Marked by sensuous profusion and artistic control, this most widely published of English poems is laden with meaning
It is, apparently, the most anthologised English poem. And if critical essays were apples, and the poem a tree, John Keats's ode, "To Autumn", would have toppled by now under the mass of its exegetical fruit.
As a fellow poet's lovingly intimate close reading, Seamus Heaney's Keats essay in his 1980 collection Preoccupations can't be bettered. But the more recent "it's not just about autumn" school has produced stimulating analysis – from Tom Paulin's high wire revisionist act in deciphering a call to armed revolution to a persuasive investigation of local politics and topology by the authors of a recent Review of English Studies article. Are there any unanswered questions left?
Like many readers, I've always linked the poem's story of rich fruition with Keats's superlatively productive "learning curve" in 1819, and puzzled no further. But then a belated reading of Helen Vendler's essay in The Odes of John Keats (1983) stopped me short. Vendler asserts that Autumn is a goddess, a Ceres with a touch of Milton's Eve and Spenser's Autumn. I'd always imagined him as male, so my first and primary question concerns identity: whom does Keats want us to see when he leads us into the grain store of the second stanza? God or goddess? Divinity, homespun allegorical figure, or weary agricultural labourer for Winchester's corn-farming "new rich"?
All of Keats's Odes abound in mythical beings. There are the three urn-figures of "Indolence" (Love, Ambition and Poesie), the eponymous "Psyche" and "Melancholy", the "light-winged Dryad" of "Nightingale", and the "marble men and maidens" in "Grecian Urn". Like Ambition and Poesie, the addressee of "To Autumn" may be allegorical, Keats taking his cues not only from Spenser's "Mutabilitie" cantos, but from Chatterton's "Ælla: A Tragicall Interlude", both of which feature a male Autumn.
A character "oft" seen at rest on the granary floor, or dozing on a furrow when he should be working, Autumn initially resembles neither a farm labourer nor a corn goddess. But if not a corn goddess, what about a wine god? A Bacchus-like being in hangover mode, or even Bacchus, ie Dionysus, himself?
Keats's Greek influence during this period was mediated through sculpture – the Elgin marbles and, especially, the bas-relief which probably suggested the "Ode on a Grecian Urn". This decorates the Sosibios vase, which Keats himself traced from an illustration and depicts a Bacchic procession. So the god of drunken orgy and self-sacrifice may well have lingered in the poet's mind as he worked on the series of Odes. In fact, before repudiating "Bacchus and his pards", he lavished some particularly sensuous description on wine-drinking in "Nightingale". But Keats would also have been aware of the discussion in Plato's Phaedrus, in which Dionysus and Apollo are described as two of the four enablers of Divine Madness (interestingly, Poetry and Love are the other two).
Originally a god of fruit and vegetation, Dionysus introduced the world to viniculture and presided over all things sappy, juicy and fecund. Such a god might aptly be termed the "close bosom friend of the maturing sun" – Apollo's fertility conspirator, no less. The plants named in the first stanza – apple trees and vines – both supply fruit for alcohol. If the poem is to be trusted, cottagers in the 19th century trained their vines to climb along the eaves of their thatched roofs, presumably sheltering the fruit and exposing it to sunlight. Any grapes probably wouldn't have been suitable for wine, but they could certainly have been made into grape jelly and other "dainties". Those laden vines may simply be a fantasy of Dionysian drapery. If not – and I hope not – the symbolism still holds.
The original Dionysus and Apollo are stepbrothers; brother-enemies, according to Rabelais. Dionysus is a raver, Apollo plays the lyre at concert-standard and bestows the gift of prophecy. One pours out words in spontaneous joy, the other intellectualises. In bringing Dionysus and Apollo together, Keats gives symbolic resolution to a personal, creative conflict. I'm not suggesting he was an alcoholic – poetry was his intoxicant. But now the young enthusiast who wrote "O for a life of Sensation rather than of Thought", and told John Taylor that poetry should "come as naturally as Leaves to a tree" (an image perhaps recalling the wine-god's penchant for foliage), attains a point in his own "maturing" where sensuous profusion and artistic control find perfect balance. "To Autumn" becomes a parable of its own making.
Those two faces of inspiration almost correspond to the two faces of autumn, a season that overlaps with both summer and winter. The first stanza ends with a Dionysian flow of inexhaustible abundance, with "more,/ And still more, later flowers for the bees" echoing the "More happy love! More happy, happy love!" of the "Grecian Urn". But now, Apollo warns, enough is enough. So in the last stanza, Keats forgoes rich fruit and honey-brimmed "clammy cells". The sun sets, the short-lived gnats wail, "the light wind lives or dies", the swallows prepare to migrate. If the mood is valedictory, the writing maintains, even increases, its high charge as it replaces the ecstasy of semi-mythical harvest with a fine-tuned naturalism that fuses "beauty" and "truth".
Even at the level of the rhyme scheme, there is an opening and closing, Romantic and Classical contrast. The 11 lines of each stanza begin with an ABAB-rhymed quatrain: the following sestet introduces a new pattern, with a run of three unrhymed words before the rhymes are picked up and symmetry is restored.
Not all of Autumn's behaviour suggests Dionysus. That "patient look" at the "cyder press" doesn't belong to any divinity: it belongs to a real person, probably female, who brews cider. And although Dionysus sports a wreath of vine-leaves, and Spenser's Autumn a crown of corn, Keats's vignette of the gleaner crossing the book with "laden head" similarly suggests women's work and strictly non-Elysian fields.
My answer to the question "Who is Autumn?" is that "he" starts off as a drowsy Dionysus, but evolves toward the human and loses his fixed identity. The figure is a shapeshifter, a male divinity at first, but androgynous in mortal form. Keats knows him well. He doesn't even use the word "Ode" in his poem's title, and the opening line of the invocation is so low-key it might be mistaken for description: "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness …" Autumn is Keats's own Daemon.
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 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 twinéd 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 barréd 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.