‘To Autumn’ by John Keats

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.

If you have read any of my other posts on poems by Keats, you will know that to say I am a big fan is a massive understatement. For me, and for most people, it seems, the odes are his among his greatest hits. I have come late to this particular ode, however, perhaps because Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn consumed me so absolutely in my late teens that they rather overshadowed this one… I still think that those poems are superior in their exquisite mix of music, beauty and thought; for me, they are the “songs of Spring” mentioned in Ode to Autumn, but Autumn (as the poem tells us) has “[its] music too”. It is this subtler, “mellow”, generous, nostalgic autumnal music that really touched me as I read this poem the other day, inspired by the present season.

The obvious connection between seasons and the progress of our own lives through childhood, youth, through to middle-age and then old age, is clearly present in this poem. Much of Keats’ work explores the dualities and paradoxes of the human experience; in Ode on Melancholy, he writes that “in the very temple of Delight/Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine”. He was searingly aware that there is but a thin veil between the realms of bliss and those of melancholy, between Beauty and our sense of our own mortality. It is a similar vein that the poet evokes the beauty of Autumn – its beauty is in its capacity for nostalgia, reflection, sadness, but also in its generosity and learned wisdom.

Keats’ vision of the harvest season is coloured by many suggestive adjectives such as “mellow”, “fruitfulness”, “maturing”, “ripeness”… In the first stanza, I love the image of Autumn as a generous, life-giving force, “Conspiring” with the sun “how to load and bless/ With fruit the vines”. Throughout the piece, there is almost a parental presence, in the way the season seemingly takes care of nature – to “fill all fruit with ripeness to the core” and to “set budding more,/ And still more, later flowers for the bees”. Keats uses these examples in nature to illustrate the fact that Autumn is by no means the end of new beginnings.

Like many of his other odes, this one is addressed directly to its subject. Autumn, in this piece, is an entity with its own character, and, to my mind, represents the person entering middle-age. I love the images given of “Thee sitting careless on a granary floor/ Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind”. This image to me is very beautiful, and there seems a playful, almost childish aspect to it. I particularly like the word “careless” because it delivers the sense that this person has lost the seriousness of youth (I mean, the way youth can tend to take itself tooseriously). Keats mentions “thy store”, the “granary floor”, the “laden head” of Autumn and its “patient look” – there is wisdom here, and generosity.

The final verse is interesting in the way it opens with the poet imploring us (or “Autumn”) not to think of the “songs of Spring” (the passion and romance of youth). Here, Keats acknowledges that it is natural to be nostalgic as we age, but encourages us to appreciate the beauty of the “soft-dying day”. He mentions many of the treasures of autumn – the “full-grown lambs”, the songs of the “Hedge-crickets”, and the soft “treble” of the “red-breast” in a “garden-croft”. These images remind us that the coming of Autumn heralds many treasures and much beauty to look forward to.

The final line is one of great hope, as it evokes the “gathering swallows twitter[ing] in the skies.” This image, of birds preparing excitedly to fly south for the winter, reminds us that there is joy and love and warmth to be had at all stages of our lives. I feel that this line also hints at some kind of spiritual or religious hope.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh