Close Reading Analysis – “To Autumn” By Keats Part 2

close reading to autumn keats part 2

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!

Close Reading Analysis – “To Autumn” By Keats (Including Exam Tips 😉 ) Part 1

close reading to autumn keats part 1

So this is an experiment of sorts. Eons and eons ago, I was chatting with Jackie over @DeathByTsudonku and she said she’d like to see what an analysis of a book looked like. Now, my annotated books are a mess I can barely decipher, but I thought I might do something that could actually be helpful to high school students (and anyone else who’s interested) and breakdown how to do a close reading in English Literature. I think this’ll be especially fun cos I’ve done sooo many examples of bad analysis before- I guess it’s time for me to be (semi) serious? And cos poetry is the easiest (in my opinion) for close readings, I went ahead and picked something seasonal. Hopefully it’ll be a useful resource- if not… well Keats is awesome, so you’ve not lost anything.

I’ve tried to show this in stages so it’s both legible and comprehensible (obviously there’s no way it’s this neat in an exam 😉 ) Okay let’s get into this before I chicken out.

First step: read the poem. (No joke!) Read it once through without any analysis, picking out only a few perfunctory details. I recommend starting with form and structure, just because it gives a nice overview, like so:

autumn structure 20005.jpg

Second step: Now you go to town on it. Start picking out imagery, style, sounds, themes, basically anything that jumps out at you. Here’s a transitionary picture to give you an idea of how this might be built up:

autumn imagery 20011.jpg

And here’s the final version:

autumn imagery 30021.jpg

Underneath that I’ve written a few general categories for what the analysis falls under- this is a somewhat unnecessary step, because I wouldn’t normally colour-code something like this, but it should give you a clearer idea of how I get to the last planning step.

(And cos the scanner cut it off the last two categories are death/life and sensory images)

Final step: Using the categories and themes you should be able to come up with basic ideas of what the poem is about. Summarise points in about 5 bullet points- these will be the subject of each paragraph:

(I’m doing this without the guidance of a question, but in a lot of exams there will be one- it’s the same idea, you will just need to answer the question in five points)

  • Fecundity and beauty emphasised- sensory imagery focuses on nature (subsequently life and death)
  • Song to a lover- personified nature- almost religious devotion- elegiac. But what begins as focusing on another, becomes focused on the self. Internal structure of poem reflects song-like qualities.
  • Cycles of life and death- seasons- “hours”- conscious of time- Keats always conscious of time- autumn of life- at peace/making peace with death
  • Season of birth and death- cusp of both- it is full circle in the poem- and all the seasons are wrapped up in one- from summer through to spring- structure.
  • Allusion of closure- actually anti-climactic- fades out- has no real ending. Ecclesiastes: “Everything has its season” recalled here- “lives or dies”- hints at the uncertainty of death and religious overtones in birds- symbolic of resurrection ie rebirth.

(I’ve decided to keep this in the rough form, because even though this is untidy, it gives you more of an idea of how this would work. Also don’t be surprised if you don’t use all the ideas you write here)

Make sure you do this planning stage- unless you want to get halfway through your essay and realise that the poem was about something completely different. One tricky thing is getting the timings right in exam conditions- it’s worth calculating this beforehand (like I mean when you get the syllabus, not five minutes into the paper). I’m not sure of the timings for GCSE/A Level currently, but say you had an hour long exam with one question on a selected text and another on close reading, it would be about half an hour on each, five minutes for each paragraph, five minutes for planning. Adjust accordingly.

You are not going to want to repeat all the information from the analysis, so be selective with examples (helpful tip for exams: preferably pick the more technical examples, but not if you’re uncertain of the correct terms- also learn the correct terms 😉 ) From this you can already see there are *tons* of personification elements to the poem- so it will probably be unavoidable to talk about more than once, but try not to go overboard. Tune in later if you want to see what the actual essay would look like- either way, have a lovely day!