“To Autumn”: Keats’ Perfect Poem

Keats’ “To Autumn” ranks as the single most anthologized English poem; anthologists, it appears, consider it indispensible to understanding what poetry is.[i] To be sure, there are many kinds of poetry. Narrative poetry tells a story, often heroic, celebrating exalted characters and their deeds and fortunes. Dramatic poetry – from staged plays to drama for reading only –shows a world in action and conflict. In contrast, lyric poetry imitates a personal, inward-turning voice and welcomes us to participate in the poet’s joy or anguish. Lyric encourages us to treasure our feelings. Most popular music belongs to this genre of intense, personal expression. Keats wrote wonderful lyric poems, as did his Romantic contemporaries, and excelled also at philosophical poetry in a lyric mode, at complex meditations exploring questions of beauty and thought, art and mortality, and our senses and passions. But “To Autumn” is a purer kind of lyric poetry in which the figure of the poet and his anguish and turbulence vanish; and thinking relaxes its strenuous efforts to fix ideas in place forever. Keats’ poem is exceptional in its impersonality; it is a perfect poem, in that all considerations other than a pure apprehension of beauty are laid aside, as Wordsworth proposed in “Tintern Abbey,” to allow us to see what we only half notice and to achieve inner peace in a rarified state of being.[ii]

Reading poetry creates anxiety for most people.  Faced with intractable and often mysterious symbolic expression, readers reach for something solid outside the poem to fix its meaning. Perhaps some social issue and the debate around it (from the poet’s time or from our own) can provide a peg upon which to hang its meaning. Perhaps a lexicon of symbols can assure us what a particular color or object reliably means in the realm of poetry. Commentators on Keats have turned to his letters and particularly to his comments on “negative capability” to establish some firm footing. Famously, Keats wrote:

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason … This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” [iii]

If we are looking for solid ground, however, this celebrated passage suggests more than defines. Far from providing a simplified key, Keats recommends leaving behind features we normally depend upon to ascertain a poem’s meaning. Instead of settling questions, his remark introduces new uncertainties. In rejecting “any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” Keats proposes that a poem should have no case to prove, no arguments, no examples of things to support an argument, no working of analogies, no final resting point, and no presence of a person, and especially the figure of the palpitating, Romantic poet. Keats offers us an astringent recipe, demanding discipline and patience from the reader. Beauty requires that the poet and whatever philosophical agenda he would wish to propose must stand out of the way.

The search to pin down a conclusive definition of “negative capability” leads critics to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” where we encounter the poet’s manifesto–like comment that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all /Ye know on earth and all ye need know.” The problem, however, is that this Ode, unlike “To Autumn,” is full of thinking, driving us towards its tendentious conclusion, a conclusion reached by complex analogies, and a good deal of  “reaching after fact and reason.”  The poem is of two minds: a few glimpsed ravishing moments, embedded in a meditation on the nature of beauty. We do not encounter beauty as such in this meditation; we encounter instead Keats’ thoughts about the nature and value of beauty, quite a different thing. His gorgeous examples serve as evidence to support his claims. “Ode to a Nightingale” comes closer to experience.  However, here the figure of the poet is front and center, the main actor in the piece, and continually emerges from one experience after another to think about it. While this Ode reaches no conclusion, it is all about thinking, a series of urgent questions motivating an inner-debate. At the center stands the suffering poet, a figure around whom all these thoughts so passionately revolve. It is a noisy poem, with the clatter of meaning urging us forward towards a resting point which the anguished poet cannot reach.

These remarkable odes recall a family of Romantic meditations: Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode,” and Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” most particularly. Like Keats’ own masterpieces in this vein, these poems revolve around the pathos of the poet as a central figure, struggling to come to some conclusions about our nature and the way we experience ourselves and the mysterious world around us. Tracking “the burden of the mystery,” these poems hover uncomfortably at the boundary between two worlds. The hunger for rapturous escape leads back to thought and reflection and to “irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Wordsworth’s sonnet “The World is too much with us” provides an Illuminating companion piece to “To Autumn.”   In Wordsworth’s poem, a tormented speaker voices his anguish at being unable to experience the force of nature through the darkening veil of modern consciousness. Anxieties about time and money and progress have frozen his heart and “laid waste” his imagination. Engaging a series of metaphors, the speaker attempts to reawaken a primitive mind, stripped clean of European culture and modernity. He can think about what it would mean to possess a different kind of mind, and to do so the speaker tries to excite the music in him that might correspond to the forces that move the waves.  However, these mythic beings – Proteus and Triton — remain only approximately there for him, glimpsed through the intricate network of metaphor and analogy and the music of his verse: “So might I standing on this pleasant lea,/ Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; / Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea. / Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.” The rise and fall of the vowels in the next to last line approximates the waves, bringing into the speaker the force of nature; and the final line mimics – especially the word “wreathed” — the sonorous power of the sea, likely the original source of the mythic figure of Triton with his conch. Wordsworth’s speaker, however, despite having taken in the sound and movement of the sea, cannot escape his own self-consciousness as he attempts to think his way back into direct relation with nature. His turn to primitive imagining is antiquarian, adorning the scene directly before him with derivative, antique gods. The urgency of the speaker’s need and the busyness of his thinking blocks his way; the disease of consciousness is already too much with him to permit more than a few glimpses of the original and uncontaminated feeling he desires so frantically.

But what would a poem be that had escaped this trajectory of thought orbiting the self? What would a poem be that had achieved not a discussion of negative capability but the thing itself – a poem without ideas, without the imperative of argument, without the central figure of the thinking and suffering poet? That poem would be “To Autumn.” [iv]

“To Autumn” is an adventure in language and its power to evoke feeling, reaching beyond reasoning to accentuate sensuous qualities – tone, rhythm, and the kinesthetic horizon of sound-sense. Keats’ poem explores the extent to which language can be both music and dance and also invite the speaker/reader to imitate the vital forces of nature. More than holding the mirror up to nature, “To Autumn” asks the reader to be it rather than simply to see it. Here he follows closely the desire of the speaker of Wordsworth’s sonnet who wishes to regain the primitive mind and the radiance of the chthonic gods. However, Keats by-passes his argument in order to accomplish what Wordsworth’s speaker only thinks about.

Stanza One

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.

Keats’ ode is made up of three stanzas, each, at eleven lines, equivalent to a short sonnet. The rhyme scheme, like so much else in the poem, is relaxed, and unobtrusive. The play of iambic pentameter avoids rigorous rhythmic insistence, allowing trochaic intrusions and an occasional anapest. The lines move so slowly, with so many monosyllables, languid caesural pauses and rich assonantal effects that it is easy to lose sight of any structure. A quick accounting would assure us that we have eleven lines of iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme ababcdedcce. However, this mechanical exterior description misses the drama of the inner structuring of Keats’ ode.

Considering the outer framework of the poem, we notice that each stanza enacts its own moment in the autumnal drama. The first stanza belongs to late summer and the frantic growth to completion: fruit that ripens on the vine, apples on the trees, nuts swelling inside their shells, and “later flowers” yielding nectar for the frantic bees that store their honey in cells “o’er brimm’d” with sweetness. The second stanza belongs to early autumn and the activities of gathering the harvest. Workers thresh the grain, separating wheat from chaff, gleaners cut swathes of grain, and the cider-press collects the last “oozing” of the apples. Only in stanza three are we in the depth of autumn, with the field, now a “stubble plain,” as the wet, fruitful force of late summer gives way to desiccation and more gentle poise beyond the busyness of growth and gathering, as nature’s gentle choirs beckon the spirit in a new language only this poem knows.

Stanza one begins in a mist; autumn is a “close bosom-friend” (one of several compounded notions that extend our normal categories of understanding – what is a “bosom-friend” as opposed to other kinds? What are “cottage-trees”?). The relation of sun and season is jocular, replacing the fierce contests of sky and earth of classical mythologies. These mischievous, god-like personages, playfully conspire in plying their magical force of growth. The weight of the fruit taunts the vines that would prefer their accustomed light freedom. Pregnant and weighted with growth, the vines submit reluctantly to this friendly imposition. Those “cottage-trees” also would prefer to be more lightly freighted, to be “moss’d” rather than bent down with the weight of apples. The imposition by these playful gods embarrasses everywhere.  They “swell the gourd” and “plump the hazel shells” in intimate frenzy, working inwardly filling the enclosure of these reluctant cases with sweetness. The same riot of growth assaults the “later flowers” by reviving them when they should be done with their springtime labors; worst off, the poor bees are wild with energies, leading the observer to imagine what bees think as the forces of renewed flowering set them further on in their mad task of filling the “clammy cells” of their hive. “To Autumn” has us enter these inner spaces, inside the gourd, the hazel shells, and the hive and into the “thoughts” of the vines and bees. We are at home in such a fanciful world, a world of thatched cottages, of playful vines, of over-eager bees, and of gods who ply a light touch upon our world.

 The first stanza has its own particular music, a riot of sibilance. From “Season” to “cells” the stanza, voiced and unvoiced, resounds with the hiss and sizzle of sound. If the idea of the stanza is the continuing of relentless burgeoning growth, sibilant sounds are a good way to figure this. The sound itself persists, carrying the weight of the vowel quality into extended duration. This feature of resistance to closure is abetted by the rise and fall of the vowels. If we can think of vowels as high and low, that is, produced high in the mouth and resonating above as opposed to low in the mouth and resonating in the chest, we begin to perceive the vocal dance that Keats has engineered.[v] “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” illustrates this rise and fall perfectly, “mists” rising from “season,” and “low fruitfulness” lowering from “mel.” This graceful movement rocks us into gentle ease. The closing line to the stanza demonstrates this persistent pattern, “o’er-brimm’d” rising from “summer” and lowering to the heavily voiced “cells.” The movement is gentle, as befits the notion of the pleasure of soft swinging motion and of easy breathing. These vocal metaphors are inscribed physically into the experience of the poem. They attach the speaker/reader to the nature Keats describes – the out-there comes in-here.

Another brilliant effect occurs in the extended enjambment that causes line 3 to flow through into line 4 –“how to load and bless /With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run.” The monosyllables slow the line; even more so, the equal value of each word, none emphasized over another, imposes an uncommon smoothness in the rhythm. This even quality is further sustained by the perfect iambic pattern, and a flow that continues much longer than is usual in extending one line into the next. If the idea of stanza one is the endurance of summer’s exuberant process, the flow of lines provides the image of this persistence.

Keats brings our attention to the hum of language as the cradle of meaning with the quiet avalanche of verbs – “load” “bless” “bend” “fill” “swell” “plump” “never cease” and “has o’er-brimm’d” – each pointing to the process of completion and with greater and richer complexity as the series completes itself. Keats also borrows a trick from Wordsworth’s ‘”Tintern Abbey” in lines 8 to 9 by adding “still more” to the already established “budding more” as if the poet needs to be correcting himself in the moment in order to convey the on-going and profuse growth.[vi] Finally, the mad insistence of the bees, as summer drives them mischievously to now useless busyness, figures precisely this over-abundance of activity that swells the chambers of their hive to over-brimming.

The stanza is rich with delights and creates an easeful intimacy for the reader. This intimacy is particularly effective because no agitated or enthralled poet figure appears to block our view to nature’s doings. No thought gets in the way. The stanza settles no debate and provides us no moral or rule to live by, other than itself. Its music and movement convey no idea as Keats’ deftly constructed aimlessness liberates us to a new apprehension of nature out there and in ourselves.

Stanza Two

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.

Stanza two is no less strange and full of wonder. The stanza opens with a friendly question to affirm what we all know. The question suggests that we have, all of us, of course observed Nature, a phantom figure haunting her material presence, but nonetheless surely there. Still, this poet, unlike Shelley in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” for example, requires no special powers to see this. “To Autumn” insists that we need no vates, no high priest to recall what we have seen and known. The evasive god whom Wordsworth’s hungry seeker only glimpses, we see and know effortlessly, for whoever seeks this god will surely find her.  For Keats, this phantom is simply there “sitting careless on a granary floor, /Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind:..” For a modern reader, this reference to threshing (Keats prefers the softer “winnowing”) is likely to be obscure. We know of wheat and chaff as a biblical phrase. In Keats’ time, however, this picture would have excited an immediate and precise image. The granary has a stone floor with open doors at opposite ends to allow the breeze to pass through; laborers who pound the sheaves of grain onto the floor depend upon the breezes to blow away the lighter chaff from the wheat.  When the worker strikes the sheaf of grain onto the stone floor, the chaff rises up, dust in the breeze, and reveals the shape of an otherwise invisible presence, the breeze reveals a figure in movement as it blows away the chaff in a swirl of motion.[vii] This is an extraordinary version of personification. When Wordsworth attempts the same move in “The Word is Too Much with Us,” his gods have to emerge from literary reference. Proteus and Triton are not rooted in the scene itself. Wordsworth’s visionary experience is uncomfortably derivative and imposed upon the scene. In contrast, Keats’ goddess is there, a figure that rises in a setting his readers know and with a vision they may well have had on their own.

And sometimes this goddess appears in the worker, the gleaner who herself has drifted off into sound sleep, exhausted by her labors and “drows’d” by the sweet “fume of poppies.” Like the phantom figure revealed in the lift of chaff, the invisible goddess peeps through the gauze of material things, momentarily revealed in the form of the worker intoxicated with the warmth and easeful exhaustion of harvest labor. One “sees” this figure, too, by the “cyder-press,” watching “with patient look.” Like the friendly gods of summer, this goddess is immanent in nature, a local figure animating the scene and with no thunderous Olympian pretensions. She is “careless”; she spares the “twined flowers” that have grown in the fields along with the wheat that must be gathered; she keeps a steady head, and attends the cyder-press “with patient look.” This is a gentle goddess, who embodies, without rush or hurry, or the intention of the goal that must be accomplished, the steady forward motion of nature’s and the worker’s inexorable purpose. Keats achieves these hints of divinity gracefully, avoiding the clanking machinery of worn-out mythologies

The music of Keats’ language, like the winnowing of chaff, reveals the figure of this gorgeous and mysterious being. The first two lines of the stanza roll out in dependable iambic fashion.  Lines three and four, however, catch the updraft of anapest – “on a granary floor” and “by the winnowing wind” – to simulate the sweep of the breeze which reveals the goddess.  Lines five to seven cast a net to capture the phantom in another way. The somnolent deep resonant vowels find a correlative in sound to Autumn’s powers, setting the reader/speaker into a swoon, next to awaken us with the tinkle of high, non-resonant vowels then descend back into the buzz and hum of “flowers.” We are accustomed to think of these effects as onomatopoeia and leave it at that, satisfied with the learned label. These effects, however, belong to the most primitive stages of language, children making the noises they hear as if they could engage with the world around them in direct conversation, as if the non-human were itself invested with spirit and sentience and congenial presence. Having stripped intellect from his poetry, Keats replaces it with the plastic power of fantasy that invokes our instinct for belonging to nature without the rhetorical intensiveness of personification. The word “oozing” makes the point precisely.  Say this embarrassingly evocative word, and we are with the goddess, “hours by hours.” The exactingly slow progress of the sentence, enforced by monosyllables, along with the caesural and other pauses, and the wandering accumulation of clauses, enforces the idea of slow-paced but implacable progress, of motion and fulfillment without the anxiety of intention.

Stanza Three

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.

If stanza two is about seeing — “Who hath not seen” – this concluding stanza will focus upon hearing, the music upon which the entire poem is founded. The verbs indicate the sounds — “mourn” “bleat” “sing” whistles” “twitter.” But the sound-sense continues to carry the burden of the experience. If we track the sound emphases from the opening of the poem to its close, we find we have traveled from “season” to “twitter” that is, from resonant sibilance to brittle consonance. Stanza three is a riot of sound effects that welds the energy of the outer nature to our inward response. In the ease of line three – “while barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day” — an old pattern of alliteration leads to an unusual play of sounds moving inexorably downward and forward and from strained articulation of ease and flow and release. The notion of “soft-dying” is carried out, then, in the musical descent from the consonantal tangle of “stubble plains” to ease of “rosy hue.” The delicacy of the verbs “bloom” and “touch” enforce this atmosphere of easing into quiet. The energetic gathering, the frantic busyness of late summer and the ensuing harvest is giving way to a luxurious comfort, a drying out, and a sweet and gentle desiccation. The lines slow with even more abundant monosyllables, the caesural pauses become more emphatic, the clicking consonants increase as in “touch the stubble” “gnats” “aloft” “sinking” “bleat” “hedge-crickets” “red-breast whistles” and “twitter in the skies.” The idea of brittleness is carried by this strange music Keats composes as nature’s delicate recession from her damp abundance welcomes the end of autumn’s drama.

This music comes from boundaries, the crepuscular limits where day meets darkness – the soft-dying day; stubble plains touched by the rosy hue of the dying light, gnats mourning the passing of the day carried by light wind that lives or dies. The bleating of the now full-grown lambs about to pass from youth to maturity comes from a distant hilly bourn, a distant boundary, from which no soul returns; the red-breast’s sound comes from the garden-croft, above and out of sight, as swallows gather — their twitter now as emphatic as the bees clamoring in summer’s madness — for their journey to some unknown and distant world.

The ending of “To Autumn” has invited much debate. Is Keats anticipating his own death in the quiet passing of the swallows from this world to the next? Is this the familiar pathos of the dying of the year as autumn gives way to the death brought by winter? Or does the passing of the swallows anticipate their return, lending the poem a more hopeful recognition of the cycle of the seasons? Or, are we being invited, as in the end of “Ode: to a Nightingale,” to enter a world of pure beauty, though in this case untroubled by doubts about dreaming and waking? I would argue that the poem has been about boundaries all along, about those points of entry where some world beyond our usual accounting leans into the world we think we know, where jocund gods play happily with nature; where goddesses appear in the breeze and in the fume on their gentle visits to illuminate our world; where the swarm of chaff becomes the hum of the gnats’ swarm; and where meanings peep through language at the boundary where the sound and motions of language revive our nature for us.

In “To Autumn” Keats has written an ultimate poem. First, he celebrates the rich sensuous presence of autumn as no poem has ever done; second, he has accomplished more consistently and with less clutter what many other poets and he himself set out to do in “Ode: to a Nightingale,” that is, to create an eternal memorial in pure music of the spiritual connection of inner and outer nature; and third, he has written a pure poem in absolute obedience to his aesthetic commitment to “negative capability.” He has written a poem free from intrusions of thought and the noisy self assertions of the Romantic poet. The result puts us into another zone, a new and brighter room in the mansion of our spirit.[viii]

[i] Harmon, William, ed. The Classic Hundred Poems (Second Edition). New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Harmon lists “To Autumn” as the most anthologized of all English poems. It was written on September 19, 1819, and published in 1820. John Keats (1795-1821) was already aware of his deadly contracting of tuberculosis.

[ii] In “Tintern Abbey” (1798) Wordsworth describes an experience of pure meditation as both the result and condition of poetry: “that serene and blessed mood, /In which the affections gently lead us on, —  /Until, the breath of this corporeal frame /And even the motion of our human blood /Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul: /While with an eye made quiet by the power /Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, /We see into the life of things” (ll. 41-49).

[iii] Letter to his brother dated Sunday, 21 December 1817.

[iv] Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats, Harvard University Press, 1983, has provided the most complete discussion of “To Autumn,” pp. 233-288.  This essay is much indebted to Vendler’s work.

[v] In our time, we have become eye-readers, looking for information and descriptions of mechanics. Poetry invites us to re-constitute the voices of experience. Lyric poetry especially demands to be spoken, words and phrases to be savored as sound with its own force of meaning.

[vi] In “Tintern Abbey” the speaker corrects himself by interjecting “hardly hedge-rows” in the following: “Once again I see/These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines/Of sportive wood run wild:..”   This correction creates the impression of improvisation. Keats, like Wordsworth, re-worked this poem many times to create the illusion of nonchalance.

[vii] I witnessed this winnowing work on a visit to Tajikistan where farm-laborers, all of them women, used the modern asphalted highway as a threshing floor to separate wheat from chaff. The fine grain-dust caught in the wind invited the mind to envision spectral figures in motion.

[viii] In a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds dated Sunday, 3 May 1818 Keats wrote:

I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me – The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think – We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by awakening of the thinking principle – within us – we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the nature and heart of Man — of convincing one’s nerves that the World is full of misery and Heartbreak, Pain, sickness and oppression — whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open – but all dark – all leading to dark passages — We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist – We are now in that state — We feel the burden of the Mystery.


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