To Autumn: by John Keats - Summary & Analysis

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Introduction

      This, the last of Keats’s Odes, was published in 1820. “The Ode to Autumn’’ writes Groser, “where all that is lovely in orchard and garden, wheat-field and riverside, beneath a September sky is laid under contribution in lines of absolute beauty, was inspired by a quiet work through the stubble-fields around Winchester”. Keats writes to Reynolds, September 22, 1819: “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, eye better than the chilly green of spring. 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”.—Downer.

Summary

      In the first stanza the poet gives us a description of the prolific bounties of Autumn. Autumn is a season of mellow fruitfulness’. Ripe fruits and flowers, grapes and apples, gourds, hazel nuts and other ripe fruits appear at this time. Then late flowers and the bees together with honey come. It is season of fruitfulness and joyousness.

      In the second stanza, we have a splendid personification of Autumn. Autumn is personified under four pictures—typical of the season. First, as a harvester sitting carelessly on the granary floor during winnowing; secondly, as a tired reaper fallen asleep in the very midst of his reaping; thirdly as a gleaner following his walk home across a brook in the evening with a load of sheaves on his head, Lastly, it is represented as a cider-presses watching intently the press that squeezes juice out of fruits.

      The poet then questions—Where are the songs of Spring? The poet feels that though the beauties of Spring are absent in Autumn, yet Autumn has a beauty of its own. Then follows a picture of the stubble fields which are colored red in the crimson light of the setting sun. In Autumn the full-grown lambs bleat aloud, the grasshoppers slurp, the robin sings a treble note, and the swallows, twitter as they fly in the sky.

Critical Analysis

      The Ode to Autumn shows Keats in a rich mood of serenity. There are no questions and conflicts in the poem. Autumn is not regarded' here as the prelude to winter, but it is a season of mellow fruitfulness—a season of ripeness and fulfillment. The poet is not disturbed by the thought of the snows of winter that will soon, follow; he is content with his present happiness. Once Keats wrote: “I look not for happiness if it is not in the present hour, nothing startles me beyond the moment.” Here and now in Autumn, everything has reached fruition, and “ripeness is all”. Though apparently the Ode is objective and descriptive, there is behind the objective description the serene tranquility of the poet., “The poetry of earth is never dead.” A momentary regret, however, crosses his mind:

Where are the songs of spring, Ay, where are they?

      Immediately the question is stilled, and the momentary regret gives place to contentment;

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.

     “This joy in the present, the isolation of the beauty of the hour, the making of it a divine possession and losing in its loveliness the pain of life—is one of the chief marks of Keats’s genius”; and it is this power of isolating the present hour from the past or the future, which gives to the Ode to Autumn its unique charm.

      The Ode to Autumn is faultless in its art and workmanship. It shows at their best all the qualities of Keats as a poetic artist—his pictorial power, his economy of expression, his classical restraint, his sense of proportion, and his grave and solemn music. In no other poem, again, does his simple and direct love of nature find a better and fuller expression.

      The Ode gives a graphic description of the season of autumn with all its richness. The first stanza describes its gifts of ripe fruits and new crops of flowers. The second stanza gives an authentic image of autumn through living personifications like those of a reaper, a gleaned and a wine-grower. The third stanza describes the music of autumn the plaintive singing of the gnats, the bleating of lambs, the chirp of the crickets and the soft treble of the redbreast.

      In the Ode to Autumn, Keats wrote a poem which shows Greek spirit and Greek way of writing more than any other poem in the English language. It is classical in the true sense of the word. There is here no romantic strangeness or mystery, no emotional agitation. Everything here is simple, direct and clear, and the poem is pervaded throughout by a mood of serene tranquility. Moreover, the living personifications of autumn are exactly in the myth-making mode of the ancient Greeks:

      The Ode to a Nightingale and the Ode on a Grecian Urn have a greater appeal by reason of their pathos and glow of emotion, but the Ode to Autumn is unique in its “rounded perfection and felicity of loveliness”.

Critics Opinions

      Robin Mayhead. 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 with. Out of the least trace of sadness Keats is able to see it as part of a larger and richer permanence.

      David Perkins. It is a very nearly perfect piece of style.

      M.R. Hills. In this unparalleled description of a richly beautiful autumn day he conveys to us all the peace and comfort which his spirit receives.

      Sidney Colvin. The touches of literary art and Greek personification have an exquisite congruity and lightness.

      O. Elton. The eternal labor of man, as he makes the most of nature, are kept before the eye by a profound instinct for plastic arrangement.

      Sidney Colvin. In words so transparent and direct we almost forget they are words at all, and nature herself and season seem speaking to us.

Conclusion

      The choicest epithets of appreciative eulogy have been bestowed on this Ode by critics and commentators. The exquisite sense of unity and proportion leaving a single art impression, the rich but subdued melody of the long lines, perfectly adapted to the mood of brooding and mellow contentment, the wonderful description of Nature for the sake of Nature, tinged with that sweet sensuousness which is a trait in the poet’s nature, the charming and vivid personifications of Autumn in the Greek manner, the absence of subjectivity and melancholy—all these fully deserve the eulogy of the subtlest critic. Swinburne speaks of this ode as perhaps the nearest to absolute perfection.” To Palgrave, it is “another masterpiece.” Sidney Colvin remarks: “It opens out no such far-reaching avenues of thought and feeling as the Ode to a Nightingale and The Grecian Urn, but in execution is perhaps the completest of them all. In the first stanza the bounty, in the last the pensiveness of the time, are expressed in words so transparent and direct that we almost forget they are words at all, and Nature herself and the season see as speaking to us; while in the middle stanza the touches of literary art and Greek personification have an exquisite congruity and lightness.” Keats has reached his own ideal here to ‘load every rift with an oar’. The details of the rich store of Autumn—its fruit, flower, etc., of the happy scene of ripe harvest, of the songs of birds are charming both by their appropriateness and their clarity. The vines run round the thatch eaves, apples hang on the mossed cottage-trees; lambs bleat from the hilly bourne, gnats mourn and swallows twitter in the skies.

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