‘To Autumn’ by John Keats is perhaps one of the greatest poems to have ever been written; it is the most anthologised poem in history, and is certainly one of Keats’ most genius writings. Written in the later part of his life and career, Keats’ progression in writing is clear in the bold claims he makes, the language he uses and his firm grasp on the structure of the ode. ‘To Autumn’ is characterised by its apostrophising of Autumn as a sinister force preying upon the beauty of summer. Keats’ portrayal of the seasons echoes his beliefs and concerns of his legacy at the time of writing- a feeling that most writers resonate with.
Keats’ poem begins with the description of the beauty of spring and summer which are then contrasted with the portrayal of autumn as a sinister force, cutting the lives of the previous seasons short. Keats’ life was often marked by time- he saw his mother, father and brother all die of a deadly illness that would soon kill him, and his reflections upon time often became associated with legacy, as he wrote of his worries that he would never be immortalised as one of the greats. Keats describes the ‘fruitfulness’ of spring and summer, and how ‘they think warm days will never cease’, in contrast to autumn being a ‘gleaner’ that hooks the ‘twined flowers.’ After the pursuit of autumn, the persona asks ‘where are the songs of spring?’, and describes the music of autumn as a cacophony of noise- with the ‘wailful choir the small gnats mourn.’ Autumn personifies time, which kills the hope of spring and summer, replacing their beauty with a time of static melancholy.
Reflecting upon ‘To Autumn’, as a writer, Keats’ meditation on the legacies of his poetry in his depiction of the seasons is rather relatable. The motif of time throughout the poem, with autumn acting as the killer of it, reflects upon Keats’ fears that he will not gain ephemerality for his works. The same fear is perhaps in all of us- that we may write but never gain an audience, nor be remembered in the canon of literature as one of the greats. It is a profound topic, and as part of our current series where we are requesting a reflection upon a poem and a creative response to it, I have written a piece that meditates upon what Keats explored in ‘To Autumn.’
‘Amidst the dawn breaking
We wake up to see the light has gone
With warm days ceased to be as frost lies on fingertips
The light wind lives or dies.
To stop, and think of its power
As we lay in its rapture outside
Powerless, undetermined, helpless to fight
Autumn is bestowed upon us, silencing our strife
Will we hear those songs of spring again?
Or will they be forever silenced as the leaves whistle down the street
Trees stand bare, river streams frozen
We watch on, waiting for life to begin again.’
Image: by Fabrice Hameau on Wikimedia Commons, URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Taste_Of_Autumn_(47835070).jpeg