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《Why is Keats’ “To Autumn” Such a Popular Poem?》__Yu Fong-ying (61)

    To Autumn by John Keats (1795-1821)

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,         5
  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,          10
    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;             15
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;                  20
  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,         25
  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;     30
  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft 
  The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft; 
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.                                       To Autumn by John Keats (1795-1821)

To get two preliminaries out of the way first. One, about the title. The poem is called “Ode to Autumn” in some anthologies. Keats himself just used “To Autumn”. Two, this analysis is intended for advanced students of English, say school-leaving students and freshmen, the groups I have worked with most often. “Advanced” but “students” nonetheless; so the tone of this analysis rather smacks of that of a lesson. Technical and semi-technical terms are glossed and underlined at the first mention. I hope the general reader will not find it irritating.

There is no doubt that the poem is popular. It is one of the most anthologized poems in selections of English poetry. This is a fact. It is so popular because many people find it appealing. By some people it is considered great, even near-perfect, but whether a poem is “great” often depends as much on one’s taste as on the poem’s merits. I would like to show you how it works. The purpose is to increase your enjoyment of the poem.

The poem begins with two lines that characterize the season of autumn. The first one is purely descriptive. The second one likens autumn to a person (personification), calling it “bosom-friend of the maturing sun”. Then sun and autumn are said to work together secretly to ripen all kinds of fruits and flowers. What is the context (situation) of the poem? When we move onto the second paragraph (stanza), we find “thee” (you). At once, we see that the poet is talking to autumn. The same with the third stanza, “Thou” (you). So, the speaker is talking to autumn and describing it at the same time, making the situation dramatic. Going back to the beginning, we can say that the speaker calls autumn by two long descriptive names, in a way that is characteristic of an ode, “a lyric poem typically in the form of an address, written in varied or irregular metre”. (Concise Oxford Dictionary) In an ode, a poet talks in a formal way in both language and poetic form (type of poem) to a person or thing that is not present right in front of him/her. The poetic form designed for this poem is three 11-line stanzas with lines of iambicpentameter (5 iambs) and a rhyme scheme of abab cde cdde (dcce in the first stanza).

In the first stanza, the speaker shows how the actions taken by the sun and autumn bring plants and vegetables to “mellow fruitfulness”. In the second stanza, four typical activities of farmers during autumn are captured in verbal pictures (images). And in the last stanza, the various sounds made by birds, insects and animals in autumn are presented. Such, at a first reading, is the content of the poem.

One of the reasons why the poem is so good is that the poet uses language skilfully: he makes full use of the resources of language (here English) to express the meaning vividly. By resources are meant the various components of a language: words, structure, sounds, suggestions (or connotations). In the first stanza, the ways the “maturing sun” acts on vegetation are “to load and bless…the vines”, “to bend… the cottage-trees”, “(to) fill all fruit”, “to swell the gourd”, “to plump the hazel shells”, “to set … later flowers (budding)”. The verbs are all single syllables (monosyllabic) which give weight and force to the action. We see this technique used in headlines of newspapers very often: “Police nab robber”, “Liberals mum on pipeline changes”. The poet also varies the normal order of the parts of a sentence to highlight “fruitfulness” by giving the fruits prominence. The normal word order of a sentence is Subject--Verb—Object—Adverbial (SVOA, e.g. We drink milk everyday). Four of the actions just listed involve an adverbial (a prepositional phrase, “with x”), and in three of them it is placed nearer the verb, “to load and bless with fruit”, “to bend with apples”, “to fill all fruit with ripeness to the core”. The effect is to bring up front (fronting) the product of the sun’s maturing process. The seven action verbs one after another make for a cumulative effect. We can almost see different fruits burst forth in the season of autumn.

In the second stanza, autumn is personified as a farmer. The way the speaker conveys the sense of autumn is to capture four familiar farming occupations during this time: threshing grains, reaping, carrying produce from field to farm, and pressing fruits to make juice. Each activity is portrayed in an image commonly observed in farmland. The sense of fullness, contentment, carefreeness, and leisure after hard work is implicit in the actions: sitting carelessly while winnowing the grain, feeling drowsy while reaping, conveying harvest in a steady gait, and watching cider coming out from the press. Readers will relate easily to such typical sights.

The third stanza, like the second, begins with a question, the poet again talking to autumn. We have in the structure of the three stanzas: summon – direct question – direct question, giving the poem a certain form and formality. Since this last stanza is about the sounds of autumn, the sounds of the words play a large part in it. In much the same way as the verbs of the first stanza indicate action, the sound words of this stanza accompany creatures (onomatopoeia): gnats mourn, lambs bleat, crickets sing, the red-breast whistles and swallows twitter. So much is obvious, but sound is created by much more than single words or acoustically similar words (e.g. the “o” in “Close bosom-friend”, an example of assonance or repetition of a vowel in different combinations). In “barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day”, the obvious repetition of b and d (alliteration, the sequential repetition of a consonant) is accompanied by an unusual choice of word (diction). Flowers bloom in season. But when “barred clouds bloom” (clouds in bar or stripe shapes), the verb “bloom” is used in an unexpected way, for clouds are now compared implicitly to flowers (metaphor). It contributes to colour as well as to sound.

Sound can reinforce sense over a long stretch of words. For example, “Or by a cider-press, with patient look,/ Thou watchest the last oozings hour by hour.” The two pauses of one line lead to a line stretched out with long vowels “oozings hour by hour.” More delicately, in the lines “keep/ Steady thy laden head across a brook” (with its rhythm or pattern of stressed andunstressed syllables //vv/v/v/v/), “keep steady” introduces a motion that is enacted in the four regular v/ patterns (weak stress followed by strong stress, an iamb) that follow it. Read the second stanza aloud and you will feel the modulation or variation in the strength, tone or pitch of voice, created by the use of pauses and run-on lines (lines with no punctuation marks at the end). The variation sets the measured pace of the actions. Later, the gnats’ mourning is “borne aloft,/ Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies.” The motion of rising is realized in “borne aloft” and that of falling is acted out in the second line, with a pause showing transition. To appreciate the matching of sound and sense, readers must read the poem aloud a few times.

So far, we have seen that the poet captures the essence of autumn, its sights and sounds, using language in such a way that its sound, structure and words fully play their parts. Readers feel the moods of autumn and experience its abundance, blessings as well as its transience. The poem begins in a light-hearted tone since the words “bosom-friend”, “conspire” suggest (or connote) playfulness. The series of verbs and descriptions sets forth the exuberance of growth. Then the poet goes on to show that the plentiful harvest makes the farmers languid – “careless”, “half-asleep”, “sparing”. Autumn has attained maturity; there is more than enough. The third stanza surveys the countryside from near to far and from river to sky and reveals some signs of change. Lambs are “full-grown”, the fields become “stubble-plains” and the day is “soft-dying”. The simple word “gather” in “The gathering swallows” show how skilfully the poet turns a word associated with “autumn” into a signal of departure. The moods of autumn are recreated imaginatively with words thatappeal tothe senses – the ear, the eye, touch (“soft-lifted”), and taste (“sweet”) -- and by the associations of the words (”conspire”).

There are other features that distinguish this poem. One is that autumn is placed in the context of the four seasons. In the first stanza, autumn continues and increases the illusion to the bees that summer is still around when it has really been replaced. In the third stanza, autumn is told not to compare itself with spring because the sounds of the two seasons are different; it has its own distinct music. In the last line, the coming of winter is foreshadowed by the “gathering swallows” ready to migrate. One season is different from another. Autumn has achieved fullness of life; it is complete, self-sufficient. That is the poet’s vision of autumn formed by his poetical use of language with its many devices.

The year’s end cannot be avoided. Death is implied in the third stanza in a number of ways. The “soft-dying day” first brings up the word “dying”, though there it refers to sunset which slowly turns to dusk. The clouds “bloom” and the “stubble-plains” are still rosy under the sun. Then the gnats form a “wailful choir”, and the light wind “lives or dies”. The last line has a different rhythm, v/vv/v/vvv/, unlike the regular v/v/v/v/v/. It weakens the regular rhythm by having one  beat (stress) fewer and contributes to the sense of an ending. The beauty that is autumn is coming to a close; soon the year will be.

Keats wrote this poem in 1819 when he was twenty-three. He died in 1821.

December 1, 2015

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