Brain Time Again!
In the occasional series of stuff you can read, past entries included a skincare company blog post, an outhouse joke book, and Robert Frost’s sarcastic jokey poem The Road Not Taken.
But nothing superficial today. Holy shirtballs, Motherforkers! Today we get To Autumn by John Keats, considered by many to be one of the pinnacles of all poetry! And this is the season. Let’s dig in.
To Autumn / John Keats / 19 September 1819
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.
And that’s it. Keats took a walk just a little over 200 years ago through the English countryside, and sat down and wrote this blockbuster.
What’s Going On Here?
Surprisingly little. There’s very little in the way of symbolism, or secret agendas. No jokes, no big hidden meanings. Ambitious people have looked for suggestions that Keats was commenting on the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, but the evidence is painfully thin.
It’s a celebration of Autumn, filled with things we all know — a cider press, birds singing at sundown, fields being harvested, fruit ready to pick.
The language is simple, relaxed, and approachable. And it’s gorgeous.
In the most basic way, it’s about a personification of Autumn, some goddess figure of the harvest like Demeter, but she pretty much doesn’t GAF – she’s taking a nap in the middle of the poem, dopey on Victorian opiates! Heh heh heh, burning leaves, we all know what THAT means!
There’s not a ton you can say about this poem except it really, really needs to be read out loud. You can listen to it in this video, but even better, read it to yourself, or bribe someone to read it to you.
The hard to plumb depths of To Autumn are not so much the what as the how. How the hell did Keats manage to pack so much imagery and so much feeling into such a few lines and also, preposterously, do it with such perfectly fitting language? And how did he manage to make it all seem so low key and natural?
Meter, Rhyme, Form, Images
For a nice deep dig into the how of To Autumn, this analysis by Caitlin Kimball does a good job. She talks about the combination of sounds and images that make the poem in an effective, compact, accessible way.
But Wait, There’s More!
But I don’t want to give the impression that the poem is only superficial bits about apples and pumpkins. What gives the poem its almost – almost! – unearthly power is the tension it sets up between life and death. As we all know, Autumn is the time when life is running out, and Keats wrote To Autumn as a 25 year old who knew he had little time left to live.
He was showing the first signs of Tuberculosis as he walked among those fields, and in the 1820s that was known to be a death sentence. At most it could be forestalled, not cured.
And To Autumn is all about the forestalling. Signs of death are everywhere — the clammy cells of the bees hint at the cold chambers of tombs, the hook of the poem’s harvester is the scythe of the hooded Death figure of Western iconography.
But Not Yet
The hook is stilled while Autumn sleeps, and swallows have not yet migrated to Southern fields, with the killing frost not yet here to drive them away.
And what is more, the cells of the bees are brimming with unconsumed honey, the cider is not only still oozing from the press, it is being extracted for fermentation and preservation. Grain is being harvested to sustain the countryside through the winter. Hazelnuts are being gathered to last until Spring.
When Keats wrote To Autumn in September 1819, the world was finally recovering from the catastrophic volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, which blocked so much sunlight that frosts hit much of the Northern Hemisphere in the summers through 1817. This Autumn was a return to plenty, despite being the end of summer.
Winter was coming, there was evidence and no doubt, but for now it was a time to feast, and there was real hope that there would be enough to see Spring again.
Do yourself a favor. In the next month or so, take a walk, go for a drive, ride a bike or paddle a boat. Drink a cup of coffee or tea, eat a donut or an apple. Watch the sunrise or the sunset. Smell the earth, see the fields with the shriveled grain or vines, go to the market where the best last produce is coming in. To Autumn.