#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?


7 responses to “#15 “To Autumn” (John Keats)

  1. “To Autumn,” by John Keats describes the most beautiful season of the year as well as the most fruitful and fulfilling time of life. Life is in seasons. Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 says, “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die; A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted.” William Shakespeare attests to this fact also in the monologue “Seven Stages of Man.” He says, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.” The realization that our lives evolve in seasons help us to better understand life and the actions of humanity. “To Autumn,” by John Keats expounds eloquently on the season of life when the nest is empty, finances are plentiful, and the weary days of “Apple Picking,” for need have turned into enjoyment “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” It is the time when we can establish our “Xanadu” and spend our days lazily by the lake catching striped bass, watching the sunset sparkle, and reaping the fruits of our labor. I feel that is why Keats personifies ‘Autumn” as a lazy woman who is capable of bearing much fruit because of the seeds that were planted in the spring ( our youthful years ) and grew and blossomed during the summer ( our “Apple Picking” days ). Autumn signifies that the harvest has come, and it is plentiful. However, I am also reminded of the contrast between beauty and melancholy that John Keats also wrote about in his poem, “Ode on Melancholy.” Autumn is a beautiful, bountiful season of the year and life, but it does have a twinge of sadness to it because you can’t help ponder, “Thou watchest the last oozing hours by hours.” As they put it in old Negroe spirituals, “It’s getting late in the evening, and the sun is going down.” Autumn brings the awareness that it is also the season before winter where we begin to observe the signs that we are approaching the threshold of the grave or as Dylan Thomas puts it, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

  2. Seasons are perhaps one of the most nurturing and comforting phenomenons that occurs on our planet. Each has a certain beauty and intrinsic comfort because they are always to come and in an everlasting loop. Yet we are constantly relived at the refreshing nature of the change in the season. Autumn brings with it bounty and the yield. It is full of majestic deep colors. For this reason it is a muse in itself. Keats captures this beauty and translates the time, sights, and feelings to words flawlessly. He seems to capture nature praising autumn and wishing it to never end. All rejoicing in what autumn has brought

  3. This poem reminds me of a nice day in the season of fall. The way the author describes autmn is peaceful and calm. This time of the year the weather is nice. It is not too hot and not too cold. This season gets youbprepared and in the mood for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I agree with the author that it is a beautiful season because the leaved are falling and the days are nice. I also think the author is trying to describe how we go through seasons throught our life. Everything that happens in our life and the people who come into our life come during a season and they come only for a season or they stay for a lifetime. I think this is another way to describe the meaning of this poem. I like this poem because it gave me a relaxed feeling and i loved how the author described autumn as being beautiful

  4. I found it very interesting how the Keats describes a woman through the description of autumn, how he opens the first stanza describing, what I believe is an intimate relationship between the sun and autumn, and how autumn ripens fruits and flowers. And continues reflecting a woman’s description in the second stanza, focusing the figure of “autumn” as a female goddess with her hair “soft-lifted”.
    I love how he describes both autumn and a woman/goddess both in one poem; he’s done it so “perfectly”. Autumn is a beautiful season of the year with the fall leaves so I’m not all that surprised that autumn is used in poems as much as it is, there’s quite a bit of it to talk about.

  5. I enjoyed this poem because it seemed as if the speaker was content with losing autumn. It was almost as if the speaker knew this was going to happen, like he had been down this rode before. He speaks of this woman the way some speak of seasons, beautiful and always changing. Sometimes it’s the mystery that the seasons bring that captivate us and keep us guess, wondering what might the seasons bring this time. It is evident throughout the poem that the reason the speaker is so content with autumn leaving him is because he is aware that it shall return again. Perhaps it is the equivalent to the feeling of love.

  6. The poem made me feel relaxed and i could truly see all the colors of the leaves.It is my favorite time of the year becuase it is cool and pecans. I love pecans. I could hear russling of leaves as i walk though a wooded area. Different aromas of wild flowers in the air. It reminded me when i was a little boy. My father used to take the my family to the country side to collect pecans. We would have a nice time just ridding around with the windows down gulping down a nice cold root beer or a rootbeer float. The cool breeze in my face playing with my long hair. Just wonderful moments. My father used to help me throw a large and sturdy branch up into the pecan tree to make other pecans fall to the ground. We would come back with bags of pecans. We would them make “empanadas” burnt milk with pecan peaces pastry.It was a all day thing. Later that night eat the home made ” empanadas” with a cold glass of milk as we watched a movie together. Within lines of reading this poem all these images raced across my mind. Autumn does have it’s own characteristics to it that makes it unique. Empanadadas anyone?

  7. Pingback: To Autumn: The September Song « Southern Comfort

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