Gilbert: To Autumn

Sep 16, 2016

Two hundred years ago tomorrow, the British poet John Keats wrote one of the greatest short poems in the English language. It’s about autumn, something that Vermonters treasure, as do the countless tree-peepers who visit the state every fall. The poem is exquisitely beautiful, in language and image, and that’s the principal reason it’s such a beloved and frequently anthologized poem.

In the poem, autumn is personified as a person who conspires with the maturing sun

... how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d 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, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Autumn is also described as a woman or a harvester who can be found

... sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, ...

With each reading of the poem one notices new things - details, words, or concepts that enrich one’s enjoyment of the poem. For example, the poem has three eleven-line stanzas, and one may notice that each stanza engages a different one of the human senses: the first stanza emphasizes how things feel; the second focuses on how things look, and the final stanza focuses on sounds - the loud bleating of full-grown lambs, the singing of hedge-crickets and a robin, the twittering of swallows, and, my favorite, because it describes a detail in nature that’s easily overlooked - how

... in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies . . ..

One might notice, moreover, that the poem moves through autumn, from the peaking of nature’s fruitfulness, to harvest, to, finally, the last days of autumn and, inevitably, approaching death. At the same time, the poem moves from early morning to midday, and finally to dusk, with swallows gathering overhead.

Some morning in the next several weeks, when you head out early and see patches of ground fog and morning mist, greet the autumnal day with the poem’s first two lines:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun . . .

It’s a wonderful poem, and it makes me see autumn more keenly and enjoy it even more.