30 September 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/40

To Autumn

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-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed 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, late flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For Summer has o'er-brimmed 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-reaped furrow sound asleep,
   Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cider-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 barred 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.

John Keats

As we head into October this seemed like an obvious choice; I guess I could try to be clever and come up with something else, but sometimes something is the obvious choice because it's the best choice. When I was young most of the poetry I read was dramatic or epic; I came fairly late to lyric, which I think is maybe not usual, but this ode has been a favorite of mine since I first read it: it's so vivid, so intensely pictorial, and surprisingly action-packed for a poem that spends so much time on ripening harvests. Instead of describing apples as abundant or hazelnuts as plump, Keats gives us verbs: the apples are so plentiful they bend their boughs, the gourds swell, the nutmeats plump up; even flowers, usually linked with spring, are profuse: budding "more, and still more." The busy bees think the warm days will stretch out forever.

The poet addresses autumn directly, and intimately ("thou" and "thy" sound formal to us only because they are archaic, but they are actually the English equivalent of the intimate/singular "you"). Even when Autumn is just sitting, she (or he – nothing in the poem specifies Autumn's gender, though the abundant seasons are usually personified as women, while only sparse Winter is usually seen as a man, generally an old and cold man) is active, in ways appropriate to the season: Autumn's hair is lifted softly and "winnowed," a metaphor which reminds us that this is the time of year when the reapers winnow the harvested grains to remove the chaff; or Autumn is like a gleaner, carrying off the last bits of grain in a basket balanced on her head; or Autumn is watching those bough-bending apples being pressed into cider. This is a very rural poem; autumn in London would look very different.

The gleaning and pressing and winnowing remind us that although Autumn may provide a superabundance of deliciousness, the on-coming months will take them away, making it necessary to store what generous Autumn provides. Winter is not mentioned directly, but there are hints throughout of what's coming: we are conscious, even if the bees aren't, that the warm days won't stretch out forever. Death is here, though it is not presented as grim or violent: the day's dying is "soft"; the diminutive gnats mourn in a humming chorus among the willows ("sallows"; the willow is traditionally associated with sorrow, particularly sorrowful love); the wind, which is light like a breeze, lives or, perhaps, dies. None of this seems tragic or unexpected, but rather gentle and inevitable.

You might expect the end of a poem about Autumn to segue into Winter, but in the third stanza Keats explicitly invokes Spring instead. Balancing all the death references in this stanza, which I mentioned above, there are reminders of birth and spring: without directly saying "born" Keats puts the word into our minds twice in the space of three lines with borne and bourne. Instead of sheep, Keats describes "full-grown lambs," an amusingly odd phrase that links their springtime youth with their autumnal maturity. Birds associated with spring and summer, robins and swallows, are still here, and still making music; Autumn and Spring are linked by their music. After all the action earlier, we close out gently, with solitary whistling, and a wheeling flock twittering up above. Death is not excluded from this scene, or felt as an intruder, but woven in gently, almost as an interlude in the on-going cycle of birth and rebirth.

I took this from the Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Poems of John Keats.


Sibyl said...

Thanks for this! "Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;" is one of my favorite lines/images in all of English-language poetry. I come back to it over and over for it's sheer aural beauty, as well as the sensuousness of the visual image evoked.

I was sorry to see that you have recently suffered a deep loss. I did not want to crowd in on your grief, not knowing you and all, but my heart goes out to you all the same.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Actually, I was pretty certain you would like this one! "Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind" has a beautiful slight lift to its sound, echoing the action described. I've always been taken by the "twined flowers," which pretty much describes how my backyard looks.

And thank you so much for your kind, thoughtful, and sensitive words.