It’s the 200th anniversary of John Keats writing his famous ‘Ode to Autumn’
September 2019 marks 200 years since ‘Ode to Autumn’ was written by John Keats, the tragic Romantic genius who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25
On September 19, 1819, John Keats, while lodging in Winchester, the old West Saxon capital of England, wrote his famous ‘Ode to Autumn’, perhaps the most anthologised of poems.
Keats (1795–1821) had come to Winchester in the late summer from the Isle of Wight where he had gone to work on poems and his verse play Otho. He was attracted by the city’s medieval ambience — and the need for a reference library.
Walks to the countryside, ‘an hour before dinner’, from his lodging house near Winchester Cathedral (the building where he stayed is long gone), became his evening custom.
On Sunday, September 19, Keats took just such a walk. He probably went by the ‘river sallows’ and water meadows along the Itchen, or to St Giles Hill where he would have seen thatched cottages and those ‘stubble-plains’.
We know about that walk from a letter he sent to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds two days later in which Keats describes the effect the landscape had upon him, inspiring him to write ‘To Autumn’.
‘How beautiful the season is now — How fine the air,’ he wrote. ‘A temperate sharpness about it … I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now … 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.’
‘To Autumn’, drafted that evening, was included, after some revisions, in Keats’s 1820 collection entitled Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems. It was the last in a series of six great odes that Keats produced during 1819 and, indeed, the last major poem he wrote in his short life, effectively ending his career.
Marking the writing of ‘To Autumn’ focuses our attention on the odes, in this their anniversary year, and I discuss them in a follow-up essay (‘Celebrating the bicentenary of the great odes…’) for they assured Keats of his place in the pantheon of English poetry.
An ode is a poem in exalted praise of something or someone, usually expressed in noble and dignified direct address but with high emotion; in the case of ‘To Autumn’, the subject is the autumn season personified.
Within a year of writing ‘To Autumn’, Keats, on his doctor’s advice, sailed for the warmer climate of Italy aboard the Maria Crowther, and only a few months later, on February 23, 1821, he was dead, and buried in Rome.
In the following year, fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was buried in the same cemetery. After Shelley drowned at sea, two books were said to have been found in his pockets. One was Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems; the other was of works by Sophocles and Aeschylus.
Despite the equinoctial inspiration which came to Keats that September day in 1819, he was in sombre mood. He was beset with financial problems, including those of his brother George who was in America and needed money, he was apart from his sweetheart and muse Fanny Brawne — he was to become secretly engaged to her in Hampstead in October — and there was the issue of his failing health.
Nevertheless, with the autumn season a natural symbol for a reconciliation between familiar oppositions — fulfilment and decay, beauty and melancholy, the ideal and the actual, achievement and loss — ‘To Autumn’ reveals a maturing of Keats’s thought. The ode’s theme of ripeness ‘to the core’ analogises the maturity which is the complementary aspiring theme of Keats’s moral and intellectual life.
Keats’s awareness that ‘ripeness is all’ — Edgar’s phrase in King Lear — after which the rot sets in, suggests the attainment of a wise passiveness, or acceptance, in the face of human fruition and decay; the ‘gathering swallows’ which conclude ‘Ode to Autumn’ suggest the preparation of the soul for its migration to the next world.
Autumn personified as a pagan spirit of harvest in the second stanza concretises an image to counter the profound sense of loss which pervades this and the other great odes, and with which Keats was struggling to come to terms.
The intensity of this image, passing from the granary floor to the half-reaped furrow, brook and cider-press, heightens the sense of ripening at the same time as merging it with the inevitability of decline and loss, yet, as throughout, maintaining an ‘easy objectivity’ (as Leavis put it), admitting of a reasoned response to inner emotion.
But that summer, Keats appeared to be concerned, if not depressed, about the political situation in England, and there have been theories from various commentators that this, too, influenced his writing of ‘To Autumn’, leading to political allusions in the poem which have a special resonance today, with our ‘surveillance society’.
We might think mass surveillance is a modern development, but the word ‘surveillance’ was actually introduced during the Romantic period, in 1799, and in Charles James’s ‘Military Dictionary’ of 1816 it was defined as the condition of ‘existing under the eye of the police’.
Now, in London, Keats had witnessed unrest in the streets following the ‘Peterloo massacre’ — an atrocity which took place at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, on August 16, 1819, when cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 gathered to demand reform of parliamentary representation. Sabres were drawn and 18 people were killed and up to 700 injured. ‘Peterloo’ was used in a headline by a local newspaper in allusion to the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier.
The Manchester Patriotic Union had organised a demonstration with the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt to speak at St Peter’s Field. Political agitation had been growing in 1819 due to poor economic conditions and lack of rights to vote in the north of England.
Only six days before Keats wrote ‘To Autumn’, Hunt was paraded into London to stand trial for treason; he had been arrested in Manchester. About 30,000 people gathered to meet him and, having returned briefly to London, Keats was among the crowds where government spies were mingling with Hunt’s supporters.
There is evidence that, back in Winchester, Keats, whose literary friends and acquaintances included some radical thinkers, thought his letters, posted at the time of Hunt’s controversial entry into the capital, might have been intercepted by government agents.
As the Welsh writer and critic Richard Marggraf Turley pointed out in a 2017 essay, these were perilous times, which ‘To Autumn’ perhaps acknowledged with its opening allusion to conspiracy and loading (weapons?): ‘Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit …’
‘To Autumn’ contains directed acts of invigilation, says Turley: for example, ‘with patient look’, watching (‘hours by hours’), and seeking abroad (Keats’s first draft being more ominous: ‘whoever seeks for thee …’). The ode ‘begins to read as an all-seeing optic, internalising the very surveillance culture Keats worried about, and itself becoming a spy transcript’.
The reference to the gleaner in the second stanza is also of interest in this context. Although, as Andrew Motion has pointed out (in Keats, Faber & Faber, 1997), the reference suggests Keats’s desire to ‘glean’ his productive mind, and has Biblical and Classical echoes, it more than hints of Keats’s sympathy for the destitute and dispossessed, perhaps hinted at in the phrase ‘wailful choir’.
The ancient tradition of gleaning, under which the poor were allowed to forage on grain fields after harvest, was made illegal in England in 1818, and Keats would have known this from reports in The Examiner and The Champion, journals which he read regularly and to which he contributed poems and reviews.
In the autumn of 1819, due to his financial position, Keats was considering turning to journalism — he was to consult his friend William Hazlitt, the essayist and critic, for advice on this — and would have kept a close eye on political events.
ODE TO AUTUMN / 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.