Refreshed by a pleasant breeze as I walked in my neighborhood last evening, I thought about John Keats' "To Autumn."
After observing freshly cut cornfields during a walk, Keats wrote the poem on this date 200 years ago. Each year, I reread the poem on one of those mild autumnal days like the one that inspired Keats.
I never realized until reading Garrison Keillor's now emailed "Writers' Almanac" this morning that Sept. 19 was the day Keats wrote "To Autumn," his last major poem. It was a revelation that the ode to autumn was written in late summer.
Many of the poem's images are more like summer, adding to the sense of longing for a new season. The evocation of summer adds to the poem's foreshadowing of death. Keats died a little more than a year after writing the poem.
"To Autumn" was the last of the great odes he produced beginning in the spring of 1819. Despite that astonishing outpouring, Keats grew despondent over financial worries, the belief that he'd failed as a poet and the realization that he was dying from tuberculosis.
I, like others, believe the poem the most perfect in the English language. What appears a simple celebration of the arrival of autumn has received many interpretations, the coming of death the most prevalent. Noted critic Helen Vendler sees it as a metaphor for artistic creation. Somehow, it's been linked to the Peterloo Massacre, which happened the same year. Difficult to see that connection.
What haunts me about the poem is its understanding of the impermanence of human experience. A young poet knew the reality of walking, the vision of the cornfield, the writing of the poem. He was there 200 years ago, giving us a gift that has spoken to generations.
- 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 cider-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.