John Keats Ode To Autumn Summary, Analysis and Literary Devices



'To Autumn' by John Keats is ranked as the finest ode by no fewer critics than F. Inglis, Walter Jackson Bate, Douglas Bush, Harold Bloom, Leavis, and Robert Bridges. It was written during the sunny September of 1819. What inspired Keats to write this ode was a quiet Sunday walk through the stubble fields near Winchester. To Autumn' is a rich and vivid description of nature in as much as Keats lets the rich store of sense impressions be absorbed and transmuted in an act of calm. mediative wisdom in the stanzaic pattern, we can discover that the poem is not only rich in pictorial and sensuous detail, but that it has a depth of meaning. It is an affirmation of faith in the process of life and change. The only thing is that the affirmation is not made by asserting it, for that might constitute poetry with "a palpable design" upon us. It does so by drawing us into experiences that are self-explanatory.


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,
Drowsed 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 cider-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 redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


The poem runs in 3 stanzas, each concentrating on a dominant aspect of autumn and bearing relationship with others. 

Stanza I describes natural objects at their richest ripest stage. However, there is a slight implication about the passage of time in 'later', 'warm days will never cease', and reference to summer already past. 

StanzaII adds an imaginative element to the description in the form of personification of the season in several appropriate postures and settings. 

Stanza III presents the paradox of the season both lingering and passing. While the stanza is descriptive, its latent theme of transitoriness and mortality is symbolically dramatized by the passing course of the day.


Stanza I

Lines 1-6

The first line recalls the cold of the mists and briskly leads to a description of fruit, the flowers and the bees constituting a lush and colourful picture of Autumn. Sense of ripeness, growth is suggested by 'maturing sun' reaching its climax as the strain of the weighty fruit bends the apple trees and loads the vines. 'Bless' further states the richness and fertility with a properly religious implication. Thereafter Keats moves to the landscape. The soft 'fs' and 'r's' of --'And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core' make the images bulge softly int he language like the fruit itself.

Lines 6-11

Line 6 curves the lushness of 'swell and gourd'. 'Plump' is a verb solid enough to touch and putting a restraint on any excess that Keats might have committed after 'swell the gourd'.

The Autumn of the first stanza is a description of a process and an agricultural conspirer, plotting secretly with the sun to bring ripeness to a state of saturation. Loads, blesses, bends, fills, swells, plumps and sets budding are the words that suggest the autumn process.

The only receptive consciousness of all this activity is that of the bees, who sip their aching pleasure to such a glut that they think "warm days will never cease", for the honey of harvest pleasure has 'over brimmed' their natural storehouses. The fullness of nature's own grace, her free and overwhelming gift of herself is the burden of this stanza. The low sibilants and thrice repeated 'mm' of the last line bring activity into play. Though the sound of bees id drowsy, their work is not.

When we read the final three lines of the first stanza, we can notice the implications of the passage of time. The flowers are called 'later', the bees are assumed to think that 'warm days will never cease' and there is a reference to the summer which has already past.

Stanza II

Lines 12-22

The second stanza is a sensuous observation of the consequences of the process initiated in the first stanza. Autumn is now seen not as setting the flowers to budding but as a woman amid her store taking care of the overabundance of harvest. Autumn is no longer an active process, but a female overcome by the fragrance and soft exhaustion of her own labour. She is "sitting careless", the "hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind". She is passive, embodiment of the earthly paradise, a place of repose. After the sexual and productive activity hinted at by her having been "close bosom-friend of the maturing sun". But she is also the peasant girl drunk with the odours and efforts of gathering, winnowing, reaping and gleaning. The final four lines of the stanza take us to the very end of the harvest, the gleaner bearing her laden head so steadily as to suggest motionlessness even as she moves. The language catches the gestures and enacts them. The faint breeze ruffles hair in the soft 'f's of the line and sounds in the repeated syllables of 'winnowing wing'. The first seven lines are replete with extended vowels-'drows'd, 'sound, 'fume' and there are no heavy stresses so that leisurely movement is suggested.

The final image, autumn as lingering and passing is suggested in 'patient look' with which she watches the last oozings hours by hours. 'Oozing', or a steady dripping, is, of course, not unfamiliar as a symbol of the passage of time.

Stanza III

Lines 23-33

We have post-harvest sounds, healding the coming in the winter. The poet's attitude towards transcience and passing beauty is implicit in 'Where are the songs of Spring'? but is immediately abandoned in 'Think not of them, thou hast thy music too'. The late flowers and poppies of stanzas I and II are replaced by the barred clouds that bloom the twilight and touch the stubble plains with a rosy hue. And though the small gnats mourn in a wailful choir, the sound of their mourning is musically varied by the caprice of light and wind. The poet's rendering of the wail is light. The "full-grown lambs" are now ready for their harvest having completed the cycle. The voice of their bleat comes from a distance "hilly bourne". So also the hedge crickets are heard across the exhausted landscape, the winter singer, the redbreast adds his soft treble and the departing birds, close the poem. This is an acceptance of the process beyond the possibility of grief. The last stanza looks back to the concluding lines of Coleridge's Frost at Midnight, where we hear:

The redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the high thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw.


This ode is remarkable for its imagery which has two characteristics: comprehensive - using all senses and sensuous - rich in the images of the immediate physical sensations. The richness of the fruit and the fertility of the season is brought about in "to load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch - eaves run" (lines 3-4), "And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core" (line 6) and "swell the gourd" and "plump the hazel shells With a sweet kernel" (lines 7-8). The images bulge softly in our mind's eye producing lush and colourful pictures. Words such as "plump", (7), soild and nutty to touch, and "sweet kernel", (8) ready to release the flow of juice in our mouth, evoke a trail of experiences.

Along with the senses of sight, taste and touch already mobilised, the distant buzzing of bees through low sibilants and thrice repeated 'mm' in the last line of the first stanza invoke our sense of the sound.

Keats's myth-making powers forefront in "Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store" associating Autumn with its legends and its myths. Keats, as if, reminds us of the mystery of the movement and renewal of the seasons. The season is personified and in contrast to the activities of Autumn listed in the first stanza, word pictures, images of stillness: a harvester not harvesting, the benevolent deity is motionless "sitting careless on a granary floor" (line 14) or asleep on a "half-reap'd furrow" (line 16), while its hook "spares the next swath" (line 18), the "gleaner" keeping "steady" its "laden head" (line 20), "patient look" (line 21) and stopping to watch the slow pressing of the apples into cider as the hours pass, strike us.

In Keats, the sound echoes the sense is true in the soft 'f's' and 'r' s' of  "And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core" (line 6), the drowsy sound of the bees in the thrice-repeated 'mm' sound of "For summer has o'er-brimmed'd their clammy cells" (line 11). Alliteration in "winnowing wind" (line 15) as if mounts the rhythm slowly to suggest an activity. The rhyming of 'wind with find' as if is to make the language catch the gesture and enact it. The ruffling of hair is suggested in soft 'f's' os 'soft-lifted' (line 15). The extended vowels - 'drows'd', 'sound', 'fume' produce a picture of leisurely behaviour. The 'd' sound in 'steady' and 'laden' (line 20) echo firm steps. In the last line of the second stanza, we fairly hear the last oozings (onomatopoeia).

The ode is an eleven line stanza, the first quatrain rhyming abab, and the following septet, with a couplet, catching on to an earlier rhyme word, just before the last line. The eleven line stanza is long enough to express a complex modulation of thought but not so long as to run the risk of becoming an isolated poem in itself. 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness! (a)
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; (b)
Conspiring with him how to load and bless (a)
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; (b)
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees, (c)
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; (d)
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells (e)
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, (d)
And still more, later flowers for the bees, (c)
Until they think  warm days will never cease, (c)

For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells. (e)

Though the Shakespearean quatrain remains regular, the rhyme scheme in the septet is made to vary. Thus the ide has a unique combination of a Shakespearean quatrain and a Petrarchan septet with a couplet.

Keats' poetic diction is marked for precision like a Molton ore sublimed by enormous pressure. "Barred clouds", stubble-plains, "rosy hue", wailful choir, "full-grown lambs", "gathering swallows" in the third stanza are concrete images of life unaffected by any thought of death. The mind is free to associate the wailful mourning of the gnats with a funeral dirge or the swallows gathering for immigration, but these sounds are more confined to autumn than to any lament on death. The diction in Keats retains a restraint on thought. And yet there is no dissociation between senses and the intellect. It is a perfect integration. His nerve ends to maintain contact with the intellect, the thinking goes on through the images and receives its precise definition and qualification from images and yet retains a classical restraint on thought. Keats in his ode to Autumn does not carry a palpable design on us. The poet is himself completely absent, there is on "I', no suggestion of the discursive language -  in this ode. The power of self-absorption, wonderful sympathy, identification with things, he called "negative capability" which he saw as essential to the creation of poetry.

Reference: Understanding Poetry, Indira Gandhi National Open University School of Humanities.
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