Classification of Poem

Type of poem: lyric poem
Type of lyric poem: ode

Contents of Page

Composition of "To Autumn"
General Comments
      Stanza I
      Stanza II
      Stanza III
Keats Syllabus

Keats wrote "To Autumn" after enjoying a lovely autumn day; he described his experience in a letter to his friend Reynolds:
"How beautiful the season is now--How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather--Dian skies--I never lik'd stubble fields so much as now--Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. 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."
This ode is a favorite with critics and poetry lovers alike. Harold Bloom calls it "one of the subtlest and most beautiful of all Keats's odes, and as close to perfect as any shorter poem in the English Language." Allen Tate agrees that it "is a very nearly perfect piece of style"; however, he goes on to comment, "it has little to say."

This ode deals with the some of the concerns presented in his other odes, but there are also significant differences. (1) There is no visionary dreamer or attempted flight from reality in this poem; in fact, there is no narrative voice or persona at all. The poem is grounded in the real world; the vivid, concrete imagery immerses the reader in the sights, feel, and sounds of autumn and its progression. (2) With its depiction of the progression of autumn, the poem is an unqualified celebration of process. (I am using the words process, flux, and change interchangeably in my discussion of Keats's poems.) Keats totally accepts the natural world, with its mixture of ripening, fulfillment, dying, and death. Each stanza integrates suggestions of its opposite or its predecessors, for they are inherent in autumn also.

Because this ode describes the process of fruition and decay in autumn, keep in mind the passage of time as you read it.


Stanza I:

Keats describes autumn with a series of specific, concrete, vivid visual images. The stanza begins with autumn at the peak of fulfillment and continues the ripening to an almost unbearable intensity. Initially autumn and the sun "load and bless" by ripening the fruit. But the apples become so numerous that their weight bends the trees; the gourds "swell," and the hazel nuts "plump." The danger of being overwhelmed by fertility that has no end is suggested in the flower and bee images in the last four lines of the stanza. Keats refers to "more" later flowers "budding" (the -ing form of the word suggests activity that is ongoing or continuing); the potentially overwhelming number of flowers is suggested by the repetition "And still more" flowers. The bees cannot handle this abundance, for their cells are "o'er-brimm'd." In other words, their cells are not just full, but are over-full or brimming over with honey.

Process or change is also suggested by the reference to Summer in line 11; the bees have been gathering and storing honey since summer. "Clammy" describes moisture; its unpleasant connotations are accepted as natural, without judgment.

Certain sounds recur in the beginning lines--s, m, l. Find the words that contain these letters; read them aloud and listen. What is the effect of these sounds--harsh, explosive, or soft? How do they contribute to the effect of the stanza, if they do?

The final point I wish to make about this stanza is subtle and sophisticated and will probably interest you only if you like grammar and enjoy studying English:

          The first stanza is punctuated as one sentence, and clearly it is one unit. It is not, however, a complete sentence; it has no verb. By omitting the verb, Keats focuses on the details of ripening. In the first two and a half lines, the sun and autumn conspire (suggesting a close working relationship and intention). From lines 3 to 9, Keats constructs the details using parallelism; the details take the infinitive form (to plus a verb): "to load and bless," "To bend...and fill," "To swell...and plump," and "to set." In the last two lines, he uses a subordinate clause, also called a dependent clause (note the subordinating conjunction "until"); the subordinate or dependent clause is appropriate because the oversupply of honey is the result of--or dependent upon--the seemingly unending supply of flowers.

Click here for vocabulary and allusions in stanza I.

Stanza II

The ongoing ripening of stanza I, which if continued would become unbearable, has neared completion; this stanza slows down and contains almost no movement. Autumn, personified as a reaper or a harvester, crosses a brook and watches a cider press. Otherwise Autumn is listless and even falls asleep. Some work remains; the furrow is "half-reap'd," the winnowed hair refers to ripe grain still standing, and apple cider is still being pressed. However, the end of the cycle is near. The press is squeezing out "the last oozings." Find other words that indicate slowing down. Notice that Keats describes a reaper who is not harvesting and who is not turning the press.

Is the personification successful, that is, does nature become a person with a personality, or does nature remain an abstraction? Is there a sense of depletion, of things coming to an end? Does the slowing down of the process suggest a stopping, a dying or death? Does the personification of autumn as a reaper with a scythe suggest another kind of reaper--the Grim Reaper?

Speak the last line of this stanza aloud, and listen to the pace (how quickly or slowly you say the words). Is Keats using the sound of words to reinforce and/or to parallel the meaning of the line?

Click here for vocabulary and allusions in stanza II.

Stanza III

Spring in line 1 has the same function as Summer in stanza I; they represent process, the flux of time. In addition, spring is a time of a rebirth of life, an association which contrasts with the explicitly dying autumn of this stanza. Furthermore, autumn spells death for the now "full-grown" lambs which were born in spring; they are slaughtered in autumn. And the answer to the question of line 1, where are Spring's songs, is that they are past or dead. The auditory details that follow are autumn's songs.

The day, like the season, is dying. The dying of day is presented favorably, "soft-dying." Its dying also creates beauty; the setting sun casts a "bloom" of "rosy hue" over the dried stubble or stalks left after the harvest. Keats accepts all aspects of autumn; this includes the dying, and so he introduces sadness; the gnats "mourn" in a "wailful choir" and the doomed lambs bleat (Why does Keats use "lambs," rather than "sheep" here? would the words have a different effect on the reader?). It is a "light" or enjoyable wind that "lives or dies," and the treble of the robin is pleasantly "soft." The swallows are gathering for their winter migration.

Keats blends living and dying, the pleasant and the unpleasant, because they are inextricably one; he accepts the reality of the mixed nature of the world.

Keats Syllabus

Keats, Online overview
Lyric Poems, pp. 1-34, 51, 52
"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"
"When I have fears that I may cease to be"
"Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art"
Lyric Poems, pp. 34-45
"The Eve of St. Agnes"
"To Autumn"
Lyric Poems, pp. 45-62
"Ode to a Nightingale"
"Ode on a Grecian Urn"
Lyric Poems (continued)
"La Belle Dame sans Merci"
"Ode on Melancholy"
**Supplemental Reading**
      Reading Lyric Poetry
      The Lyric Stanza: A Convention
      Lyric Epiphanies and Speakers
      The Romantic Meditative Ode
Lyric Poems (continued)
"Ode to Psyche"
Lyric Poems (continued)
Paper 1 due
**Supplemental Reading**
      Topics for Paper
      Introduction to Writing Your Paper
      Critical Essays, written by students
      Personal Response Essays,
            written by students
      Essays of Society or General Analysis,
            written by students

Core Studies 6 Page || Syllabus