Thursday, June 23, 2011

To Autumn - John Keats

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-lined 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 they laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with a 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, bourne 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.

Last night's Tennyson put me in a Romantic mood, so I fished up one of the most touching Keats poems I know.  Written within a year of Keats' death, the poem is characterized by death and acceptance, with hints of the beauty of it all interspersed throughout.

In the first stanza, Keats describes autumn as a season of "mellow fruitfulness."  While we tend to associate autumn as a time of ending, Keats does well to remind us of harvest time, which is perhaps the most fruitful time of the year.  The trees are bent with apples.  The imagery throughout is lush, and inviting.  Autumn is a giving season, blessed by bounty.  Why, then, does Keats move away from pastoral imagery and into images of neglect and death?

"Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find/Thee sitting careless on a granary floor," are the third and fourth lines of the second stanza, characterizing the stanza.  Autumn as found, careless, among the scraps of harvest time.  It's a stark contrast to the bounty imagery of the first stanza.  Fall is half dead, rather than a mellow fruitfulness.  This contrast brings to mind thoughts of Keats' own impending mortality, of which he was very much aware.  Moving into the third stanza, Keats reintroduces the beauty of the season, suggesting that there is something beautiful about endings.

As Keats says, think not of the songs of Spring, for Autumn has its music, too.  Even though it be a "wailful choir" it is still music, and still beautiful.  The poems ends on images of natural songs, and overall, on I feel, an optimistic note.  Singing into the twilight of the season, Keats is realizing that his own mortality doesn't need to be an ugly thing.  Even if it is painful, and will be greeted by "wailful choir" at least he leaves this lovely legacy behind him.

Do you feel the same vague optimism that I do at the end of the third stanza?  Is there beauty in something fading away quietly?  Or has Keats subverted the autumnal harvest into his own funeral dirge?  Does he ultimately accept his untimely death?


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