by Clover Carroll
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”—can you think of a more fitting way to describe the soulful, colorful, fecund season that is now upon us? Although at the moment, “season of hurricanes and earthquakes” might seem more appropriate! In his ode “To Autumn,” Keats uses formal diction, vivid imagery, and artful metaphor to celebrate the sights, tastes, sounds, and joys of the bucolic season of autumn in rural England—using terms that will certainly seem familiar to us here in rural Virginia. People seem to either love John Keats’ poetry or hate it, so here is your chance to decide for yourself. While some find his use of language flowery and old-fashioned, I am of the more friendly persuasion, greatly admiring this English Romantic poet who was born in 1795 and died of tuberculosis in 1821, at the tragically young age of 25. During his short, brilliant life, Keats published 54 of what many deem the most elegant and beautiful poems in the English language. Although he wrote many types of poems, Keats’s odes are his most famous, and he is credited with perfecting this form. An ode, originally a Greek form sung by a chorus, has come to refer to any lyric poem that combines personal emotion with general meditation.
Keats begins by directly addressing the spirit of the season, who is personified throughout the poem. This device of addressing an abstract quality or inanimate object is known as “apostrophe” and is widely used by poets. Keats’s portrayal of Autumn as “close bosom-friend of the maturing sun” suggests a woman–perhaps Ceres, the goddess of the harvest (from which our word “cereal” derives). The word “maturing” has the double meaning that the sun causes crops to mature, and that the sun itself is growing older and weaker as the days become shorter and the year draws to an end. Keats playfully accuses Autumn of “conspiring” with the sun to bless humanity with such bounty. Throughout the first stanza, he uses words suggesting fertility, such as “fill,” “swell,” “plump,” and “budding,” to describe the abundance of fruits and vegetables that ripen at this season. His references to grapes, apples, gourds such as squash and pumpkins, and hazelnuts appeal to our appetites and sense of taste.
Autumn flowers feed us too, by providing nectar from which bees make honey, their honeycomb cells overflowing with the sweet stickiness. Although the presence of flowers suggests that “warm days will never cease,” we know otherwise.
The second stanza moves from the ripening of fruits to their harvest, personifying Autumn now as a harvest worker sprawled on the floor amid the grain, her hair lifted by the autumn wind. The poet uses metaphors based on several common agricultural processes that are no longer in use today, but that would have been familiar to his audience.
For example, winnowing was a process used to separate the edible from the inedible parts of a grain by throwing it into the air so that the wind would blow away the lighter chaff, while the heavier grains would fall back down for recovery. Next we encounter Autumn asleep in a furrow (one row in a field of planted crops), made drowsy by the perfume of poppies, a symbol of the goddess Ceres. Because she is asleep, her scythe—a hook-shaped tool used before the mechanization of agriculture to hand-mow wheat—is also at rest, which “spares” the next row. Gleaners are scavengers, usually women and children, who collect leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested. Autumn is next pictured “like a gleaner” crossing a creek, holding her head steady because it is loaded with a basket full of her spoils.
Finally, we find Autumn supervising the pressing of apple cider—an activity well-known here in our own orchard-blessed Crozet! “Oozings” is one of many onomatopoeic words in this poem, that sounds like what it is describing.
While the second stanza primarily uses visual imagery, the last stanza turns to auditory imagery through which we experience the sounds of autumn. While momentarily acknowledging the loss of the youth of the year with the plaintive question “where are the songs of spring?” the poet goes on to celebrate the mournful yet lovely music of fall. Still addressing a personified Autumn, he assures her that “thou hast thy music too.” He draws a contrast between the lighter, chirping birds of spring and the mournful, wailing autumn music of bleating sheep, crickets, and in our case, cicadas.
We have moved over the course of the poem from early autumn when fruit first ripens, through high autumn when it is harvested, to the end of the season, with its “stubble-plains” of abandoned fields after the harvest is complete and only the stubble is left. The “soft-dying day” with its rosy sunset draws our attention to the death of the year, as do the twittering swallows “gathering” for their migration southward.
Now that we have unraveled the meaning of the poem, we can stop and admire its technical prowess. While weaving such stunning and original language into meaning, Keats also manages to develop a regular, melodic iambic pentameter rhythm, a complex rhyme scheme following the pattern ababcdcdeed, and the exquisite use of sound effects such as alliteration and assonance. In the first stanza, the repetition of “m” and “s” sounds create a soothing, almost sleepy effect like the feeling of being full after a good meal. In the last stanza, alliterative “b” sounds and the assonance of “river,” “hilly,” “sinking” “whistles,” and “twitter” create a feeling of peace and serenity as evening approaches.
Keats’s letters reveal that this poem, his last great lyric, was written in September 1819, when a sore throat had appeared as the first symptom of the tuberculosis that killed him 15 months later (as it had his mother when he was only 14). As such, the poem may be seen as his poetic acceptance of the transience of life as he faces his own autumn and impending death. We are reassured, through ample evidence as well as sheer beauty, that things live, mature, and die at the appropriate times according to the natural order. We experience with Keats the power of poetry to comfort and relieve human suffering. Finally, we gain insight into a sensitive soul who inhabited this earth for far too short a time.