This ode is a song to Autumn, and is a classic English poem, with that ‘old authentic’ feel to it. In it Keats manages to create a beautiful picture of what autumn is for him. Unfortunately Keats died from consumption in 1821, and so this was one of his last poems, written in 1819/20, after ‘The Fall of Hyperion’. Some people acknowledge this ode as Keats’ most perfectly achieved poem, and so this time was Keats’ autumn of his life, when he came to produce his best. This typical English poem follows the rules of metre, and characteristically uses Iambic pentameters, as with most good traditional poems. The landscape is also typically English rural countryside, and the side of autumn, which Keats chooses to include, is the custom of the Harvest. Where all the fruits of autumn reach maturity – the farming tradition of autumn. This is a through and through English poem.
It was composed soon after a walk in the fields near Winchester (S. England), September 1819. A letter sent to a friend (J.H Reynolds) shows just how much of the poem was written from experience. In the letter Keats makes reference to Diana, goddess of the moon and of chastity, but she is not apparent in the poem, except the hints of godliness perfection. Keats was fond of classical myth and legend and another goddess who seems to appear is Ceres, goddess of Harvest. She is most likely the figure ‘sitting carelessly on a granary floor,/Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;’
The first stanza introduces autumn as close friend of the sun, personifying autumn, collaborating with it in order to bring about the maturing of the fruit and nuts ‘Close bosom friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines . . . ‘ He creates a classic picture of an autumn scene, strong (mature) sun, a thatched cottage ‘moss’d’, fruit vines and flowers climbing up the cottage walls. Fruits and nuts swelling, ripening and opening, the way he describes this, it is almost possible to visualise the scene in the mind’s eye.
The second stanza opens with a rhetorical question, asking surely the reader has caught sight of the signs of autumn, whether it be ‘Thee siting carelessly 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 . . . And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep Steady thy leaden hand across a brook; Or by a cyder-press, with patient look, Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.’
In the third and last stanza the spring songs are dismissed and autumn comforted that it has music too. Music of the sunset that brings about the soft ‘rosy hue’ and the insects begin to mourn as the sun descends. On the hillsides the lambs add to it with their soft bleating and the hedge-crickets sing, and all their music combines. At the end the symbolic robin whistles hailing winter as the sun is set on autumn, and the swallows migrate reminding that all good things pass.
Autumn is that time of year, the Indian summer that some people like. It can be particularly hot, but is that time when the harvest is gathered in and the leaves turn all sorts of colours while they fall off, and so autumn is a mix. A mix of seasons and a complete mix of colours, and the poem has all the colours, the golds, yellows, oranges and reds with the colder greens and blues.
This ode is Keats drawing all the characteristics of autumn into a concentrated, rich, serene image. He sees the fruit maturing (even the sun is mature at this stage, as it is near winter and it is setting), honey sweetening, flowers smelling sweetly and the landscape bathed in a ‘rosy hue’.
The concentrated sights and sounds create the slow, drowsy tone of the poem, the reader is hit with such full and alive images that it is difficult to keep on reading while the imagery floods the brain in an overflowing onslaught of the senses. Keats manages to evoke in this poem what he felt that day and bring alive the meaning, which would not have been so if his words brought forth no picture and were just words – like autumn which brings alive the seeming dead.
Autumn to Keats is the extra that summer strives towards and that winter ends, and to show this Keats adds an extra line eleventh line to each of the three stanzas, evolved from earlier odes. This complicates the rhyming scheme, making it difficult to guess the importance of it, and to predict what Keats was trying to show. The first four lines remain in a quatrain, and the last three lines end in a rhyming couplet and an echoing rhyme from the earlier line 7 (seven and eleven rhyme), albeit a delayed echo. As the rhyming scheme is complex, all Keats may have been trying to show the complicated joining of summer and winter.
So this poem reflects autumn, not only in the visual pictures, but also in structure, tone, mood and rhyme. This brief ode also manages to convey the shortness of autumn, an idea conflicting with the slow, drowsy mood, but nevertheless still portrayed as the ode starts with summer and ends with winter, seemly all too quickly. Within that Keats has a balance. Somewhere in-between is autumn, or perhaps autumn is just the overlapping of summer and winter. The robin at the end signifying the end of autumn and then the swallows migrating giving the reassurance that while this moment of perfection must pass, it must also return.
The question of time in this ode at some points comes to an almost standstill, as sometimes all that moves is ‘ . . . hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind’, ‘ Or by a cyder-press . . . /Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours’. Words and phrases like ‘fill all fruit’ with alliteration help to slow the poem down, ‘swell’ and ‘Drows’d’ using onomatopoeia and assonance, and alliteration in the words ‘hours by hours’ help draw out the oozings of the juice longer. Keats also uses onomatopoeia on words such as ‘ wailful’ and ‘twitter’ to emphasise them and speed up the poem near the end – into winter.
Also during the poem the alliteration of ‘s’ on many words creates the sound of bees buzzing, the soft wind, corn ears and poppies swaying in the wind, the water of the river moving by, the melancholy sound of the gnats and the hedge-crickets singing. As that alliteration fades out at the end so does autumn. The mood is so mellow and rich, and is reflected by the alliteration of ‘mmmm’ throughout the first stanza – ‘mists’, ‘mellow’, ‘maturing’, ‘moss’d’, ‘more’ and ‘more’ and the honey overflowing – ‘o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells’.
The tone is of nostalgia, and is as one is after having eaten and drunk to contentment – sleepy and relaxed. Keats gets this across using all the images of the fruits in the first stanza: ‘fruit with ripeness to the core’, ‘gourd and . . . the hazel shells’ and ‘sweet kernel’, and also by using the grape ‘vines’ and cyder. Although the hinted wine and cyder are also a symbol of the strength and potency of the poem, also ‘Drows’d with the fume of poppies’ likewise create the image of an intoxicating drug – cocaine. So these ideas come into conflict: the sleepy relaxed mood with the strength and potency of the drugs. Keats again creates a balance between them.
Like title might suggest, Keats is giving autumn what is ‘owed’ to it, as autumn is often forgotten. This is Keats recognising the significance of autumn, wallowing in its richness. He looks at what autumn brings us, the reproduction, like this poem, which was written years ago, and comes to life for people now; and probably will for generations after. ‘Ode to Autumn’ demonstrates that everything will change with nature. And that which is generally regarded as bad – the fermenting/decay – is also essential to the continuation of life. I did not particularly like this poem. I found it too rich, too intense and the old English language was too much to stomach as well as that in this day and age – over-ripe and outlived its use.
I think, for me, this poems autumn has come and fallen, and too much has happened between then and now for the poem to produce any reminiscence as asked for in stanza two. I live in a city, and so I cannot witness fully the season of autumn as Keats sees it, and therefore cannot fully relate. I have never known of the harvests in cornfields and I have never experienced the comfort and restfulness he describes while watching a cyder-press or sleeping in a field of poppies. And I have never felt sorry that winter has come, only that summer has gone. Summer is for me, Keats’ autumn.
I did not know that anyone could love autumn as Keats seems so undeniably to do. Summer and winter have clear differences, and most people love either of those two, for their distinguishable difference in weather, it catches the eye. Autumn is neither summer nor winter, for me it is just there. I think Keats was too much of a dreamer, he exaggerates the good in the indifference of autumn. No matter what his poem manages to create, it is not enough. For me autumn is the name given to fill the short interval between summer and winter, nothing more, nothing less.