October 31st marks John Keats birthday, and it is also the publication date of Susan J. Wolfson’s new book, A Greeting of the Spirit: Selected Poetry of John Keats with Commentaries. We’d like to honor both by sharing Keats’s poem “To Autumn.”
As Wolfson says in her commentary, the poem “is about ending, but it is no dark finale. It pauses at a rich interval between seasons, undeluded about mortality, yet suspending its weight, for this day . . . Keats’s ode is a qualified interval, a pause for enjoyment (winter is coming).”
“To Autumn” may be the last poem Keats wrote for his last lifetime volume. It is about ending, but no dark finale. It pauses on a rich interval, undeluded about coming winter, yet suspending its weight, for this day. How beautiful the season is now, he writes to a friend from Winchester, 21 September 1819. How fine the air. A Temperate sharpness about it . . . I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now — Aye better than the chilly green of the Spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm . . . this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it. While stubble plain is the mark of harvest’s end, the sunlit warmth is Keats’s Sunday inspiration, still with the feel of summer, unlike winter-cold spring. Although some readers indict the Ode’s neglect of the political crises that roiled the season, I think this deeply unfair, and inattentive. Keats was not tuned out. He needed a day off from life-distresses, from the daily news of the massacre at Manchester and the aftermath of prosecution. He was reading the newspapers, and just for this soft-dying day wanted to indulge a mood that feels like for ever, but which he knows is timebound, deathbound. He’s still healthy and not yet 24, but mortality is in his everyday consciousness.
In tradition, Autumn is a double season, of harvest and death. Keats knows this score and he plays with it. To Autumn is an ode of time-halted (but not time-stopped) imagination. There is a wry joke in his half-dozen linked infinitive verbs (to load and bless, to bend and fill, to swell and plump) that thread the first stanza, taking the grammar’s “infinitive” (not temporally defined) into sensation of never cease, this plumped by present participles (-ing) that sing along, and conjunctions that accumulate in temporal equilibrium (and 5 times). The phonic score becomes hyper-harmonic in the last line’s triple mm: Summer–brimm’d–clammy. This last adjective, clammy, is for cells, a sound tuned all the way from line 1: mellow–fruitful–fill–swell–hazel shells–kernel still more–flowers. Even bend and fill plays against the expectation of fall in this season. One fine critic, Stuart Sperry, nicely remarks that adieu, “the theatrical, slightly affected word that occurs in each of the odes of the spring,” is absent in this ode, though this one is where you might expect it. Such is subtle perfection of Keats’s double-plays, evoking but not distilling.
These doubleplays against expectation stay mindful about what is being evoked but not played out. Readers of Keats know other situations of mists, most famous in his trope of life in the world as a series of dark passages, where we are in a Mist … We feel “the burden of the Mystery’ (letter, 3 May 1818) to lines he took care to underline near the end of Paradise Lost, in Milton’s simile for how the angels “descended” to evict Adam and Eve,
Gliding meteorous, as evening mist
Risen from the river o’er the marish glides,
And gathers ground fast at the labourer’s heel
Homeward returning. (12.629–632)
Milton’s edge is to situate as both for visual analogy and the coming temporality of postlapsarian labor. The mists of To Autumn knowingly deflect these assignments, as well as any sinister sense in Conspiring. Keats draws its etymology breathing with into a cooperative nurture of climate and sun, and into a doubled maturing for this sun: over the course of the year, and as ripening. His final touch is a funny diminuendo about bee-mindedness. The season’s languor sets still more, later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease. Bees don’t think; this is wry human-fantasy with an echo of cease (from the Season that seems to be doing no such thing).
Stanza 1 halts its still incomplete grammar (all vocative) at a period, but the mark seems merely notional on the syntax’s momentum into stanza 2: Who hath not seen thee . . .? No real question, but a rhetorical cue for four personified labors, in silence and slow time: winnowing, reaping, gleaning, cyder-pressing. Sometimes / sometimes are not time-words but spatialized positioners of time nearly suspended. How deft is Keats’s mimetic holding find at the end of a line (… may find / Thee sitting), for a pause. And find what? Nothing more than iconic Autumn sitting careless in an onomatopoetic winnowing wind. This is a visual imagination and a soundscape: Autumn on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, / Drows’d with the fume of poppies echoes reap’d in asleep, scored with the flow of sound and furrow into Drows’d. Those last oozings, hours by hours, sound-spun from drows’d, linger in slowest time over cyder-pressing, even gathering up the insistent later flowers of stanza 1. In the very sound, hours by hours verges on infinite prolongation.
But hours is temporal after all. All these luxuries are edged with such reminders: store tells of storing for winter, careless names necessary care; half-reap’d and the next swath are rests, not arrests; like a gleaner keys the late season of stubble plains; and stanza 2’s last line says of the cyder-pressing, last. Amid these prolonged but not infinite luxuries, Stanza 3 plays its first line Where are the songs of Spring? against the ubi sunt of elegiac tradition. Keats rebukes the sigh in the same line, nearly the same breath, by impatient repetition, and then a retuning: Ay, where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, — . The percussive Think not, replacing a long distanced spring-they with an Autumn- present thy, cues a “Song of Autumn”: the ode’s auto-mimesis. Keats sounds the notes from sky to plains to river to hilly bourn; its chorus joins lambs, gnats, crickets, redbreast, and swallows: wail, mourn, bleat, sing, whistle, twitter. By the time this chorus gets to whistle with treble soft, the poetry of to Autumn itself has joined it, the onomatopoeia of whistle spreading its sounds and letterings to “with treble soft.”
Keats’s music is more subtle yet in the way it plays spring tones without “ubi sunt.” For the phrase barred clouds bloom the soft dying day, no wonder that OED gives To Autumn unique citation for this verb-use of bloom, clouds as flowers, misting the stubble-plains of harvest’s end with a rosy hue. More “spring” sounds in the way small gnats mourn sounds morn, and borne tunes to born (springtime’s lambs). And a suspended temporality altogether hovers in the double-or sounds of borne aloft / Or sinking (sounded first in borne) and the or of lives or dies. These are variations in the moment rather than path-markers from life to death. Even the conjunctions — while, then, now — are spatial equivalences, as prepositional as the placer-markers, from, among, from. Keats keeps his verbs in this double chord: the participle adjective, gathering, draws on both soft-dying and sing. His hard knowledge is that swallows are “in the skies,” because unlike bees, they instinctively know that warm days will cease and they must act accordingly. Keats’s sightline on this last song is utterly human.