‘To Autumn’: a city dweller’s perspective
In spite of having always lived in cities, I have long been fascinated by John Keats’s great pastoral poem ‘To Autumn’, which springs from his deep appreciation of human suffering. I read the poem from this modern city-dweller’s perspective and, as a poet from a working-class background, I am also interested the barriers to achievement that Keats faced. Keats was just nine years old when his father died; this was the first of many early experiences of death. Soon after his father’s death, his mother remarried, but abandoned her children for three years when this marriage broke down. By the time he was 14 years old, Keats was nursing his dying mother while she suffered from tuberculosis. Unsurprisingly, Keats was frequently involved in fights at school and suffered from what we would now call ‘anxiety attacks’. Later, during his medical training, he was further exposed to suffering, for example in holding down conscious patients during operations. This understanding of Keats’s youthful experience helps us to appreciate the depth of feeling in his luscious imagery.
Manuscript of ‘To Autumn’ by John Keats
'To Autumn’ from a manuscript copy believed to be in the hand of George Keats, the poet's brother.View images from this item (2)
The ‘Cockney school’
When Keats began to write poetry, he was mocked in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine for being part of the ‘Cockney School’ of poets, a derogatory term used by other writers of the time, such as Byron, to denote those from more humble backgrounds. The Keats family were not poor – Keats’ father was an ostler (a man employed to look after the horses of people staying at an inn) and then managed a livery stable. Since we now often hear actors reading the poems in Received Pronunciation, I think it is important to remember that this is not Keats’s voice and also that the poems’ original voice would also have been tinged with the sufferings of Keats’s childhood.
'Cockney School of Poetry. IV'
'Cockney School of Poetry. IV' (August 1818) This review of John Keats’s long poem Endymion is the fourth of a series of articles attacking the ‘Cockney School of Poetry’ gathered around the writer Leigh Hunt.
In ‘To Autumn’ Keats expresses an urge to hold on to momentary beauty before its inevitable decline. As a Romantic poet, he immerses himself in the natural world; he imagines the flowers are still blooming surrounded with bees in Autumn, ‘For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells’. The verb ‘brimm’d’ and the adjective ‘clammy’ create a vision of prolonged warmth and abundance, as one season provides for its successor. As a poet with a fondness for exclamation, I have a particular affection for Keats’s surprising exclamatory opening line, ‘Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness!’ This opening line emphatically sets the tone for the jubilant celebratory tone of the poem and prepares the way for Keats to find excess in a potentially gloomy time of year. It is unusual to read a poet celebrating a misty time of year.
In the opening verse Keats imagines the productive relationship between Autumn and its ‘close bosom-friend’, the sun. Keats experiences such an intimate relationship with nature that he personifies both the sun and Autumn. Their friendship means that the emphatic opening verb of the third line, ‘Conspiring’ is stripped of all the paranoid, plotting connotations it had for the Elizabethan courtly intrigue poets and the morally upright poets of the Augustan period. Keats’s Romantic desire for transcendence through communion with nature is highlighted in this usage; suddenly the poem lacks sinister threat. The vines and the moss that cover a cottage illustrate nature working with the cottage to support Autumn. In the countryside, then, even man-made things such as the cottage are intimate with nature, collaborating in the creation of a wonderful illusion, or magic spell, where the bees will think ‘warm days will never cease’ (notice the charming pun on daze) by creating ‘later flowers’ for the bees. Keats sustains this magic spell by using enjambment and by the repetition of ‘more’: ‘to set budding more / And still more’. These effects demonstrate Keats’s inability to conceive of an end to natural growth as his imagination seeks to fill ours with its endlessness; he imagines the natural life of the countryside to be a free-growing bounty like the Garden of Eden. To someone who lives on a suburban treeless road, this Keatsian world feels like a wonderfully imagined paradise.
In the second verse, Keats shifts the mood by personifying and directly addressing Autumn. This approach shows Keats’s sympathy for this benign season which is no austere god-like being because it can indulge in its own produce. Keats portrays Autumn, ‘Drows’d with the fumes of poppies’, the soft sounds emphasise the feelings of intoxication which allow Autumn to relax and enjoy its own work. Autumn observes ‘the last oozings hours by hours’ of cider being made at the cider press, and its ‘patient look’ indicates attentiveness and again shows nature in harmony; its own slow luscious production is a contrast to the aggressive efficiency of the industrial revolution. Keats’s praise of opium and cider hints at nature’s abilities to alleviate pain and offer temporary comfort.
Disease and death
While writing this astonishingly complex and rhythmically lively poem in his mid-20s, Keats knew he was dying from tuberculosis. Even my mild asthma affects the editing of complex poetry as editing requires a re-breathing and re-living of its rhythms. I find that the hustle and bustle of the syntax can sap my breath so I find it amazing to think that Keats, while struggling with a lung-debilitating condition, could have written some of the greatest poems in English. In his terminally ill condition, in his final year of writing (1819), he wrote the metrically, syntactically and phonically complex ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘To a Nightingale’, ‘On a Grecian Urn’ and lastly, his final poem, ‘To Autumn’.
Letter from Joseph Severn about John Keats's last illness, 11 January 1821
Letter from Joseph Severn to Mrs Brawne, Fanny Brawne’s mother, written from Rome, Italy as he nursed Keats during the final months of the poet’s life, 1821.View images from this item (4)
Manuscript of 'Ode to a Nightingale' by John Keats
‘Ode to the Nightingale’ from a manuscript copy believed to be in the hand of George Keats, the poet's brother.View images from this item (4)
That Keats is not a morbid self-indulgent poet is shown by the final verse, which fights against inevitabilities. Keats ends the poem on a noisy high, or as I should say, a noisy countryside high. Instead of our loud industrial machinery, Keats presents us a gentler noise; he hears gnats that are ‘wailful’ and ‘mourn’, full-grown lambs who ‘bleat’ and who are described as being ‘loud’. Other air-borne and gentle creatures either sing or whistle or twitter. I love Keats’s countryside because he hears the sounds I would normally miss and sings their songs while suffering his own decline, as if to remind himself, and us, of the unexpected autumnal beauty in our midst, even if we, and it, are only here for a short while. I love his dignified and calm acceptance that life was coming to an end for him in his 25th year, and this makes him ever more alert to the pleasures of the ‘soft-dying day’.
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