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To Autumn

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To Autumn

You may remember the opening line of ‘To Autumn’ (1820) from the character Daniel Cleavers’ partial recital in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001). The poem is the last of John Keats’ ‘six great odes’ and one of his most well-known nature poems of Romanticism.

The following table summarises some key characteristics of ‘To Autumn’.

Published in

1820

Written by

John Keats

Form/style

Ode

Meter

Iambic pentameter

Rhyme scheme

Stanza 1: ABABCDEDCCE

Stanza 2: ABABCDECDDE

Stanza 3: ABABCDECDDE

Poetic devices

Personification, symbolism, allusion, alliteration, rhetorical questions

Frequently noted imagery

Harvest, nature, animals

Tone

Awe and exaltation

Key themes

The power of nature, mortality and immortality

Meaning

The beauty and impermanence of life

To Autumn: Contexts

Let us first consider the poems biographical, historical, and literary contexts.

Biographical context

Somehow, a stubble-field 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. (John Keats, 1819, Excerpt from his letter to John Hamilton Reynolds).

Although published in 1820, ‘To Autumn’ was written in September 1819 following an autumnal countryside walk. The seasons of the year are seen as a symbol of change and transformation. In the season of autumn, the world is readying itself for the upcoming winter. The poet, inspired by the autumnal countryside walk, remarks on the season of autumn and the changes it brings.

Keats six great odes written in 1819

These poems were all written in 1819, known as Keats’ great year, although some were published later. This was when Keats wrote what is considered to be his greatest contributions to English literature, shortly before he died in February 1821. Although Keats does not explicitly name ‘To Autumn’ an ode, this poem of praise nevertheless belongs in this category. Odes are traditionally written in appreciation of a subject. Here, the poem is dedicated to the season of autumn, which it romanticises, describing the natural yet transitional beauty of autumn. Keats odes include:

Historical context

1819, the year ‘To Autumn’ was written, saw the first good harvest after a series of bad ones.1 England had also experienced great suffering and hardship during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). A bountiful harvest was seen as a blessing at the time. This poem can be seen as a longing for the celebration of the plentiful harvest that marks the season of autumn. The eternal cycle of the seasons is referenced in the poem, as Keats hints at the looming transition to winter.

Literary context

Romanticism is a literary movement that peaked during the period of 1785 to 1832. Pioneers of Romantic poetry in English include Lord Byron, P. B. Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats. This literary movement is known for its focus on truth, nature, and the passionate expression of emotion.2

Study tip: Can you name any other Romantic poets?

To Autumn’: A Romantic poem

Keats appreciation of autumn in this poem is marked by features of Romanticism. These include the following:

The expression of deep and passionate feelings:

The form of this poem, an ode, particularly lends itself to emotive expression. The speaker, through a sensual description of the natural beauty around them, evokes a sense of ripeness associated with autumn, thus appreciating the plentiful harvest that this season brings. In ‘To Autumn’, Keats praises the season and expresses rapturous praise of the beauty of life.

A focus on rural life and the common man:

This poem is set in the countryside and focuses on the concerns of country life. Consider its allusions to the toil of ordinary farmworkers in its presentation of the granary and cider press at harvest time. The poem also marks the countryside setting with the use of imagery, such as the thatched roof dwellings (line 4) and the granary filled with grain and husk (line 14).

The expression of imagination:

The poet personifies autumn, imbuing this season with the qualities of a human. The season is identified as a close friend of the maturing sun (lines 1-2). Autumn is also seen sitting on the floor of the granary, with husks of grain in its hair, thus marking the season with human qualities to underline its beauty and transitional nature.

‘To Autumn’: Summary

‘To Autumn’ is a highly sensuous poem that brings the season to life through the sights, smells, and sounds of autumn. This poem narrates the passing of both a glorious autumn day and the season itself.

To Autumn: Analysis

To Autumn, an autumnal tree with coloured leaves, StudySmarterFig. 1 – A tree during autumn.

The poem

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 mossd 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 oer-brimmd 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-reapd furrow sound asleep,

Drowsd 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.

Title

The title ‘To Autumn’ informs the reader of the subject. The season is directly addressed, praised, and personified.

Form

An ode is a lyric poem that expresses the poet’s thoughts and feelings towards a person or subject. Common subjects include animals, objects, or occasions. It may also praise universal themes or forces such as nature.3

This poem is addressed to autumn and, more broadly, to nature itself. The key feeling and overall tone expressed is one of praise and exaltation.

Structure

An iambic foot features an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Examples of this include delight, forlorn, and today. When an iambic foot occurs five times in a line of poetry, it is called an iambic pentameter.

‘To Autumn’ contains a highly uniform structure, which consists of three stanzas of equal length, i.e., of eleven lines each. The same meter, iambic pentameter, runs throughout the poem.

While all stanzas praise autumn, each one deals with a different topic: abundance, harvest, and the gradual passing of the season.

Stanza one directly addresses autumn, praising the bounty of the season. Autumn is presented as a flurry of energy and life.

Stanza two personifies autumn, describing it as a physical presence, specifically a woman. In a smooth transition from the first stanza’s focus on the abundance of autumn, the second focuses on the harvest.

Stanza three introduces the concept of change as it prepares the reader for the departure of autumn and the arrival of winter. It asks where spring has gone and alludes to the imminent arrival of winter.

Rhyme scheme

All three stanzas share the same rhyme scheme for the opening four lines: ABAB. In the first stanza, this is followed by CDEDCCE. In the second and third stanzas, the opening rhyme scheme is followed by CDECDDE.

The uniformity of the second and third stanzas, in contrast to the different rhyme scheme of the first, indicates the key theme of transformation. The poem has evolved from the first stanza, both thematically and structurally.

Language devices and techniques

Personification refers to a non-human entity being given human qualities or characteristics.1

Point

Evidence

Technique

Analysis

Link

Both autumn and the sun are personified in the poem’s opening lines.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit.

The sun and autumn have been given human qualities, such as gender and the ability to form friendships.

Personification has been used to convey the importance of sunshine for agriculture in the autumn season.

Personification is used in the opening lines to establish a sense of autumn as a physical entity.

Autumn is presented as a person involved with the harvest.

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind.

Personification has been used to give this season human attributes, such as hair and the ability to sit.

By placing autumn on the granary floor, the poet associates it with the action of storing grains.

Autumn’s role in the human activity of harvesting is reinforced through personification.

Personification is used to convey the passage of time.

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look, Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Autumn is given the human attribute of observation.

The poet presents autumn as a person who watches the progression of agricultural activity.

In agricultural communities, cider-making is one of the seasonal milestones, marking the gradual passing of the season.

Rhetorical questions are used to make a statement without any expectation of an answer.

Repetitive rhetoric is used in the lines Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they? This conveys a sense of urgency and reminds the reader of the impermanence of the season of autumn.

In an allusion, the writer makes an indirect reference to a thing or person.

While Keats does not explicitly mention farmers or farmhands, his description of harvest activities, such as cider-making and storing grain, alludes to their labour. This is in keeping with a wider Romantic interest in rural life and the common man.

Meaning

One interpretation of this poem is that life is both beautiful and impermanent. All seasons, like all humans, are in a state of constant change and have their time in the sun before passing. This poem encourages the reader to appreciate the fleeting beauty of life and to savour the moment.

Themes in ‘To Autumn’

Now, let us consider some of the poem’s key themes.

The power of nature

Keats showcases the power of nature through its ability to sustain both human and animal life. Although not life-threatening as in pre-Industrial times, bad harvests were still a serious matter in early nineteenth-century Britain. The poet personifies autumn, a force of nature, using a reverent tone to describe it.

Mortality and immortality

The theme of two opposing concepts, mortality and immortality, is presented through the eternal change of the seasons. Autumn never truly dies, as it returns each year. The immortality of the cycle of the seasons serves as a reminder of the mortality of humans.

This theme can be seen most prominently in the final stanza, where Keats reminds the reader that autumn must pass to make way for winter. It shows that the swallows are ready to migrate to warmer climes, and the lambs are ready for the slaughter. The robin, symbolic of winter and Christmas, is introduced. Like the cycle of the seasons, change is a necessary part of the cycle of life.

To Autumn - Key takeaways

  • ‘To Autumn’ was one of Keats’ six great odes written in 1819.

  • The poem was inspired by a walk Keats took in the countryside during the first good harvest after years of poor ones.

  • The poem encourages the reader to appreciate the beauty and impermanence of life.

  • ‘To Autumn’ is an example of Romantic poetry.

References

1 Paul H. Fry, History, Existence, and To Autumn’, Studies in Romanticism 25, no. 2 (1986), p. 211.

2 Peter Childs and Robert Fowler, The Routledge Dictionary of Key Terms (2006).

3 Cambridge Dictionary (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Frequently Asked Questions about To Autumn

The central message of the poem is of the beauty and impermanence of life.

This poem uses personification, symbolism, allusion, rhetorical questions, and alliteration.

The tone is one of exaltation, praising both autumn and nature.

The subject of the poem is the season of autumn.

The main theme is mortality and immortality.

Final To Autumn Quiz

Question

When was 'To Autumn' published?

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Answer

1820.

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Question

When was 'To Autumn' written?

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Answer

1819.

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Question

Which best describes the poem's setting?

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Answer

Rural.

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Question

'To Autumn' was inspired by a beautiful autumnal walk taken by the poet.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What is the form of 'To Autumn'?

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Answer

Ode.

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Question

How many stanzas does 'To Autumn' have?

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Answer

3.

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Question

Which of the following animals are NOT mentioned in the poem.

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Answer

Sheepdog.

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Question

Which literary movement does 'To Autumn' belong to?

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Answer

Romanticism.

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Question

Which of the following is NOT personified in the poem?

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Answer

Clouds.

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Question

This poem was one of John Keats' last masterpieces.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What is the meter of the poem?

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Answer

Iambic pentameter.

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Question

How many lines are there in each stanza?

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Answer

11.

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Question

Which best describes the tone of the poem?

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Answer

Awe and exhalation. 

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Question

The poem features shepherds and farm hands.

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Answer

False.

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Question

The poem alludes to the work of shepherds and farm hands.

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Answer

True.

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