A Poem for Autumn: "Ode to Autumn" by John Keats (1795-1821)
An Apple Orchard in Autumn
I love the changing seasons here in England but early Autumn is one of my favourites. There is both an atmosphere of nostalgia for the warmer, sunny days of summer and of anticipation. It's when the new academic year begins, bringing new opportunities for both young and old. When I was a child there were a few fruit trees at the bottom of my father's garden. I still recollect the perfume of the newly harvested Cox' s Orange Pippins; helping to separate the apples into boxes for storage in the shed, where they gradually mellowed throughout the following months.Clouds of wasps buzzed around the Victoria plum tree, drilling into the ripe fruit and making we children reluctant to approach though we loved the delicious sweetness of fruit fresh from the branch, and the plum pies that mother would later bake. When we strolled along the lane to the nearby hamlet and church on Sunday mornings, the wheat crops had been gathered and the hay was piled in stacks in amongst the stubbled fields.(Who could forget the frequent reports of self-ignited hay stack fires in the local newspaper). This poem is a reminder of those days. It was the first to which I was introduced after entering secondary education. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I.
Wasps in the Plums
Some Background Information about Ode to Autumn by John Keats
In a letter to a friend, Keats wrote that the fields of stubble that he saw when walking reminded him of a painting. I think the poem has a melancholy tone, which I too feel during the Autumn months, but which in his case is perhaps an indication of the personal problems that Keats was experiencing at the time of writing. It was the last poem he wrote because circumstances forced him to give up the life of a poet to earn a living. One year later the poet died in Rome, at the age of twenty-six. On the advice of his doctor, he had left England for warmer climes because he was suffering from tuberculosis. He is buried in the same cemetery in Rome as Shelley. Some have read this poem as an allegory of death. I prefer to regard it as simply a beautiful lyric poem in praise of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
The Corn Harvest
Ode to Autumn by John Keats
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-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed 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'erbrimmed 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-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd 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
Red-rumped Migratory Swallows
Definition of an Ode
An ode is a poem in exalted praise of something or someone. It usually a direct address, in the case of Ode to Autumn to the personified Autumn season.
Some Technical Details of Ode to Autumn
- The form of Ode to Autumn is three stanzas, each stanza comprising eleven lines
- Each line is ten syllables in length. The metre is largely iambic pentameter (the rhythm said to most closely resemble natural speech patterns)
- In terms of rhyme, each stanza is split into two parts. The first four lines following an ABAB pattern. The rhyme pattern of the following seven lines is varied in each stanza
- The first four lines of each stanza introduces a theme, which is then developed and mused about in the following seven lines
Summary of the First Stanza of Ode to Autumn
The first line ends with an exclamation mark, the traditional way of starting a declamatory poem. The line addresses one of the four seasons, which we already know from the title of the poem is autumn, and connects it with the ripening effect of the summer sun.
Note the alliteration in the first four lines and the personification of autumn and of the sun.
There is poetic imagery, deployed to stimulate one or more of the five senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch) in each of the following seven lines, which brim with fecundity and fruitfulness. References to ripe apples weighing down the branches of trees, all fruits and nuts mature and sweet, bees feasting on flowers. Note the allusion to honeycombs in the last two lines that create an image of honey oozing from the comb in the phrase o'erbrimmed their clammy cells.
Summary of the Second Stanza of Ode to Autumn
The first line of the second stanza is a direct rhetorical question, addressed to Autumn, suggesting that the signs of autumn are everywhere. The next three lines describe the process of threshing grain, a process carried out after the autumn harvest. There is both a metaphor and alliteration in the fourth line image of the cloud of dust thrown up by the process - Thy hair soft-lifted hair by the winnowing wind
Note of explanation - The ancient process of wind winnowing, still used in England when Keats wrote this poem, and still used in undeveloped societies today, throws a cloud of hairs, fine dust and straw, into the air.
Lines 5-7 describe a half-harvested field, which in the days before chemical controls would have been awash with wild poppies, and when the fields were hand-harvested with hooked scythes.
Lines 10-11 describe the process of pressing juice from harvested apples, using a cloth and wooden press, for the making of cider. A number of orchards in Somerset, England, have reverted to this traditional way of making cider.
Perry's Cider Mill, Dowlish Wake, Somerset
Summary of the Third Stanza of 'Ode to Autumn'
The third stanza repeats the device, employed in the second stanza, of a rhetorical question to personified autumn. It starts with a statement that autumn is just as beautiful as spring and an urge not to look backwards. This is a melancholic verse - note the adjectives soft-dying and wailful.
It speaks of living or dying and ends with the migratory flight of swallows and the appearance of robins, symbols of winter. The sentence might be read as allegorical. Keats must have known at this stage of his life that he had tuberculosis, in those days incurable. One year after the publication of the poem, in 1820, he was dead.