John Keats's major works/To Autumn
Keats wrote "To Autumn" in 1819, a year where he found himself torn between a career devoted to poetry or one in which he would earn money as a surgeon. To compound the matter, Keats found himself unable to complete his epic Hyperion and his brother, George, was in need of financial support. 1819, to Keats, was the last time he would devote himself to poetry, and he wrote five of his major odes during that spring. The poem was immediately inspired by Keats's walk along the River Itchen on 19 September 1819. He described the scene and its inspirational aspects to Joshua Reynolds, an artist and his friend: "How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it [...] I never lik'd stubble fields so much as now [...] Somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my sunday's walk that I composed upon it." The poem was eventually included in Keats's 1820 collect of poetry, Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems.
The first stanza of the poem describes natural processes as it presents a harvest in its final stages. The Stanza provides a union of maturation and growth, two oppositional forces within the work, and this union instills an idea within nature that the season will not end. The second stanza reverses the images of the first stanza and describes the process of harvesting. Autumn, a harvester, is not actually harvesting but exists in a stasis. Only near the end of the stanza is there movement. Within the final moments of the poem, there is an introduction of the harvest and Autumn is manifested in the role of a harvester. The end approaches within the final moments of the song and death is slowly approaching alongside of the end of the year. However, Autumn is replaced by an image of life in general, and the songs of autumn becomes a song about life in general.
"To Autumn" is thematically connected to many of Keats's 1819 odes. For example, his "Ode to Melancholy" introduces the acceptance of the process of life and "To Autumn" deals with accepting the end of life. Additionally, there is a union between the ideal and the real which leads to fulfillment found in many of his poems. Of all of Keats's poems, "To Autumn" most closely describes an actual paradise while focusing on the archetypal images that are connected to autumn, a season that represents growth, maturation, and death's approach. The poem also defends art's role in helping society in a manner similar to Keats's "Ode on Indolence" and "Ode to Psyche". "To Autumn" describes a system in which nature and culture are two separate parts of the universe, and nature is turned into culture by an artist. Civilization is furthered by man's ability to use nature for agricultural cultivation. The artist, like the farmer, has to process nature into a consumable object, which in turn allows people sustenance. The end of the poem is joined in song as nature gives way to civilization, which represents the self-sacrificing of both nature and the artist for society.
The three stanzas of "To Autumn" are able to suggest both a movement from summer to early winter and also day turning into dusk. This temporal movement is joined with a shift from the sensation of touch to sight and then to sound, creating a three part symmetry which is missing in Keats's other odes. Although there is the suggestion of physical motion within the poem, there is no action and there is an emphasis on the lack of movement. Within the second stanza, autumn is described through metaphor as an exhausted labourer. Near the end of the stanza, the steadiness of the gleaner in lines emphasizes a motionlessness within the poem. The individuals are burdened or merely watch the events surrounding them. The poem as a whole creates within the imagination an image of death and a finality that is seemingly welcomed. The poem lacks an emphasis competing themes common to the other Great Odes. Instead, "To Autumn" reveals how progression is no longer necessary because maturation has taken over, and growth and death are in harmony. Along with this harmony, the placing of the couplet before the end of each stanza creates a suspension of closing within the poem and reinforces the theme of continuation.
- Bate 1963 pp. 526–562
- Keats 2008 p. 184
- McGann 1979 pp. 988–989
- Bloom 1993 p.432
- Bate 1963 pp. 582–583
- Bate 1963 pp. 522, 581–583
- Vendler 1988 pp. 124–125
- Sperry 1973 p. 337
- Bloom 1968 pp. 95–97
- Wagner 1996 pp. 110–111
- Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Belknap Press, 1963.
- Bloom, Harold. The Visionary Company. Cornell University Press, 1993.
- Bloom, Harold. "The Ode To Autumn" in Keats's Odes ed. Jack Stillinger. Prentice-Hall, 1968.
- Keats, John. The Life and Letters of John Keats. Read Books, 2008.
- McGann. "Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism", MLN, 94 (1979): 988–1032.
- Sperry, Stuart. Keats the Poet. Princeton University Press, 1973.
- Vendler, Helen. The Music of What Happens. Harvard University Press, 1988.
- Wagner, Jennifer. A Moment's Monument. airleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.