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?