The last of the great series of odes that John Keats wrote in 1819, this one was composed on September 19 and therefore on the cusp of autumn rather than early summer, like the others. Although it is like the other odes in reflecting on human mortality and the passage of time, To Autumn is often regarded as having achieved a resolution and ending more reconciled to the nature of the world and of life.
In a letter to a friend written two days after the ode’s composition, Keats described its genesis: “How beautiful the season is now—how fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather. Dian skies. I never lik’d 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.” The warmth that he describes here is like the “warm love” that he hopes for at the end of his Ode to Psyche, and it contrasts with the “cold pastoral” offered by the subject of Ode on a Grecian Urn. Pictures and stubble fields look warm for Keats because they retain a sense of life; life is by definition transient, but that very transience leaves a sense of lingering warmth behind.
This is the theme as well of the famous first stanza of To Autumn, which describes the way summer lingers on into the “warm days” of autumn, filling “all fruit with ripeness to the core” (l. 6) and making but “more, / And still more, later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease” (ll. 8–10). The stanza itself is strikingly quiescent, mellow and rich and, in the end, tending toward somnolence. It has no main verb. This is a fact easy to miss because of the accumulation of infinitives (“to load and bless”) and gerundives and present participles (“conspiring,” “maturing,” “budding”) that load the stanza down. But the languor of the stanza may verge on feeling oppressive, or on the sense of paralysis, of inability to move, which is prominent in many of Keats’s poems, including Ode on a Grecian Urn and The Fall of Hyperion.
It is not surprising that the first stanza should be subtly troubling: It is the task of a poem to see and confront a problem, and To Autumn does just that. The first stanza can seem a little airless, and the second stanza can confirm that sense, with the slow motion movement of the figure of Autumn (is it male or female?) and the oozings of the cider press. But the second stanza also keeps the first stanza from coming to a complete halt. The second turns the first into a kind of invocation—the invocation with which odes generally begin. All the appositions on “Season of mist” that pile up in the first stanza now become part of an 11-line vocative; so we can summarize the first two stanzas like this: “Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness, Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?”
This means that the speaker—for there is one, as there is in all the other odes—achieves a kind of breakthrough to voice in this stanza. The silence of the first stanza—the silence that Keats always finds threatening, whether it is the silence of the urn or of the nightingale in Ode to a Nightingale or of Saturn in The Fall of Hyperion—gives way to the possibility of voice: the question that the speaker poses to the oppressively rich silent image of the season. Autumn in this stanza continues as a silent figure, but that silence is countered by the voice of the speaker (or of the poem itself) as it achieves its own power to confront the pressures of time.
In the third stanza, that voice finally wins out, and we move from the pictorial silence of the depiction of autumn in the first stanza to the songs and sounds of the season in the third. That third stanza also starts with a question, but the question is now about sound (and not the sight that the second stanza begins with: “Who hath not seen thee . . .?”). The songs of spring are, perhaps, something like the “chilly green of spring” that Keats disparages in his letter, but autumn, too, has songs, and those songs are the sounds that its denizens make: the gnats, the lambs, the crickets, the robin, and the swallows. They sing at sunset, as Keats follows the logic of Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayest in me behold”) to find in a smaller period of time—the evening of a particular day—a metaphor or analogy for the period of the year, so that evening is like autumn. But at evening, creatures sing, and the primary impression one takes away from the last stanza is one of airiness. The oppressive suffocation of the first two stanzas is relieved, and we feel that songs and the breath that makes them possible come only when the cloying overabundance of the first stanza is superseded.
It should be noted that the “full-grown lambs” are an allusion to the “young lambs” in William Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode; Keats’s odes in general are shot through with references to Wordsworth, as though Keats is trying to correct or surpass him.
To Autumn is a poem that learns how to breathe, and learns that breath means that things are ephemeral, or perhaps it would be better to say that the ephemerality of things makes breathing and singing possible. Most of Keats’s odes end with some relation to sound, but usually they tend toward silence (as in “The plaintive anthem fades” in “Ode to a Nightingale”). The world may say something to the poet, or to us, like the urn’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but it says it silently. “To Autumn,” the last of Keats’s odes, achieves the more rarified freedom of breath and song.
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