Daily Archives: 5 November 2009

#15 “To Autumn” (John Keats)

I didn’t plan it this way, but we arrive at John Keats’s “To Autumn” in autumn, with the Texas trees turning brown – though as so often, a spell of warm weather in November has fooled a lot of our flora into “thinking” it’s spring again.

Plants don’t think, I guess, though part of what the great essayist and critic John Ruskin called the “pathetic fallacy” is to imagine non-human nature as thinking and feeling. Keats loved to do that. His bees “think warm days will never cease”; his gnats are “wailful” and they “mourn,” and he personifies Autumn herself as a lazy observer of the change of seasons.

“To Autumn” is a highly “finished” poem. Some might rank it #1 in their Countdown; it has the reputation of being utterly perfect. I have preferred a number of poems with greater tensions, but “To Autumn” might be described as the greatest English poem of a lack of tension. The conflict that gives so many great poems their energy is in abeyance here. All we do in “To Autumn” is wait for the winter to arrive.

Of course, that very anticipation gives the poem its remarkable depth. Though it is simple and perfect, it’s not superficial. Autumn is beautiful because it brings the last of everything. As Maxwell Anderson wrote of autumn, in another context:

But it’s a long, long time
From May to December,
And the days grow short
When you reach September.
When the autumn weather
Turns the leaves to flame,
One hasn’t got time
For the waiting game.

Or, Johnny Mercer, translating a French lyric by Jacques Prevert:

Since you went away, the days grow long,
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song.
But I miss you most of all, my darling,
When autumn leaves start to fall.

The poem’s tension is provided by its subject, one of the great natural analogues to aging and the looming of death. All Keats has to do is describe it. And he does so with tremendous composure. But underneath that composure, one hears undertones of the resistance to decay that Robert Frost, our constant companion this semester, put so well:

Ah, when to the heart of a man
Was it ever less than a treason,
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?


#16 “One Art” (Elizabeth Bishop)

Elizabeth Bishop’s masterpiece, “One Art,” is one of the most frequently reprinted poems of the late 20th century. Its power resides in how it represents rhetoric. Well, let me put that in a more roundabout but clearer way. The poem imagines a situation where a speaker is talking to someone they might lose. They are trying to persuade that someone that losing them isn’t going to be a big deal. They’re so experienced at losing things and people that it’s almost like they’ve practiced up for this one last big loss.

But as Victor Laszlo says to Rick in Casablanca, the speaker sounds “like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart” (or woman, in this case). That’s why I use the word “rhetoric”: rhetoric is meant to persuade or convince, but you don’t have to believe in it to use it. In fact, you might be trying to convince yourself in the process of deploying rhetoric. As Oscar Hammerstein II wrote, “When I fool the people I fear / I fool myself as well.”

The speaker obviously fears losing the person she’s speaking to. But she doesn’t even let on that she’s speaking to a specific person till late in the poem. Till then, “One Art” has been a poem on a general topic, almost like an advice column. “Lose something every day!” sounds like a program that Heloise might advise.

All the while that this chipper advice is being given, the stakes in the losing deepen, till we get to the real crux of the poem: the departure (whether it’s going to happen, or has happened already) of the loved one.

“One Art” is a variation on the form called “villanelle,” where two rhyming lines are introduced in an initial three-line stanza, repeated over and over as the concluding lines of three-line stanzas, and then joined again as the concluding couplet of the poem. Villanelles are standard creative-writing exercises, and a frequent feature of 21st-century collections of poetry by academic poets. But though they demonstrate a high level of technical skill, they are hard to write memorably: the great English examples from the 20th century are “Missing Dates” by William Empson and “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. (Neither of those will be in our 64-poem Countdown, though they might make a 128-poem version.)

But “One Art” is not a true villanelle. The entire rhyming lines do not always repeat; only the final rhyme-words do, and there’s considerable variation in the phrasing. As so often, really great poems take a standard form and play with it: suggesting the pattern but then performing a variation on that pattern, much like great jazz.