‘To Autumn’ is a poem in which John Keats explores ideas related to autumn, and continues his interest in finding beauty in everyday occurrences that others may dismiss. Keats is an extremely well known and highly regarded Romantic poet, considered to be a member of the ‘new’ second wave Romantic movement. He typically explores a range of philosophical ideas in his poetry, with a key focus being a desire to be remembered after his death, concerned that the passage of time would leave him forgotten.
This poem could be included in the poetry paper of the A Level Edexcel English Literature exams. You may be required to study this poem depending on which group of texts you are studying. Click here to see notes and analysis for all poems in the ‘English Romantic Verse’ Anthology. It is also a prescribed poem from the ‘Selected Poems: John Keats’ collection for the A Level Edexcel English Literature exam.
The title of this poem lacks hidden meaning, instead being a clear reflection of Keats’s focus in this piece. However, this is still notable and provides opportunity to analyse the effectiveness of this title. For example, it may still generate surprise for a reader that something as regular as a season could warrant an entire poem focussed on it. As a result, this could encourage a reader to consider their own ideas relating to beauty, nature and the world around them. Similarly, it may prompt a reader to consider the role of autumn in poetry, such as the typical focus on winter, summer and spring in preference to autumn. In addition, readers may find it notable that the title includes ‘To’ as if Autumn is an entity or person, further highlighting Keats’s high regard of this season.
Structure and Language
Throughout ‘To Autumn’ there is a notable lack (and uneven distribution) of pronouns, with the vast majority only occurring as the archaic “thy” and “thou” in the second stanza. Many readers may not notice this on an initial read of the poem, instead focusing on descriptions and adjectives which capture the imagination. However, upon further reading and analysis it becomes an interesting part of the poem, which can be seen as showing the overall inclusiveness of nature and seasons in that they are ever-present, rather than being a specific entity. The uses of “thy” and “thou” are mainly centred around the description of the goddess-like figure of Autumn, perhaps showing the power of the season and its ability to capture the attention of humanity and the rest of the world.
The structure of ‘To Autumn’ is notable due to its consistency. There are a total of three stanzas in the poem, and each has eleven lines in total. They also follow a largely similar rhyme scheme pattern, which brings a clear consistency to the poem, helping a reader to follow the flow of the poem whether reading aloud or internally. All three stanzas have ABAB for the first four lines, while a CDEDCCE structure is used for the remaining lines in the first stanza, and CDECDDE for the second and third. This can be seen as important for the poem due to its subject matter of autumn and nature, with this structure helping to demonstrate the consistency of the seasons and their ever-present role in natural life cycles. However, because the rhyme scheme has a level of complexity due to its form as an ode, it helps to break up each stanza into separate thematic sections, contributing to the overall splits in the poem which enable Keats to focus on different ideas.
Similarly, there are a variety of interesting points for interpretation in how transitions between stanzas are handled, and the different ways in which descriptive techniques are used to help progress the poem. This is mainly achieved through three ways: the specific time of autumn, the senses, and the time of day. Progressing from morning to afternoon and then dusk, this logical progression of time through the poem has strong links to the passage of autumn (from beginning, to middle and end) and helps to further emphasise the idea of natural cycles. Perhaps the most interesting technique of the three is the use of senses, starting with the sense of touch in the first stanza with strong descriptions such as “moss’d” and “shells” to help a reader imagine the sensation of touch. This changes to sight in the second stanza, which helps to emphasise the beauty of Autumn, and then hearing in the final stanza with references such as “choir” and “sing”. Some readers may associate the growing dependence on hearing as the poem ends as reflective of the focus on hearing in comparison to sight when it is dark.
‘To Autumn’ Context
The context of poems in the ‘English Romantic Verse’ collection is important to consider as it is an examined assessment objective, and helps to inform higher level criticisms and evaluations of the effectiveness of a poem. In order to do this successfully you need to have both an understanding of the various contextual links to ‘To Autumn’, which are discussed as part of the analysis notes, and of the author John Keats. Check back later for Interpreture context notes on John Keats – in the meantime, here are our suggested links to research context:
In particular, you should have an understanding of the following contextual points related to Keats:
- The links between ‘To Autumn’ and his other Odes, and the potential links and transitions shown between them (the 1819 Odes)
- Keats’s views of nature and the natural world
- The differences between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Romantics, and how Keats can be seen to be a ‘New’ Romantic
- Keats’s views on death, decay and his focus on being remembered after his death (particularly how these worries are found in his other Odes, but less so in ‘To Autumn’)
- Contemporary criticisms of Keats due to his daring and bold writing style
“Conspiring with him how to load and bless”
The choice of “conspiring” is interesting because it typically holds negative connotations related to plotting and scheming, while also being a key introduction to Keats’s technicals of personifying nature. It could be argued that the most effective part of this description is the initial negative expectation is replaced when it becomes clear in the next line that Autumn is wanting to ripen “fruit”. This could be seen as a way that Keats is attempting to challenge negative ideas of the season.
“Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;”
This description is part of an interesting section in the second stanza in which Keats describes Autumn as a goddess-like figure, emphasising appearance and control with the idea of “soft-lifted”. The alliteration of “winnowing wind” is a simple but effective way at helping to make this line stand out to a reader, and “winnowing” itself links to autumn and harvest as it is a process of separating grain from husks.
“Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies”
The reference to life and death is Keats helping to emphasise that it is an important and inevitable part of the natural world and lifecycles, and arguably a key aspect of autumn because it marks the start of death and decline towards winter. There is also an interesting combination of “sinking” and “light” in this line, with the former often associated with death and darkness, in comparison to the freedom and positivity of “light”. Some readers may interpret this as Keats showing his appreciation of the contrasting ideas that exist in Autumn, and his attempt to demonstrate its complexity as a season.
‘To Autumn’ Key Themes
- Transience: A key consideration of ‘To Autumn’ is the way in which the season transitions through different times, both stages within Autumn and as part of the wider natural world and the change of seasons. There is also consideration to ideas that can be related to humanity, such as “warm days will never cease” which creates interesting potential interpretations for a reader.
- Nature: This poem is arguably one in which Keats most focuses on a ‘traditional’ view of nature itself, particularly out of the collection that is being studied as part of the English Romantic Verse. There are an extensive variety of descriptions for a whole range of aspects of nature, extended across different senses to help form a more vivid picture in a reader’s imagination.
Quick Focus Questions
- It could be argued that ‘To Autumn’ offers an expected, potentially stereotypical, view of nature that is not seen in other pieces by Keats. How, and to what extent, is this effective for a reader?
- Consider the repetition and use of types of sounds throughout the poem. How could this impact a reader?
- In what ways could the lack of pronouns in the poem be seen as demonstrating power?
‘To Autumn’ is a significant poem by Keats as a part of his famous 1819 Odes, and because of its influence today on a wide variety of poets. Keats died shortly after writing these Odes, meaning that they offer one of the final glimpses into his writing style and internal thoughts. The wealth of descriptions mean that this poem is great for analysis and comparison with others from the anthology, and evaluation is aided through the use of a variety of senses and transitional devices.