Thoughts on the Autumn Ode of Keats

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TThhoouugghhttss on the AA uutumn OOddee off KKeeats
TT oo AAuuttumn Season off mists and me l l ooww fruitfulness,
Cloose bosomm--ffrriieenndd off thee mmaat uring ssun; Coonns p i r ing ww iit h him howw to looad and bless
WW iitthh fr uit the viinneess that round thee thatch-eeaavveess rru n; Too bend ww iit h appleess the moosss'd ccootttaaggee--ttrreees,
AA nnd fi llll alll fr uit ww iitth ripeenneessss to thee ccoore; TT oo swel l the goouurd, and p l ump thee hazell shells
WW iitthh a sweet kerneel; to sett budding mmoore, AA nnd still moore, la t eerr flloowweerrss ffoorr thee bbeees, UU nnt i l theyy think ww aarrmm dayyss wwiillll nevveerr cceease, FF oorr Summmeerr has o'eer-bbriimmmmeedd theiirr c lla mmmmyy cells.
WW hhoo hath not seeenn thee offtt amid thyy ssttoore? Sommeettiimmeess whoevveerr seekkss abroaadd mmaayy find
Thee sittiinngg carelleessss on a gg rraannaarryy ffllooor, TT hhyy hair soft-lliifftteedd byy thee wwiinnn owwiinngg ww iind;
OO r on a half-reeapp''dd fu rroww sound aasslleeep, Dro\wVss''d ww iit h the fummee off poppiieess,, wwhhiillee thyy hook Spareess the nexxtt swwaatth and all ooff its twwiinneedd fflloowwers:
AA nnd someettiimmeess like a gglleeaanneerr thou doosstt kkeeep Steadyy thy laden head acroosss a bbrrooook; OO rr by a cider-preess, ww iitth patiieenntt llook, Th oou wwaattcchheesstt thee last ooozziinnggss hoours byy hoours.
WW hheerree aree the songgss off Sp ring? AAyy,, wwhheerree aree tthheeyy? TT hhiinnkk not off them, thou hast thy mmusic tooo,, -—
WW hhiillee barred cloouds blooomm thee sofftt-·dyyiinngg ddaayy, AA nndd touch the stuubbbblle-plains wwiitth rosyy hue;
TT h een in a ww a i l ful choir thee small ggnnaattss moouur n AA mmoonngg the rriiveerr sallowws, boorrnnee aallooft OO rr sinkkiinngg as the li gghhtt wwiinnd livveess oorr dies;
AA n d full-growwnn lambbs loud blleeaatt ff r oomm hilly bboouurn; Heeddggee--ccrriicckkeettss singg; and noww wwiitth trebllee ssooft TT hhee red--bbrreeaasstt wwhhiisstllees ff r oo mm a ggaarrddeenn--ccrroofft; AA nndd ga t h e r iin gg swalloowwss twwiitttteerr i n thee skies.
II TT iiss,, ooff ccoouurrssee,, aa ssuuppeerrbb ""LLaannddssccaappee,,"" iinn tthhee ooppiinniioonn ooff ssommee the fiinneesstt in thee laannguuaaggee,, aa ppooeemm ooff aallmmoosstt ppuurree description. Iss itt anything mmoorree?? TToo KKeennnneetthh MMuuiirr,, wrriittinng in 1958, and speakinng pprreettttyy mmuuchh foorr aann entirree geenneerraattiioonn off critiicss,, the answeerr aappppeeaarrss ttoo bbee ""NNo":



"To Autumn, the last of the odes, requires little commentary . . . Keats describes Nature as she is . . . The poem expresses the essence of the season, but it draws no lesson, no overt comparison with human life."1 If by "describing Nature as she i s " Muir means that Keats has recorded the scene before him objectively, one would have to reply that except in most general seasonal terms there is simply no way one can know whether or not that was the case. It would be my guess, however, that Keats was being quite selective. Obviously certain things about the season have been stressed, others barely touched on, still others ignored altogether: no one, for example, is shown doing any work; nor is there a hint of rain anywhere (in England, in Autumn!) He seems in fact to have included only those aspects of the season that agreed with the special point of view from which he was regarding it. But what, after all, is a point of view? It is a window, precisely, in an attitude. Which is to say, it is inherently a critical act. Under even the simplest natural description there is bound to lie some metaphysical bedrock — something in virtue of which certain attitudes toward a scene (hence certain values) are celebrated and others excluded (or even, by implication, opposed). On a priori grounds alone, therefore, I should want to call "To Autumn" a meditative poem, a philosophical poem. But philosophical about what?
A rich autumn landscape, done by a youthful poet of love and nature, in an apparently happy frame of mind. The most innocent-looking of poems. Which of course it is, though at the same time is not — for the "rich autumn landscape" isn't the only poem that is here. One soon becomes aware of a second poem, just below the surface of the familiar one, a poem so intent, so looming, so full of wonder, that you almost hold your breath reading it. This under poem, or inner poem, is the one I want to consider in these notes. Parts of it can be seen immediately, registered here and there at the surface, so to



speak, of the outer poem as a visible disturbance in the syntax. The ode opens in fact with an instance of this, where in spite of the stanza's appearance of weight and calm there is plainly enough emotional stress occurring somewhere below the surface of the lines to disrupt the grammatical structure of the stanza and produce not the completed thought or statement one had expected but an interrupted, suspended, eleven line sentence-fragment instead. It is a great opening certainly, and wonderfully dramatic: in the very act of reading it, the stanza changes from quiet descriptive statement, to exclamation, to sustained apostrophe, almost requiring of the reader a triple take. And then the calm fashion in which Keats manages this piece of virtuosity, with all the confidence in the world trailing that salutation out over a succession of present infinitives (six of them!) like a vine over a series of vine props, or like the season's own quiet succession of warm afternoons: "Season of mists . . . conspiring how . . . to load . . . to bless . . . to fill . . . to swell . . . to plump . . . to set budding . . . ." You wonder if it is ever going to end, but end it does, to break off abruptly and hang suspended in mid air, till engaged by the waiting "Who hast not seen thee . . . ? " of the next stanza, where it is not fully resolved either, final resolution not really occurring till the "Thou-hast-thy-music-too" section far down the ode in stanza three. The main rhetorical schema of the ode would then be reducible to something like: Season of mists . . . Who has not seen thee? . . . Heard thee? . . . upon which simple triadic framework Keats mounts a thirty-three line salute to the autumn season that for fugai duration of tone and cadence must surely be the equal of anything in the work of his admired Spenser or Milton.
"Fugai" won't do; too busy, too ostentatious, in connotation. I want a quieter term. What is the actual structure of thi9 poem? How is it organized? Those three solid, self-assured stanzas, all that accomplished



polyphony, the plump English diction, the slow forward movement line after line of the sense — everything seems to conspire to give the impression of orderly succession. Those critics who have commented on its structure, if they haven't always been in agreement as to its exact form have at least agreed that it is basically consecutive, the stanzas moving in orderly sequence, like a piece of music from the opening apostrophe, through the great personifications, to the quiet benediction of the close. And there is discernible progress also, as has often been noted, in the early->- to middle—Mo late autumn imagery (which would hardly have been unintentional on Keats's part.) But I believe there is another principle of order in this poem than sequentially, taking priority over sequence because more in harmony with the deeper concerns of the poem, viz. that of a contemplation. As I understand this special mental state, its distinguishing quality is that it is "plotless," non-directional, without appetency; it is static attention, attention without progress.
That "To Autumn" more resembles a contemplation than a narrative (or pictorial) sequence became clear the moment I saw that the various presented events, though they may be followed consecutively, have in fact no "necessary" connections with each other. That is to say, they are joined not by any logical plot or argument but simply by the fact of taking place. Not that the vines, flowers, birds, fields form only a loose collage; they exhibit more design and coherence than that — a contemplation, after all, is not a jumble. I mean, instead, that it is by accumulation rather than by progression of effects, by co-presence rather than by sequence, that they are able to become Autumn in the end.
Non-dependence on what Keats (with apparent distaste) called "consecquitive reasoning," keeping it anyway to a minimum, has the effect of permitting the speaker's genuine purity of attitude to touch and waken every object in the scene. Nowhere is there the slightest hint of coer-



cion among the components. Nothing appears subjected to the needs of anything else, is cowed, or mystified, by anything else. Each thing is free to be wholly what it is, in its own self-satisfying right — fruits, bees, gnats, lambs, birds, all those strong and diverse egos coexisting in virtually edenic harmony simply because there is nowhere any recourse to hierarchy among them — that, precisely, is the principle which is absent. There is only this brimming landscape, filled with these blissful creatures and processes, all of them freely realizing themselves, declaring themselves, yet not one a mere anarchic entity-initself!
Still, it is Autumn, the year is ending, and they along with it — of that they can hardly be unaware. Why are they so happy then? They ought rather to be sad, seeing that what they are doing, no matter how blissfully, is taking leave of life. And indeed the last stanza is, I believe, ordinarily considered to be death-haunted: it is evening, light is fading, the landscape exhausted; small gnats are beginning to mourn, birds to migrate; the verb "die" is even used twice in the space of five lines. Thus, for instance, Harold Bloom, in The Visionary Company:
Winter descends here as a man might hope to die, with a natural sweetness, a natural movement akin to . . . the organizing songs of Keats's swallows as they gather together for flight beyond winter . . . The departing birds, seeking another warmth, close the poem, which has climaxed in an acceptance of process beyond the possibility of grief.
This has all of Bloom's characteristic freshness as a reading, but it is marred, I think, by certain venerable stockresponses: Autumn = mortality; evening = dying; the gathering swallows = migratory birds fleeing impending winter (i.e. death), etc. Actually, however, Keats's swallows may not be gathering at all for the purpose of departing for warmer climes, but for the purpose of pursuing their evening meal with (being young adults) impressive aerial skill and the keenest of appetites just as long as there is light to fly by. As for the "mourning" gnats, their



note needn't strike one as monitory either; it seems to me sensuous and, so to speak, golden, the evening counterpart of the bees', and graver in tone because there are kinds of joy that are too rich for a bustling gaiety and laughter. Heard in concert, moreover, with the other sounds and voices in the stanza they seem to be blessing the time, rather than grieving over it. (The individual gnats, for that matter, are dancing!) The roots of joy in this poem may be profound, but they are not obscure. We tend — it is one of our cultural myths — to think of the year, hence of human life, as running downhill toward Autumn. But, on the contrary, "The nature of a thing," as Aristotle points out in the Politics, "is in its end — what it is when it is fully developed." This is not seen at the beginning, nor in the intermediate stages, but only at the fulfillment. The year's fulfillment is the harvest, indeed the having-been-harvested; that is the telos of the year, the climax toward which the entire process, once set in motion, had expectantly tended — the year's epiphany, or manifestation, the revealed truth of the year. Why shouldn't the things of Autumn rejoice?
Keats has combined two seemingly contradictory feeling-states in this poem — bucolic repose and alert, almost riveted, attention. It is quite marvellous, I think, though it is not strictly peculiar to this ode; one encounters it (or something like it) fairly frequently in Keats, for he loved to play with oxymoron — in the "Grecian U r n , " for instance, where although in lines one and two the urn is said to be a "bride of quietness," a "foster-child of silence," within seven lines it is found to be vibrating with pipes, timbrels, and "wild ecstasy." This contradiction (if that is what it is) is very different, however, from what we find in "To Autumn" and handled very differently by Keats. In the case of the " U r n , " the quietness and the ecstacy are plainly viewed as separate and distinct states, even restricted to different "sides" of the urn, and alternately rotated for inspection, stanza by stanza, to remain



an unresolved paradox ("cold pastoral") right to the very end of the poem. In "To Autumn," on the other hand, the repose and the intensity marry and coexist with no seeming contradiction whatsoever. The reason for this is surely that the speaker's attitude toward the scene contains no tinge of interrogation (no "Who are these coming . . . ? " "What little town . . . ? " etc., which so tortured the speaker of the the " U r n " ) , but is a purer state entirely — which I would describe as a state of genuine wonder in the midst of familiar scenes and processes. It is lyric perception, pure because motiveless. There is not a single object or process in the scene which could possibly be unfamiliar to a farm boy, and yet everything in it is as intently and distinctly observed and reported as if it were just now occurring for the first time, or being seen for the first time: call it sacramental vision, "passion without desire" in Augustine's words, or (in the terminology of Keats's letters) a greeting that is both embrace and renunciation.
Yet Keats isn't concerned solely with purity of perception here. He is also affirming something about the divineness of the world, of natural existence. The poem is emphatic and eloquent on the point throughout, insisting that the sources of meaning and value are located not in some remote transcendental Beyond but in the immediate tissues of familiar things, that (in Blake's words) everything that lives is holy, that things give birth to meanings, that things are meanings. There is even a clear and distinct sense in which "To A u t u m n " the last of the odes and their undoubted climax, is the anti-Cartesian poem par excellence — a sort of heroic moment, or rallying point of wholeness and sanity in the middle of some accelerating nightmare. Filled to the brim with the "Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts," with naming rather than numbering, greeting rather than formulating, blessing rather than inspecting, affirmation rather than denial, what is it but the answer, or counter-scripture, to the "dubito" of Descartes' First Meditation?



There is a definite pattern of religious imagery running through the poem. In stanza one the sun and the season are seen as secret co-workers engaged in the performance of a rite whose purpose is to bring about a miracle (an abundant harvest). That they are something other than lay magicians — perhaps priest and priestess, possibly god and goddess — is seen from the fact that their purpose is not just to "load" the vines and trees with fruit but also to "bless" them. Their whole procedure, in fact has the order and gravity of a rite whose steps are almost listed and named as the lines proceed. In the second stanza, the genius of the season is personified as a dreaming maiden — more a priestess, however, than simple country girl, for her face has a rapt expression like that on the face of some tapestry madonna who knows she is somehow the source of the mystery on which she gazes. Stanza three consolidates the religious allusions and associations in the strongly implied image of a temple interior, divine service in progress: there is a "wailful choir" of "small gnats," whose thin cloud floats or sinks like incense along the river-aisles, and the whole interior is suffused with a stained-glass light that falls from "barred" and "blooming" skies.
The effect of these lovely images is to transform and exalt the commonplace: something as merely routine as a seasonal change acquires the dignity of a sacred rite, and an ordinary natural process becomes a loving "conspiracy." True, the effect of the conspiracy is to deceive the bees into thinking warm days will never cease. But it is a benign deception, and one that only serves to magnify the plentitude of the season: autumn after autumn will return, year after year, and there will always be later flowers for the bees. If they have been deceived, it is only by way of being undeceived: they have only relinquished one mortal illusion, that the year is ending, to enter a much greater year, that of the Timeless Present.
If we had only this one poem by Keats — no "Nightingale," no "Grecian U r n , " no Hyperion — we would have



all the evidence we would require to number him with the prophets. "To A u t u m n " is the work of a mind in a very pure state of illumination. It has the qualities of a beatitude: blessedness, inexhaustibility. Read, re-read, restudied again and again, like a passage of scripture it refuses to empty, even to diminish. There is, in fact, something inscrutable about it. For while it is a poem that demands nothing, claims nothing, insists on nothing, contains nothing to dispute about, praises no one, attacks no one, never once reflects upon itself, it is at the same time a poem absolutely brimming with the powerful presence of its central theme, the nearest equivalent to which might perhaps be Jesus's "consider the lilies of the field." Yet with what wonderful tact does Keats refrain from remarking of his trees and fields that "they toil not, neither do they spin"; how carefully he avoids pointing out that Solomon was not so beautifully arrayed as they are. The reason he can so refrain is that he understood perfectly the art of the beatitude, and the cast of mind behind it, understood that in the age of Jeremy Bentham, William Cobbett, and Adam Smith, in the very morning of industrialism, it would be by being a maximless object, and so the antithesis of its age, that his poem would best make its point, understood what we in the evening of the same day understand: that once one has looked at a moss'd cottage tree, an unreaped furrow, a stubble plain and seen not a marketable, or marketed, commodity but a timeless sacred object, he is already safely past the point of wanting to use them, or any part of the natural world for that matter, having begun instead to bless them.
There is a reciprocity, or transfer, of graciousness between the natural objects and the man-made things in Keats's scene. It flows from the objects to the things. The implements of agriculture and industry have the look of things that have been redeemed (from their fallen estate, that is, as mere tools). The threshing floor has become a temple of indolence; the reaping hook for the first time in



its history spares not cuts; the cider press is so sunk in its solemn rites and mysteries that it seems to be dreaming of cider rather than producing it. A l l the components of the scene, purged of immediate utility, have the appearance of things that are charmed with each other, obliged to each other, no longer related by function, or even by need, but solely by grace. It is how things would have looked, been looked at, in Eden, before the Fall.
A hundred years ago, fifty years ago, what was the literary status of this poem? A beautiful pastoral, that was all. Even as recently as twenty-five years ago I doubt that it could have been seen as the genuine prophecy which it is — it has taken the last quarter century to bring that out. A l l poems alter, no doubt, in significance with time, grow, deepen, dwindle, disappear, as they are "proved" or "disproved" by an ongoing history, most I am afraid passing into nothingness; but this one seems to have been altered in its very depths. It is unarguably a much greater poem today, has much more profundity and scope, than on the day of its first publication in 1820. What has changed, and has worked the change, is of course the subject with which it deals, the natural environment and our complex relationship to it. We live now with a globally-shared sense of environmental emergency, our consciousness of which has deeply affected this poem's literary significance. The words are the same, the scene as bucolic as ever; but in its depths it has undergone a transformation and has emerged a prophecy.
It was always a prophecy potentially, in the sense that a later stage of any process will have been inherent in an earlier. But it is a prophecy for us in ways it could never have been for any generation of readers prior to our own. Having, as a culture, pursued in our dealings with nature a course the very opposite of the one celebrated by the ode, we have simply arrived at a point where its prophetic character has become fully apparent (more apparent, in fact, than it could have been to its author).

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Thoughts on the Autumn Ode of Keats