Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Poem of the Week 12/6/2006: To Autumn

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.

John Keats September 19, 1819

I know--it's not Autumn (indeed, we are full on along in Winter), but Keats felt right for today. His delicate, yearning stanzas and serene tone feel just right for this morning. Plus, notice the focus on age in the last stanza, and the quiet, tender grief that comes along with it. It seems as if the first stanza should be positive, for it is full of words like "sweet," "plump," and "ripe," but I sense some kind of tension or illness. Perhaps the opening of mist puts a damper over the exuberant abundance we find (the layers of flowers upon flowers). Also, it contains friendship and maturity rather than youth and romantic love. This seems to be the central tension in the poem--that between youth and age. "To Autumn" asks, what happens when youth is gone? What is there to love or mourn in age?

Keats achieves a tremendous amount of distance in the end of the poem. By positioning the animals and humans in different places--a hill, the sky, a hidden garden-croft--Keats puts their small noises far off. This has the effect of making both Spring and youth seem far away.

Though the poem asks us not to think of the songs of Spring, that Autumn (age) has its melody, too, one might argue that Spring is everywhere in the background here. There are flowers, bees, and brooks, and the sheep are identified as "full-grown lambs." Keats draws life in terms of Spring, which may place the emphasis on Spring nonetheless.

But who knows. Part of the achievement of this poem is Keats' ability to balance the beauty and abundance of Autumn with the poem's sad tone. "To Autumn" is like a psalm, a hymn, a lament: beautiful and tearing, ripe and sad. Keats has produced a poem of autumn, a poem of beauty and age. In it, there is a passing of grand poetic metaphors or gestures; these are replaced by a slow and solemnly beautiful three stanzas.

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