'To Autumn' - John Keats

Written in 1819 and published in 1820 'To Autumn' is Keats's sixth ode and marks the fulfilment of his Ode cycle. Keats's Odes. Here, I will read Keats's Ode 'To Autumn' through his own view of 'spirit-creation' and as the linguistic and formal answer to the problems and struggles his other Odes dramatise. Keats connects the constrcution of his Odes his system of 'spirit-creation' in his letters:

how then are Souls to be made? […] it is a system of Spirit-creation — This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years — These three Materials are the Intelligence —the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind), and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity.

'To Autumn’ marks the fulfilment of the cycle of Keats's vision of spirit-creation. Here is the poem:


To Autumn



Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,

   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

      For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless 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, while thy hook

      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

   Steady thy laden head across a brook;

   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?

   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

   Among the river sallows, borne aloft

      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


If the ‘songs of Spring’ are process odes celebrating the struggles with death, meaning and suffering then ‘To Autumn’ is a manifestation of fruit. The title then requires no ‘ode’ because the core or ‘sweet kernel’ of soul is unwrapped and released from the formal ‘shell’. The verb form of the title ‘To Autumn’ suggests Susan Wolfson’s observation that when Keats uses words he uses ‘its original and modern meaning combined and woven together, with all its shades of signification’ (Wolfson, Reading John Keats, 2015) to lead us to the Latin autmnare, meaning to ripen. This reading of title as verb reinforces the ontological shift we can identify in ‘Autumn’ from Odes related to state or search or shifting ‘forms’ of psyches. 'Autumn' instead enacts a realised soul-consciousness to create a physical extension of spirit-life as Form in the poem’s unique eleventh line. The development of the couplet in lines 9 and 10 of ‘To Autumn’ is a microcosmic expression of a new harmonic structure that resolves the conflict dynamics in ‘the songs of spring’. The relations between these couplets across the three part ‘treble soft’ harmony of ‘To Autumn’ offers a double resolution by both closing and opening each verse ‘ending’ as the seed of a new outer-sestet cycle extends beyond the inner couplet.

The generation of each eleventh line stems from the new couplet as a ‘kernel’ or sweet harmonic ‘core’ in the ‘To Autumn’ stanza structure. The couplet in lines 9 and 10 is another manifestation of the triangulation dynamic contained in ‘treble soft’ because each couplet is connected to a third rhyme in line 5 in verse 1 and in line 6 in verses 2 and 3. Paradoxically, the musical sense of rhymed or balanced time creates an extended ‘life’ of the poem countering the chronological sense of death as a temporal ending. Each eleventh line refers to time. In verse 1 the journey from the title ‘To Autumn’ runs seasonally backward to end in summer

For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

With negative tuberculosis and imprisonment all contained in ‘cells’ as positive outpouring of honey as ‘sweet kernel’’. Verse 1 also moves chronologically forward from morning ‘mist’ to ‘warm day’ to balance sequence and cycle against the musical couplet as a symbolic centre between the transient human and enduring natural visions of time. The rhyme of ‘shells’ with ‘clammy cells’ emphasises the dissolution of the physical husk to reveal the spirit core that ‘swells’ and ‘plumps’ the physical stanza with the extra 11th line. The tone of blessing (line 3) is imperfect with the couplet-rhyme in verse 1. The double CC rhyme sets the half-rhyme ‘never cease’ against both ‘bees’ and ‘trees’ because the insect-consciousness of a purely physical view of nature ‘thinks’ without a spiritual awareness of mortality so their 'harmonic' is not in total balance.

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