Summary of the Poem an Ode to Autom
AN ODE To Autumn Summary Keats’s speaker opens his first stanza by addressing Autumn, describing its abundance and its intimacy with the sun, with whom Autumn ripens fruits and causes the late flowers to bloom. In the second stanza, the speaker describes the figure of Autumn as a female goddess, often seen sitting on the granary floor, her hair “soft-lifted” by the wind, and often seen sleeping in the fields or watching a cider-press squeezing the juice from apples. In the third stanza, the speaker tells Autumn not to wonder where the songs of spring have gone, but instead to listen to her own music.
At twilight, the “small gnats” hum among the “the river sallows,” or willow trees, lifted and dropped by the wind, and “full-grown lambs” bleat from the hills, crickets sing, robins whistle from the garden, and swallows, gathering for their coming migration, sing from the skies. For s form and descriptive surface, “To Autumn” is one of the simplest of Keats’s odes. There is nothing confusing or complex in Keats’s paean to the season of autumn, with its fruitfulness, its flowers, and the song of its swallow gathering for migration.
The extraordinary achievement of this poem lies in its ability to suggest, explore, and develop a rich abundance of themes without ever ruffling its calm, gentle, and lovely description of autumn. Where “Ode on Melancholy” presents itself as a strenuous heroic quest, “To Autumn” is concerned with the much quieter activity of daily observation and appreciation. In this quietude, the gathered themes of the preceding odes find their fullest and most beautiful expression. “To Autumn” takes up where the other odes leave off.
Like the others, it shows Keats’s speaker paying honor to a particular god desssin this case, the deified season of Autumn. The selection of this season implicitly takes up the other odes’ themes of temporality, mortality, and change: Autumn in Keats’s ode is a time of warmth and plenty, but it is perched on the brink of winter’s desolation, as the bees enjoy “later flowers,” the harvest is gathered from the fields, the lambs of spring are now “full grown,” and, in the final line of the poem, the swallows gather for their winter migration.
The understated sense of inevitable loss in that final line makes it one of the most moving moments in all of poetry; it can be read as a simple, uncomplaining summation of the entire human condition. Despite the coming chill of winter, the late warmth of autumn provides Keats’s speaker with ample beauty to celebrate: the cottage and its surroundings in the first stanza, the agrarian haunts of the goddess in the second, and the locales of natural creatures in the third.
Keats’s speaker is able to experience these beauties in a sincere and meaningful way because of the lessons he has learned in the previous odes: He is no longer indolent, no longer committed to the isolated imagination (as in “Psyche”), no longer attempting to escape the pain of the world through ecstatic rapture (as in “Nightingale”), no longer frustrated by the attempt to eternalize mortal beauty or subject eternal beauty to time (as in “Urn”), and no longer able to frame the connection of pleasure and the sorrow of loss only as an imaginary heroic quest (as in “Melancholy”).
In “To Autumn,” the speaker’s experience of beauty refers back to earlier odes (the swallows recall the nightingale; the fruit recalls joy’s grape; the goddess drowsing among the poppies recalls Psyche and Cupid lying in the grass), but it also recalls a wealth of earlier poems. Most importantly, the image of Autumn winnowing and harvesting (in a sequence of odes often explicitly about creativity recalls an earlier Keats poem in which the activity of harvesting is an explicit metaphor for artistic creation.
In his sonnet “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” Keats makes this connection directly: When I have fears that I may cease to be Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain, Before high-piled books, in charactry, Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain… In this poem, the act of creation is pictured as a kind of self-harvesting; the pen harvests the fields of the brain, and books are filled with the resulting “grain. ” In “To Autumn,” the metaphor is developed further; the sense of coming loss that permeates the poem confronts the sorrow underlying he season’s creativity. When Autumn’s harvest is over, the fields will be bare, the swaths with their “twined flowers” cut down, the cider-press dry, the skies empty. But the connection of this harvesting to the seasonal cycle softens the edge of the tragedy. In time, spring will come again, the fields will grow again, and the birdsong will return. As the speaker knew in “Melancholy,” abundance and loss, joy and sorrow, song and silence are as intimately connected as the twined flowers in the fields.
What makes “To Autumn” beautiful is that it brings an engagement with that connection out of the realm of mythology and fantasy and into the everyday world. The development the speaker so strongly resisted in “Indolence” is at last complete: He has learned that an acceptance of mortality is not destructive to an appreciation of beauty and has gleaned wisdom by accepting the passage of time. 1. What are some of the recurring motifs that appear throughout the six odes?
Given the chronological problems with the usual ordering of the odes (“Indolence,” often placed first in the sequence, was one of the last odes to be written), to what extent do you think the odes should be grouped as a unified sequence? 2. Taken together, do the odes tell a “story,” or do they simply develop a theme? Do you think the speaker is the same in each ode? 3. How does the “Ode on Indolence” anticipate the themes and images of the other five poems?
Given the speaker’s later confrontations with Love, Ambition, and Beauty—as well as with such themes as mortality and the creative imagination—does the conclusion of the Indolence ode seem ironic? 4. In what ways is “Ode to Psyche” different from the other odes? How do these differences affect the poem’s attempt to describe the creative imagination? Why might the speaker want to use his imagination for Psyche’s worship? 5. From Psyche’s bower to the nightingale’s glade to the warm luxury of Autumn, the odes contain some of the most beautiful sensory language in English poetry.
But many of the odes intentionally limit the senses they inhabit. With particular reference to “Nightingale” (which suppresses sight) and “Grecian Urn” (which suppresses every sense but sight), how do the odes create an abundance of believable sensation even as they limit it? 6. The odes are full of paradoxical and self-contradictory ideas—the attribution of human experience to the frozen figures on the urn, for instance. But the “Ode on Melancholy” builds its entire theme on an apparent paradox—that pleasure and pain are intimately connected and that sadness rests at the core of joy.
How does the language of “Melancholy” strengthen that sense of paradox? What does it mean for trophies to be cloudy, pleasure to be aching, a lover’s anger to be soothing, and “wakeful anguish” a thing to be desired? 7. On its surface, the ode “To Autumn” seems to be little more than description, an illustration of a season. But underneath its descriptive surface, “To Autumn” is one of the most thematically rich of all the odes. How does Keats manage to embody complex themes in such an apparently simple poem?
According to Keats, Autumn is a season of mists; a cloudlike aggregation of minute globules of water suspended in the atmosphere at or near the earth’s surface, reducing visibility to a lesser degree than fog; and mellow; soft, sweet, and full-flavored from ripeness, as fruit: well-matured, as wines: soft and rich, as sound, tones, color, or light: made gentle and compassionate by age or maturity; softened: friable or loamy, as soil: mildly and pleasantly intoxicated or high: pleasantly agreeable; free from tension, discord, etc. : affably relaxed; easygoing; genial; fruitfulness and a close friend of the maturing sun.
It conspires; to agree together, esp. secretly, to do something wrong, evil, or illegal: to act or work together toward the same result or goal: to plot; with him in a unique manner to load and bless with fruits the vines that round the thatch-eaves run; overhanging thatched roofs; To bend with apples the moss’d cottage trees and fill all fruit with ripeness to the core. To swell the gourd and plumb the hazel shells with a sweet kernel; the softer, usually edible part contained in the shell of a nut or the stone of a fruit: the body of a seed within its husk or integuments: a whole seed grain, as of wheat or corn: the pit or seed of peach, cherry, plum, etc: the central or most important part of anything; essence; gist; core: to set budding more and still even more later flowers for the bees. Until the moment they think warm days will never end; for summer has over-brimmed; the softer, usually edible part contained in the shell of a nut or the stone of a fruit: the body of a seed within its husk or integuments: a whole seed grain, as of wheat or corn: the pit or seed of a peach, cherry, plum, etc: the central or most important part of anything; essence; gist; core: their clammy cells; covered with a cold, sticky moisture; cold and damp: sickly; morbid.
Who had not seen autumn at the peak of its own season? ; autumn is personified and represented as successively identifiable with women working at the granary fields or at a cider press; Sometimes whoever seeks autumn beyond the boundaries of time may find it sitting carelessly on a granary floor; a storehouse or repository for grain, esp. after it has been threshed or husked: a region that produces great quantities of grain; its hair lifted softly by the winnowing wind; to free (grain) from the lighter particles of chaff, dirt, etc. , esp. y throwing it into the air and allowing the wind or a forced current of air to blow away impurities: to drive or blow (chaff, dirt, etc. ) away by fanning: to blow upon; fan: to subject to some process of separating or distinguishing; analyze critically; sift: to separate or distinguish (valuable from worthless parts) (sometimes fol. by out ): to pursue (a course) with flapping wings in flying: to fan or stir (the air) as with the wings in flying: to free grain from chaff by wind or driven air: to fly with flapping wings; flutter; or sound asleep in a half reaped furrow.
Drowsed with the fumes of poppies, while its hook spares the next swath and all its twined flowers. Sometimes like a gleaner; to gather slowly and laboriously, bit by bit: to gather (grain or the like) after the reapers or regular gatherers: to learn, discover, or find out, usually little by little or slowly: it does keep steady its laden head across a brook or with a patient look it watches a cyder press the last oozing for the next few hours. The Composition of “To Autumn” 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. ” General Comments 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. Analysis
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 slight 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.
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? 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.