Okay, so if you haven’t read the piece I posted earlier today, I basically decided to give some tips on how to do a close reading. But cos I did all that prep, I decided I may as well actually write the thing. Hopefully all the English Lit students can forgive how rusty I am 😉
“To Autumn” by Keats reads much like a love letter. Addressed to the season, it both evocatively captures its spirit and evokes the poet’s mixed feelings of the transience of time.
Nature is heavily personified though sensory imagery, capturing the intense devotion of the poet. Pursuing the “sweet” taste and the synesthetic “treble soft” voice of nature, Keats writes as if to a lover. Thus the poet highlights the quality of the season- its beauty and “budding” fertility. As the poem progresses, other characteristics, such as “Thy hair soft-lifted by winnowing wind”, are highlighted. This uplifting personification raises Autumn to an almost godlike status, with the ability to “bless/With fruit” and offer a season of plenty.
This devotion to the subject feeds into the song-like quality of the poem. With a lilting iambic pentameter, the poet uses a natural rhythm and rhyming structure to create a sense of musicality. Furthermore, the soft sibilance and alliteration of the opening line- “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”- gives the tone a gentle quality. Keats moreover incorporates sound imagery in nature’s own symphony of “bleats” and “whistles”, emphasising a oneness between art and the natural world.
However, by stanza three, the song becomes a melancholic “wailing choir”. The tone turns elegiac, recalling images of death so that by the end “the small gnats mourn”. For all the sense of timelessness captured in the bees’ belief that “warm days will never cease”, time flows away “hours by hours”. Thereby, Keats captures the transience of the time period, caught between notably distinct seasons of life and death. It is the oxymoronic in between moment of the “full grown lamb” and consequently full of uncertainty over who “lives or dies”.
Additionally, the cyclical nature of the poem is stressed by the inclusion of other seasonal elements. The fecundity of summer that “o’er brimmed” with supplies is contrasted with a winter-like hibernation, “drows’d with the fume of poppies”, which is simultaneously inviting and toxic. It captures perfectly the contradiction of terms that is Autumn- where “barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day”. In this alternating plosive and sibilant alliteration, Keats creates a transformative contrast of sound and sight imagery, demonstrating the paradox at the heart of the poem.
Yet for all the progress of “To Autumn” from life to death, the poet alludes to a hope beyond its ending. In the double entendre of the “swallows” in the final line, the poem returns to the consumption of the start, reviving the lively “ripeness” of the opening in a circular manner. Here then is the allusion of closure, as the song trails off and the bird imagery, symbolic of resurrection, elevates the reader to the further possibilities of heavenly “skies”.
In conclusion, “To Autumn” both transcends and embodies the season. It embraces the inevitable whilst also looking beyond. Personifying nature, Keats lovingly muses over this contradictory time period, with its possibilities and its uncertainties.
(Final tips, make sure to always include an introduction and conclusion even if it’s just a rushed couple of lines like mine 😉 Also note to self: quit rushing things 😉 )
Man, I’m not gonna lie, that was tough. It’s been years since I’ve done one of those, but I hope it was interesting/helpful. Also what would you like to see in the future? Let me know about that in the comments!
And cos I haven’t said it, I hope all of my American friends had a lovely Thanksgiving yesterday!