"To Autumn" by John Keats


Typical of Romantic poets of his age, John Keats embraced extreme emotion in many of his works. This work was composed in 1819 in some ways as a farewell to poetry. Trained in medicine, Keats was ambivalent about his potential career as a doctor. On the one hand, the vocation would provide the material means of life, but on the other, his passion for poetry claimed much of his mental attention. In 1819, Keats finally embraced the reality that he had failed to make poetry an economically sustainable practice and determined to abandon it altogether. The three eleven-line stanzas take the reader through the stages of the harvest season: its bounty in the first stanza, the required labor in the second, and the ultimate decline in the third. In each, Keats parallels these ideas with sensory imagery, from touch, to sight, to sound. 

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.

Reflection Questions

  1. How would you interpret this poem figuratively?
  2. How is this poem a suitable conclusion to Keats's career as a poet? 
  3. How do you interpret Keats's engagement with the upcoming winter?
  4. How is autumn an apt metaphor for simultaneously living and dying?

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