps himself absolutely out of the picture. Nor docs he express any emotion whether of joy or melancholy. He gives the objects of feeling, not the feeling itself. The poem is written in a calm and serene mood. There is no discontent, no anguish, no bitterness of any kind. There is no philosophy in the poem, no allegory, no inner meaning. We are just brought face to face with “Nature in all her richness of tint and form”. The poem breathes the spirit of Greek poetry. In fact, it is one of the most Greek compositions by Keats. There is the Greek touch in the personification of Autumn and there is the Greek note in the poet’s impersonal manner of dwelling upon Nature.
Felicity of Diction
We have here the usual felicity of diction for which Keats is famous. Phrases like “mellow fruitfulness”, “maturing sun”, “hair soft-lifted”, “barred clouds” which “bloom the soft-dying day”, “hilly bourn” are examples of Keats’s happy coinages. Nor is poetic artifice wanting to add beauty to the verse. The alliteration in the following lines is, for instance, noteworthy:
To smell 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.
Several words here contain the same “z” sound—hazel, shells, flowers, bees, days, cease, cells. The abundance of “m” sound in these lines is also noteworthy: plump, more, warm, summer, brimni’d clammy.
The rhyme-scheme in this ode is the same (except for a little variation) in all the stanzas each of which consists of 11 lines. Thus it is a “regular” ode.
A Critic’s Comment
“Most satisfying of all the Odes, in thought and expression, is the Ode To Autumn. Most satisfying because, for all the splendour of diction in the others, there are times when the poetic fire dwindles for a moment, whereas in this ode, from its inception to its close, matter and manner are not only superbly blended, but every line carries its noble freight of beauty. The first stanza is a symphony of colour, the second a symphony of movement, the third a symphony of sound. The artist shapes the first and last, and in the midst the man, the thinker, gives us its human significance. Thus is the poem perfected, its sensuous imagery enveloping as it were its vital idea.” (A. Compton-Rickett)
David Perkins on the Ode to Autumn
A Significant Ode
David Perkins, quoting another critic, says that this ode is regarded as “a very nearly perfect piece of style” but that it has “little to say”. However, says David Perkins, this ode is very “significant”. Even more than Keats’s other odes, To Autumn, is “objective, oblique and impersonal, carried scarcely at all by direct statement that involves the poet”. Its expression, like that of the Grecian Urn or the Nightingale, is concrete and symbolic, and as in these other odes, the symbol adopted has been previously established in Keats’s poetry. Keats’s view of the seasons is on the whole rather conventional: spring is the time of budding, summer of fulfilment, and winter of death. Autumn coming between summer and winter, can be seen as the intensifying and prolonging of summer. In other words, autumn suggests precisely that lengthening-out of fulfilment as its crest or climax which Keats had desired to find in the concrete world. So the poet, turning to the concrete, contemplate it with serenity.
The Imagery in the First Stanza
Autumn, accordingly, is described as a season of “mellow fruitfulness”. The sun is ripening or “maturing” the earth, “conspiring” to load the vines and bend the apple trees, “to swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells”. The season fills “all fruit with ripeness to the core”; and these images of full, inward ripeness and strain suggest that the maturing can go no further, that the fulfilment has reached its climax. Even the cells of the bees are over-brimmed. Yet the ripening continues, “budding more, and still more, later flowers”. The bees “think warm days will never cease”. Thus through the imagery the poem suggests a prolonging of fulfilment. At the same time, however, there are indirect images of ageing. For the sun is maturing—it is not only ripening the things, but is also growing older. So also autumn itself, the “close-bosom friend” of the sun.
The Imagery in the Second Stanza
The second stanza picks up and continues imagery of arrested motion in the first. Autumn is here personified in a variety of attitudes; but the dominant image is of autumn as the harvester—and a harvester that is in a sense another reaper, death itself. Instead of harvesting, however, autumn is motionless, death being momentarily held off as the ripening still continues. First autumn appears “sitting careless on a granary floor”. The granary is where the harvest would be stored, but autumn is not bringing in the grain. The assonance and alliteration of the line, “Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind”, leads into the image of autumn feeling drowsy or sleepy on a half-reaped furrow—again the harvest arrested. Finally autumn is seen near a cider-press where it watches “the last oozings hours by hours”. This is one of the two images suggesting activity, the other being the gleaner with laden head crossing a brook; but the motion is so slow that the reader takes the cider-press almost as a repetition of the half-reaped furrow. But, of course, these are the last, oozings, and the harvest is drawing to a close. The notion of death is present but it will emerge more emphatically in the third stanza.
The Imagery in the Last Stanza; the Mood and the Thought of the Poem
Things reveal their essential identity most intensely at the moment if dying or readiness to die. So the last stanza begins with the one comment the poet offers in his own person. “Where are the songs of Spring?” but there is no rebellion in the answer: “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too”. There follows an image of the day, which, like autumn, is about to end, and the death is accompanied by a fulfilment; for as it dies the day blooms all flowers (“While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day”). The stanza proceeds with images of death or withdrawal, and of song, and the songs are a funeral dirge for the dying year. At the same time, there is a tone of tenderness in the stanza; and the objectivity of the last few lines suggests an acceptance which includes even the fact of death. Death is here recognised as something inherent in the course of things, the condition and price of all fulfilment, having like the spring and summer of life its own distinctive character or “music” which is also to be prized and relished. In the last analysis, perhaps, the serenity and acceptance here expressed are aesthetic. The ode is, after all, a poem of contemplation. The symbol of autumn compels that attitude. The poet’s own fears, ambitions and passions are not directly engaged, and hence he can be relatively withdrawn. The poet seems to suggest that life in all its stages has a certain identity and beauty which man can appreciate by disengaging his own ego. “Thus the symbol permits, and the poem as a whole expresses, an emotional reconciliation to the human experience of process.”
Robin Mayhead on the Ode to Autumn
An Acceptance of Impermanence
Superficially altogether different from the Ode On Melancholy, To Autumn, is deeply related to that poem. The Melancholy ode accepts the impermanence of beauty and joy as inevitable. In the Ode To Autumn, impermanence is again accepted, and accepted without the least trace of sadness because Keats is able to see it as part of a larger and richer permanence.
The Continuity of Life
This greater permanence is the continuity of life itself, in which the impermanence of the individual human existence is one tiny aspect of a vast and deathless pattern. The rotation of the seasons offers a symbol of this continuity that is immediately satisfying. When Keats, in the last stanza, refers to the “music” of autumn, he is obviously pointing out the futility of regretting that spring has gone by. What is past is past. After all, autumn has its own characteristic sounds, which are as much part of the year as the songs of spring. Moreover, although autumn will be followed by the cold and barrenness of winter, winter will in turn give way to a fresh spring. Life goes on. The individual year may be drawing to a close, but there will be a new year to take its place. This is indirectly conveyed with wonderful effect in the concluding line of the ode: “And gathering swallows twitter in the skies”. In one way the line gives a hint of the coming winter, for the swallows are gathering to migrate to warmer climates. Yet we remember that migratory birds return when the cold weather ends, so that the very hint of their 1’orihcoming departure carries with it a suggestion of their re-appearance when warm days come again.
The Structure of the Poem
The handling of verse-structure is here wonderfully resourceful. The use of the run-on line in the first stanza, for instance, is noteworthy. If “swell” and “plump” give the outward signs of fat richness, the stress on “sweet kernel”, inevitable after the pause at the end of the previous line, vividly makes us think of the lusciousness within. And the imagined sweetness leads to even greater sweetness of the honey made by the bees. The loaded abundance is suggested by the heavy movement in the last line which describes the over-brimming of their cells. There is so much oozing sweetness here that the honey-combs are insufficient to hold it all.
As F.R. Leavis has shown (in Revaluation), Keats employs verse-structure in the last four lines of the second stanza to enact the very movement of the gleaner. Keats is here able to suggest the prudent hesitation of the man (or woman) carefully balancing his load before he crosses the brook. Again, the extreme slowness with which the drops of cider issue from the press is suggested by the line: “Thou watchest the last oozings, hour by hour.”
No Resentment or Horror About the Fact of Death
There are various hints of death in the final stanza, but the idea of death is not treated with horror or resentment. The day is dying softly, the rosy “bloom” of sunset taking away from the stark bareness of the now fully-reaped corn-fields. And, in any case, the very reference to the close of the day, like the final line about the swallows, carries with it a suggestion of its opposite. Just as the swallows will come back next year, so another day will down, for the great movement of life goes on, however short the existence of the individual.
Walter Jackson Bate on the Ode to Autumn
One of the Most Nearly Perfect Poems
To Autumn is one of the most nearly perfect poems in English. The different parts of the poem contribute directly to the whole, with nothing left dangling or independent. The Ode to a Nightingale is a less “perfect” though a greater poem.
The Complete Objectivity of the Poem
The poet himself is completely absent from the poem; there is not “I”, no suggestion of the discursive language that we find in the other odes; the poem is entirely concrete, and self-sufficient in and through its concreteness. There is also a successful union of the ideal (that is, of the heart’s desire) and reality. What the heart really wants is being found (in the first stanza, fullness and completion; in the second, a prolonging of that fulfilment): Here at last is something of a genuine paradise, therefore. It even has its deity—a benevolent deity that wants not only to “load and bless”, but also to “spare”, to prolong, to “set budding more”. And yet all this is put with concrete exactness and fidelity.
The Dominant Aspects of Autumn
Each of the three stanzas concentrates on a dominant aspect of autumn. The theme of the first is ripeness, of growth now reaching its climax. Yet growth is still surprisingly going on. The second stanza depicts stillness, for now autumn is conceived as a reaper or harvester, but a harvester who is not harvesting. Movement begins only in the latter part of the stanza. Even then it is suggested only in the momentary glimpse of the gleaner crossing a brook; and autumn then stops again to watch the slow pressing of the apples into cider as the hours pass. There is a hint that the end is approaching: these are the “last oozings”.
A Shift in the Final Stanza
In the final stanza, the personified figure of autumn is replaced by concrete images of life, and of life unafflicted by any thought of death: the gnats, the hedge-crickets, the redbreasts. Moreover, it is life that can exist in much the same way at other limes than autumn. Only two images are peculiar to the season—the “stubble-plains” and the “full-grown lambs”. The mind is free to associate the wailful mourning of the gnats with a funeral dirge for the dying year, but the sound is no more confined to autumn alone than is the “soft-dying” of any day; and if the swallows are gathering, they are not necessarily gathering for migration.