Keats poem “To Autumn”

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(HOST) Fall colors were at their peak in much of Vermont this past weekend, and for commentator Peter Gilbert they brought to mind a famous poem that’s been called “…as close to perfect as any shorter poem in the English language.”

(GILBERT) John Keats wrote “To Autumn” after enjoying a walk on a lovely autumn Sunday. In the poem, the poet is speaking to Autumn as if the season were a person – first, someone working secretly with the sun to produce an abundant harvest; then a woman sitting on the floor of a granary; followed by a man who’s set his scythe aside to nap in a half-cut field; and finally a person watching a cider press.

The poem’s three stanzas capture autumn’s progression from ripening to harvest to death. The first stanza describes the ripening. The second stanza is about harvest. And in the final stanza comes dying and death. At the same time, the poem follows the progression of a single day – from misty morning to sunset. And throughout one feels the season’s slowing tempo.

Here’s “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-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,
Drows’d 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 cyder-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 red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

I didn’t particularly like the poem in high school. Youth yearned for narrative drive. I’m older now, and I relish its beauty, and its message of progression hits home.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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