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Reading Keats' "To Autumn"

 Originally Appeared in: Contexts and Comparisons: A Student Guide to the Great Works Courses | Published: 1991

1
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’erbrimm’d their clammy
cells.

2
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on the 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.

3
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

 

In “To Autumn,” Keats treats autumn as a kind of god or goddess whose presence can be felt in many occurrences of late summer and early fall. The weather, crops, plants and animals, sounds, even the activities typical of that season are turned into images of the god’s presence. The poem was written on or about September 19, 1819, just at the time of the fall equinox when the lengths of day and night are the same.

Keats did not believe in gods and goddesses. He did, however, take a great interest in the poetry of ancient Greece, and “To Autumn” is the sixth in his famous sequence of odes, poems ancient Greeks wrote to the various gods in their polytheistic world. To the Greeks, a god was not a distant, disembodied entity (see pp. 14-16). Thus a god could dwell at the site of a river, for it was the spirit of the river. Even one of the mightiest gods, Apollo, was at some level simply the sun.

Many European writers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were inclined to reinterpret ancient religions as mythopoetic creations that fused the spiritual insights of myth with the imaginative function of poetry. Often aetheists themselves, these writers thought mythopoetic beliefs preferable to the sectarian creeds of their own times and, perhaps feeling unappreciated, supposed mythopoetic art to have had more influence in the ancient world than their own poetry exerted on their own societies. As a consequence, sometimes the writers envied the power of ancient myths, hymns, and dramas. Sometimes, though, the poetic, pagan, polytheistic world of the ancients simply furnished the modern poets with a style for expressing their rejection of the moral and political authority upheld by the monotheistic religions of their own time. In any case, they became fascinated with the idea that a poem in ancient times had been a sacred act performed by a priest speaking directly to a god near or at the very spot where the god resided.

To lay the groundwork for reading a poem, it is always a good idea first to read through the whole poem aloud and then to go back to each stanza and establish its grammar and its most prevalent topic. Let us use Keats’ “To Autumn” to practice how such careful reading proceeds and to consider how Keats’ mythopoetic imagination transforms activities that would have been familiar and might have seemed mundane to most people in the nineteenth century….

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