About Keats’ Ode to Autumn
The Ode to Autumn was the last of the famous odes Keats wrote – and some would argue his greatest. Helen Vendler, a “close reader” who can turn limericks into three hundred page dissertations and the bar room drunks who wrote them into towering geniuses, wrote an exhaustive book on Keats’ odes. Even if two thirds of her analysis is sheer conjecture, her ebullience and knowledge makes her every sentence worthwhile. You may be no closer to knowing what Keats actually intended, but you can safely skip your MFA.
Vendler writes, for example, that Keats “must have” remembered Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight. Evidently she could find no correspondence suggesting this to be true but, who knows, maybe she’s right.
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple trees, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in the silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet moon.
Vendler then proceeds from the conjectural “must have” to “Keats borrowed” in the next paragraph. So… without clearcut documentation, take what Vendler writes with a grain of salt. Whether or not Keats ever read or knew of Coleridge’s poem should remain conjecture. Nevertheless, what the similarities between these two passages tells us is that the Romantic Era had begun. This was the beginning of the age that emphasized the pastoral over and above the urban – an intuitive grasp of the world began to supercede the classical emphasis on reason. The world’s natural state was a central metaphor for the Romantics with its the inevitable cycle of creation and loss.
My main reason for mentioning Vendler, however, is her assertion that reaping serves Keats as a metaphor, throughout his poetry, for the act of writing:
As the act of conceiving poems is paralleled to natural fruitfulness, his books are the garners into which his grain is gathered. A teeming brain becomes a ripe field; the act of writing is the reaping of that field; to have written all the poems one has been born to write is to have gleaned the full harvest from that teeming brain; and to have compiled one’s poems in books is to have stored away riches.
The ode To Autumn… contains Keats’ most reflective view of creativity and art… (p. 234)
Vendler’s entire chapter elaborates on this central premise. She may or may not be right about Keats’ intentions, but in this case at least, Keats’ own letters show that he liked to think along these lines. Vendler’s chapter is worth reading; and even if you don’t read Vendler, knowing this much might help you read the poem in a different light. Keats knows that autumn will inevitably destroy all that he’s found beautiful within the ode, but knows as well that Autumn has its music too – its song, its “wailful choir”, a part of its own dissolution and impossible without it. Autumn must achieve its fruition through its own dissolution. Bear in mind, as well, that Keats knew that he was likely to die when he wrote this poem. The symptoms of his tuberculosis were already underway. Keats once wrote that life was metaphor. Perhaps, with this ode, he is metaphorically describing his own dissolution and the harvesting of his mind – his poetry.
But there’s another possibility – one that possibly sends tenured professors, lit majors and the Helen Vendlers of the world into fits of apoplexy. And that’s that Keats may simply have been writing a beautiful poem. If there was any poet in the history of poetry who could write beautifully for the sake of writing beautifully, that was Keats. His skill with language and imagery rivaled Shakespeare’s. The writing of the “Ode to Autumn” may have given him a venue for an exquisite expression of poetic thought.
Indeed, in a letter to Reynolds written in September of 1819, Keats writes:
‘How beautiful the season is now–How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather–Dian skies–I never liked stubble-fields so much as now–Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. 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.’
It’s thought that Keats was referring to his Ode to Autumn. He was communicating an ineffable experience through sheer poetic expression. That is, he was communicating an experience, not meaning. Don’t underestimate the genius required to pull this off. The possibility doesn’t diminish the poem one iota. There is not a poet alive today who could accomplish the same feat (though I hope one shows up). By way of analogy – not every line of music in a suite by Bach or a concerto by Mozart conceals a subtext. It is music – meant to be enjoyed as music. Likewise. Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” may be a kind of music in words. The “point of the poem” is in the beauty of reading or reciting the poem – meant to be enjoyed as a poem. And this was, in fact, an aesthetic pursued by Keats – (see critics like W.J. Bate and R.H. Fogle). (The poem, in its language and imagery, becomes the embodiment of its own subject matter.)
It was also an aesthetic that Robert Frost referred to as “a revel in the felicities of language”. He used this phrase in reference to the late E.A. Robinson’s poetry, but it was a felicity he also claimed for himself. In my recent post on Interpreting Frost’s “Stopping by Woods”, I cover some of that ground. As it pertains to this post, the author Mark Richardson offers up the most pertinent comment:
Frost directs our attention not to the poem’s [Stopping by Woods] theme or content but to its form: the interlocking rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: “If I were reading it for someone else, I’d begin to wonder what he’s up to. See. Not what he means but what he’s up to” (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. [p. 191]
Although we have no comparable comment from Keats (to my knowledge) it probably wasn’t necessary for Keats to make it. The whole aesthetic of poetry was different. The successful poem was frequently the one that was aesthetically beautiful – in content and style. In other words, how the poem was written was the message and content. In the case of Ode to Autumn, what makes the poem is it’s style and expression.
Remember, when reading “close readers” like Vendler and others, that unless the interpretation comes from the poets themselves, any interpretive reading is outright conjecture. Period. There is no reason to think that Vendler, in any of her analysis, reflects what Keats actually intended. Vendler spends over 50 pages of prose to unfold a one page poem. There’s not a professor alive who can persuade me that Keats thought all the thoughts Vendler ascribes to him. Not every single line has to mean something. But… there are other reasons to read Vendler’s book. You will learn a tremendous amount about the philosophical currents of Keats’s day, what Keats thought along those lines, and how they may relate to his odes.
In the scansion below, I’ve left iambic feet unmarked. The colors of the scansion are as follows: Trochaic Feet are reddish, Spondaic Feet are purplish, Phyrric Feet are yellowish.
On the Shape of the Poem
The first thing to notice, as to the form of the poem, is its division into three stanzas. These three stanzas, in turn, most likely find their inspiration in the Petrarachan Sonnet. Keats’ temperament (along with the temperament of the era) was ill-suited to the argumentative terseness which the Elizabethans preferred – most perfectly summarized in the Shakesperean Sonnet with the sting of its closing epigrammatic couplet. The Romantics were after a different aesthetic – one of intuition and, in some ways, gnosis.
The stanzas are almost like foreshortened Petrarchan Sonnets. Instead of two quatrains and a concluding sestet, Keats reduces two quatrains to one, and expands the sestet by one line – a septet. In the final stanza, there is even a kind of volta between the quatrain & the final septet, as though the whole of the poem were built on the Petrarchan model but in a much expended form.
The couplet isn’t held off to the end of the poem, as in a Shakespearean Sonnet, but is enclosed within the septet, discouraging the feel of discursiveness (the working out of an idea in the Shakespearean sense). The couplet nonetheless has the effect of subliminally grounding or halting each stanza before the final line. The whole of it produces a kind of nested, self-enclosed completeness – a calm and contemplative feel.
[I love the image at right – the statue of Keats. What a pity that he died so young!]
Writing the Ode to Autumn
The meter of the poem might seem conservative, but in Amy Lowell’s biography on Keats, she finds the following comment from one, Lord Houghton:
Uniformity of metre is so much the rule of English poetry, that, undoubtedly, the carefully varied harmonies of Keats’ verse were disagreeable, even to cultivated readers, often producing exactly the contrary impresssion from what he intended. (p. 500 – John Keats)
Lowell then discusses Keats’ compositional practice. I love it, being a poet. It’s an aspect of biography all too frequently overlooked by biographers who are not themselves (unlike Amy Lowell) poets.
In a letter to Taylor, a confidant of Keats, here is what Keats himself wrote about the composition of poetry:
In poetry I have a few axioms, and you will see how far I am from their centre.
1rst. I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity; it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
2nd. Its touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless, instead of content. The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should, like the Sun, come natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight. But it is easier to think what poetry should be than to write it. And this leads me to
Another axiom – That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.
There you have it, advice from one of the language’s greates poetic geniuses.
Lowell then provides a description of how Keats first wrote the poem (p. 503). I’ve recreated what the manuscript might have looked like based on her description (I’ve marked additions in Italics):
Who hath not seen thee? For thy haunts are many oft amid thy stores?
Sometimes whoever seeks (for thee abroad) may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor
Thy hair soft lifted by the winnowing wind
While bright the sun slants through the bushy barn
Or sound asleep in a half-reaped field
Or on a half reap’d furrow sound asleep
Dosed with red poppies; while thy sleeping hook
Spares from some slumbrous
Spares some minutes while warm slumbers creep
At this point, Lowell tells us, Keats decides to rewrite what he’s already written:
Who hath not seen thee oft amid they stores?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad my find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor
They hair soft lifted by the winnowing wind
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep
Das’d with the fume of poppies while thy hook
Spares for some slumbrous minutes the next swath
Spares the next swath in all its twined flowers
This insight into Keats’ compositional practice probably won’t be of interest to anyone but other poets and even then, only to poets and readers interested in an older poetic style. One thing to notice is the italicized bushy in the 5th line of the first sketch. Apparently, or so Lowell tells us, Keats’ line read:
While bright the sun slants through the barn
But this line isn’t Iambic Pentameter. It’s missing one foot.It’s Iambic Tetrameter.
While bright | the sun | slants through | the barn
So Keats, almost casually, adds the word bushy before barn. It was a terrible addition and an anemic adjective. Fortunately Keats didn’t keep the line. However, it goes to show how meter can guide the language and subject of the poem in ways that the poetry of free verse does not. Meter frequently forces the poet to rethink first thoughts, to plumb a layer of ingenuity in a way that free verse poets rarely plumb.
Another aspect which Lowell stresses is how Keats plays with the sounds of a given line. She conjectures that the line that began with: Spares from some slumbrous, was to heavy with the consonant m in both some and slumbrous. You can see Keats, she conjectures, tinkering with the line as he tries to eliminate the heavy alliteration.
Reading the Meter
There are only a couple of lines that will trip up a modern reader unfamiliar with Iambic Pentameter:
Instead, the modern reader would probably be tempted to read the line as follows:
Where are | the songs | of Spring? | Ay, where | are they?
In the first foot, this puts the emphasis on Where rather than are. A trochee in the first foot is an acceptable variant, in Keats’ day, but I suspect Keats meant us to read the line as iambic. Emphasizing are in the last foot, making the last foot a trochee, is an out-and-out no-no – especially in poetry of this time. Keats would never have written a line like this. Just remember Houghton’s comment on Keats’ variants which, by our standards, are dazzlingly mild. A trochee in the final foot would have caused apoplexy. If we read the last foot as iambic, as it should be, then the first foot makes more sense if it is also read as iambic.
Because it’s a lovely use of meter.
The shift in emphasis (with the same word) between the first and last foot is a virtuosic use of meter and just what we would expect from a poet of Keats’ caliber.
The only line that might be a stumbling block for modern readers is the following:
Readers in Keats’ day would have automatically pronounced the –ed in barred – (even if they no longer pronounced the ending in common parlance). Four hundred years before the full pronunciation of –ed was actually a part of everyday speech. However, the extra syllable never stopped being useful to writers of metrical poetry – and so the full pronunciation of –ed continued as an artifact, a poetic convention, right up to the start of the 20th century.
One last thing I can’t help but notice, having just analyzed Milton’s versifying, is how Milton’s metrical habits seem to have brushed off on Keats. Keats, at different stages of his short career, idolized Milton’s verse. Keats, like Milton, mostly limits trochaic variant feet to the first feet of the lines. Keats, on the other hand, shows a greater willingnes to vary the Iambic Pentameter pattern with Spondaic feet and Phyrrics. This flexibility is probably what Lord Houghton meant when he referred to Keats’ varied harmonies. It’s probably impossible to imagine ourselves back in the day, reading Keats’ poetry the way his contemporaries read them.
Suffice it to say, though these days his verse may seem conventional and conservative, in his own day his metrical style was as unique and unconventional as the language of his poetry.