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You may remember the opening line of ‘To Autumn’ (1820) from the character Daniel Cleavers’ partial recital in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001). The poem is the last of John Keats’ ‘six great odes’ and one of his most well-known nature poems of Romanticism. The following table summarises some key characteristics of ‘To Autumn’.'To Autumn' Summar and AnalysisDate published1820AuthorJohn KeatsFormOdeMeterIambic pentameterRhyme…
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You may remember the opening line of ‘To Autumn’ (1820) from the character Daniel Cleavers’ partial recital in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001). The poem is the last of John Keats’ ‘six great odes’ and one of his most well-known nature poems of Romanticism. The following table summarises some key characteristics of ‘To Autumn’.
|'To Autumn' Summar and Analysis|
Stanza 1: ABABCDEDCCE
Stanza 2 and 3: ABABCDECDDE
|Frequently noted imagery|
Harvest, nature, animals
Awe and exaltation
The power of nature, mortality and immortality, beauty
The poem is a celebration of the season and a meditation on the themes of transience, mortality, and beauty. Keats uses sensory details to paint a picture of the season, invoking the senses of sight, sound, and touch.
Let us first consider the poem’s biographical, historical, and literary contexts.
Although published in 1820, ‘To Autumn’ was written in September 1819 following an autumnal countryside walk.
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. (John Keats, 1819, Excerpt from his letter to John Hamilton Reynolds).
The seasons of the year are seen as a symbol of change and transformation. In the season of autumn, the world is readying itself for the upcoming winter. The poet, inspired by the autumnal countryside walk, remarks on the season of autumn and the changes it brings.
These poems were all written in 1819, known as Keats’ ‘great year’, although some were published later. This was when Keats wrote what is considered to be his greatest contributions to English literature, shortly before he died in February 1821. Although Keats does not explicitly name ‘To Autumn’ an ode, this poem of praise nevertheless belongs in this category. Odes are traditionally written in appreciation of a subject. Here, the poem is dedicated to the season of autumn, which it romanticises, describing the natural yet transitional beauty of autumn. Keats’ odes include:
Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819).
Ode on Indolence (1848).
Ode on Melancholy (1820).
Ode to a Nightingale (1819).
Ode to Psyche (1819).
To Autumn (1820).
1819, the year ‘To Autumn’ was written, saw the first good harvest after a series of bad ones.1 England had also experienced great suffering and hardship during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). A bountiful harvest was seen as a blessing at the time. This poem can be seen as a longing for the celebration of the plentiful harvest that marks the season of autumn. The eternal cycle of the seasons is referenced in the poem, as Keats hints at the looming transition to winter.
Romanticism is a literary movement that peaked during the period of 1785 to 1832. Pioneers of Romantic poetry in English include Lord Byron, P. B. Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats. This literary movement is known for its focus on truth, nature, and the passionate expression of emotion.
Study tip: Can you name any other Romantic poets?
Keats’ appreciation of autumn in this poem is marked by features of Romanticism. These include the following:
The expression of deep and passionate feelings:
The form of this poem, an ode, particularly lends itself to emotive expression. The speaker, through a sensual description of the natural beauty around them, evokes a sense of ‘ripeness’ associated with autumn, thus appreciating the plentiful harvest that this season brings. In ‘To Autumn’, Keats praises the season and expresses rapturous praise of the beauty of life.
A focus on rural life and the common man:
This poem is set in the countryside and focuses on the concerns of country life. Consider its allusions to the toil of ordinary farmworkers in its presentation of the granary and cider press at harvest time. The poem also marks the countryside setting with the use of imagery, such as the thatched roof dwellings (line 4) and the granary filled with grain and husk (line 14).
The expression of imagination:
The poet personifies autumn, imbuing this season with the qualities of a human. The season is identified as a close friend of the maturing sun (lines 1-2). Autumn is also seen sitting on the floor of the granary, with husks of grain in its ‘hair’, thus marking the season with human qualities to underline its beauty and transitional nature.
Below is the poem 'To Autumn' in full.
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.
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.
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.
‘To Autumn’ is a highly sensuous poem that brings the season to life through the sights, smells, and sounds of autumn. This poem narrates the passing of both a glorious autumn day and the season itself.
The poem begins with Keats addressing autumn as a personified figure and describing its abundance and richness. He notes the presence of fruit and harvest, and the sounds of animals preparing for winter. Keats uses sensory details to paint a picture of the season, invoking the senses of sight, sound, and touch.
In the second stanza, Keats continues his description of autumn, focusing on its stillness and calm. He contrasts this with the busy and bustling scenes of summer, and emphasises the quiet beauty of autumn. Keats also uses imagery from nature, such as the picture of a 'half-reap'd furrow' and the 'swelling gourd', to further describe the season.
The final stanza of the poem shifts the focus from the season of autumn to the human experience of ageing and mortality. Keats acknowledges that autumn is a time of endings and that winter is coming, but he also finds beauty in this cycle of life and death. The poem ends with Keats addressing autumn once again, thanking it for its blessings and celebrating its place in the natural world.
The title ‘To Autumn’ informs the reader of the subject, making the season directly addressed, praised, and personified.
The poem is typical of an ode.
An ode is a lyric poem that expresses the poet’s thoughts and feelings towards a person or subject. Common subjects include animals, objects, or occasions. It may also praise universal themes or forces such as nature.
This poem is addressed to autumn and, more broadly, to nature itself. The key feeling and overall tone expressed is one of praise and exaltation.
An iambic foot features an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Examples of this include delight, forlorn, and today. When an iambic foot occurs five times in a line of poetry, it is called an iambic pentameter.
‘To Autumn’ contains a highly uniform structure, which consists of three stanzas of equal length, i.e., of eleven lines each. The same meter, iambic pentameter, runs throughout the poem.
While all stanzas praise autumn, each one deals with a different topic: abundance, harvest, and the gradual passing of the season.
Stanza one directly addresses autumn, praising the bounty of the season. Autumn is presented as a flurry of energy and life.
Stanza two personifies autumn, describing it as a physical presence, specifically a woman. In a smooth transition from the first stanza’s focus on the abundance of autumn, the second focuses on the harvest.
Stanza three introduces the concept of change as it prepares the reader for the departure of autumn and the arrival of winter. It asks where spring has gone and alludes to the imminent arrival of winter.
All three stanzas share the same rhyme scheme for the opening four lines: ABAB. In the first stanza, this is followed by CDEDCCE. In the second and third stanzas, the opening rhyme scheme is followed by CDECDDE.
The uniformity of the second and third stanzas, in contrast to the different rhyme scheme of the first, indicates the key theme of transformation. The poem has evolved from the first stanza, both thematically and structurally.
Personification refers to a non-human entity being given human qualities or characteristics.
Both autumn and the sun are personified in the poem’s opening lines.
‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit’.
The sun and autumn have been given human qualities, such as gender and the ability to form friendships.
Personification has been used to convey the importance of sunshine for agriculture in the autumn season.
Personification is used in the opening lines to establish a sense of autumn as a physical entity.
Autumn is presented as a person involved with the harvest.
‘Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind’.
Personification has been used to give this season human attributes, such as hair and the ability to sit.
By placing autumn on the granary floor, the poet associates it with the action of storing grains.
Autumn’s role in the human activity of harvesting is reinforced through personification.
Personification is used to convey the passage of time.
‘Or by a cyder-press, with patient look, Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours’.
Autumn is given the human attribute of observation.
The poet presents autumn as a person who watches the progression of agricultural activity.
In agricultural communities, cider-making is one of the seasonal milestones, marking the gradual passing of the season.
Rhetorical questions are used to make a statement without any expectation of an answer.
Repetitive rhetoric is used in the lines ‘Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?’ This conveys a sense of urgency and reminds the reader of the impermanence of the season of autumn.
In an allusion, the writer makes an indirect reference to a thing or person.
While Keats does not explicitly mention farmers or farmhands, his description of harvest activities, such as cider-making and storing grain, alludes to their labour. This is in keeping with a wider Romantic interest in rural life and the common man.
One interpretation of this poem is that life is both beautiful and impermanent. All seasons, like all humans, are in a state of constant change and have their time in the sun before passing. This poem encourages the reader to appreciate the fleeting beauty of life and to savour the moment.
'To Autumn's main themes are the power of nature, beauty, and the tension between mortality and immortality.
Keats showcases the power of nature through its ability to sustain both human and animal life. Although not life-threatening as in pre-Industrial times, bad harvests were still a serious matter in early nineteenth-century Britain. The poet personifies autumn, a force of nature, using a reverent tone to describe it.
The theme of two opposing concepts, mortality and immortality, is presented through the eternal change of the seasons. Autumn never truly dies, as it returns each year. The immortality of the cycle of the seasons serves as a reminder of the mortality of humans.
This theme can be seen most prominently in the final stanza, where Keats reminds the reader that autumn must pass to make way for winter. It shows that the swallows are ready to migrate to warmer climes, and the lambs are ready for slaughter. The robin, symbolic of winter and Christmas, is introduced. Like the cycle of the seasons, change is a necessary part of the cycle of life.
‘To Autumn’ was one of John Keats’ six great odes written in 1819.
The poem was inspired by a walk Keats took in the countryside during the first good harvest after years of poor ones.
The poem encourages the reader to appreciate the beauty and impermanence of life.
‘To Autumn’ is an example of Romantic poetry.
1 Paul H. Fry, ‘History, Existence, and “To Autumn”’, Studies in Romanticism (1986).
The central message of the poem is of the beauty and impermanence of life.
This poem uses personification, symbolism, allusion, rhetorical questions, and alliteration.
The tone is one of exaltation, praising both autumn and nature.
The subject of the poem is the season of autumn.
The main theme is mortality and immortality.
When was 'To Autumn' published?
When was 'To Autumn' written?
Which best describes the poem's setting?
'To Autumn' was inspired by a beautiful autumnal walk taken by the poet.
What is the form of 'To Autumn'?
How many stanzas does 'To Autumn' have?
Which of the following animals are NOT mentioned in the poem.
Which literary movement does 'To Autumn' belong to?
Which of the following is NOT personified in the poem?
This poem was one of John Keats' last masterpieces.
What is the meter of the poem?
How many lines are there in each stanza?
Which best describes the tone of the poem?
Awe and exhalation.
The poem features shepherds and farm hands.
The poem alludes to the work of shepherds and farm hands.
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