In this third and final installment of our series on Keats’s odes, we’re looking at To Autumn, the poet’s last major work before his death at the age of 25. Keats’s elegiac meditation on the season also serves as a metaphor for his favorite subject matter, artistic creation itself. What parallels does Keats find between art-making and the bounty, harvest, and barrenness of autumn? And what can the poem teach us about loss and our own mortality? Wes and Erin analyze.
Thanks to Tyler Hislop for the audio editing on this episode.
Wes: Okay, so this is the last of our episodes on Keats Odes. We’ve already discussed Ode on a Grecian Urn and Ode to a Nightingale, and today we’ll be discussing To Autumn. Erin, I’ll let you start us off with a little historical background on the poem.
Erin: Of Keats’s six odes, the first five were written in the spring of 1819, and this last one, To Autumn, was written in September of 1819, so we know that it was the last Ode that Keats wrote, and it was also really the last major work that he would write because from September of 1819 until his death, a little over a year later, maybe a year and a half later, he was really too sick to undertake any major work. This is sort of his swan song.
Wes: You wanna go stanza by stanza for reading? Or do you just want to read the whole thing?
Erin: I think it’s short enough that we could read the whole thing.
Erin: And this I actually have memorized..
Erin: …but I would read it from a paper just in case. [laughter] Okay.
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 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.
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-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d 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 cyder-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.
Wes: Very nice. So what inspired you to memorize this one in particular?
Erin: This is maybe my favorite. I think it has just the most lush, gorgeous imagery, and so I memorized it quite a while ago, but I’ve had a tradition now where I teach high school English, and I’ve had a tradition that my 10th graders will memorize and recite this every year around Thanksgiving. And for extra credit, I tell them that they can recite it at Thanksgiving dinner with all of their many, many friends and relatives around them, but that they have Thio record it on their phones and show it to me in order to get credit.
Wes: Yeah, I was wondering if that was an honor system or…
Erin: Yes, no. And so you get a lot of a lot of recordings of these kids just looking incredibly upset. Well, well, reciting this for, you know, 40 people. It’s really… it’s really fun.
Wes: But they want the extra credit that badly.
Erin: Yeah, so it’s a testament to how low they will think.
Erin: No. But because of that, every year my memory is renewed, so it’s really locked in there now that I teach it regularly every year. But the boys, at least… I mean, I think it’s pretty amazing that a bunch of 10th grade boys tend to find this pretty nice. It’s usually every poet’s toughest critic, and they like this. They like it a lot, so I think it has a kind of universality about it. But before we dig in, I should say that it’s three stanzas, that each stanza is 11 lines along this time, not the usual 10 lines that his his previous Odes have had that we’ve covered here, which I think is great because it has an overstuffed quality to it that he’s kind of going for with this idea…
Wes: “O’er brimm’d”.
Erin: Exactly. “o’er brimm’d”. The bountiful harvest, the fruitfulness, all of these elements of autumn as being overflowing and too much, he even does with form. Pretty clever.
Wes: I think it’s another poem that’s often taken as a continuation of his reflection on art and creativity and poetry, and… So it’s the least obvious reflection, though. If it is one, if that’s not a reading into it, I would say it’s the least obvious of the reflections. I mean, you can certainly… in the context of the other poems, you could think about fitting it into that mold. But it’s not, obviously, then.
Erin: You’re right. There is a sense that the metaphor here or the thing that he’s examining really takes over the poem. He’s not in it at all. He’s simply appreciating autumn. And so the direct connection to anything that he’s been talking about before, about art or the creative process, is not in here per se, but it’s interesting to read this after the previous two that we’ve covered and to see it as some kind of just large scale metaphor.
Wes: So I was immediately taken with the idea of the maturing sun, because it makes me think of a few things at once. Of course, the sun as it’s… I was gonna say, moving, but you know, as the Earth moves around the sun and the sun changes its relative position it gets lower in the sky and then also the daily maturing of the sunset and dusk, which is, I think, something he’ll evoke at the end of the poem. It struck me as a kind of contradiction because of the brightness and the fact, you know, the sun is essentially a ball of fire, and it’s hard to think of it maturing per se. It’s something you might tend to think of, as sort of timeless and unchanging, divine, god-like. But here, at the very beginning, we get this idea that it itself is not marking out change with our movements relative to it, but that it’s subject to that change itself. So it’s not simply the timekeeper. It’s drawn within the frame.
Erin: Yeah, I love that. It’s also causing maturation in the things that it touches. Yeah, so there’s that double meaning. For me, the most beautiful line in all of poetry, maybe, is that first line “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”
Wes: Really? That’s a strong statement. [laughter]
Erin: I love this line. I love it so much. It’s so well constructed with its assonance, and it’s alliteration. It’s actually kind of a palindrome. So you get… in ‘season’ you get these two ‘s’ sounds and an ‘n’ at the end of it. “Mists and mellow fruitfulness”, you have the ‘m’ of ‘mists’ and the two ‘s’s’ in the middle. and then another ‘m’, and then fruitfulness, you have the two ‘f’ sounds, and that line ending with the ‘-ness’, the ‘n’ sound again and the two ‘s’s’ to close it off. I mean, it’s just like… it’s just so… so lush and elegant sounding.
Wes: Yeah, he somehow manages to do this. And we mentioned this in our last recording on Ode to a Nightingale. He somehow manages to do this. He makes it the lush with the assonance and alliteration, but without it sounding overdone, at least to me, it’s just got a smooth quality to him. The first line didn’t immediately strike me the way it strikes you, though.
Erin: I think a lot of this stuff has to do with having that weird poet envy that you have, where you say, “Oh, I wish I could have written a line like that” For me, it’s all about the music and not so much about the meaning.
Erin: So just the music of that is so great. But then, if you dig into it, you can just see this misty autumn morning. I grew up in my parents house. They have a backyard, but then there’s a little bit of a line of trees, easily seen, depending upon the season. And then beyond that is an apple orchard. As so, autumn was always my favorite season, and you‘d wake up and you’d see the mist on the apple orchard with all the trees, with the workers going in the field and collecting the apples are people coming and picking their own or something. And this first line has so much of that beauty for me growing up in this, you know, New England town, right next to an apple orchard. It just is… it’s perfect for me.
Wes: Yeah, I was just thinking about the fact that I, for a period of my childhood, three years in England, we had a cherry orchard as our backyard.
Erin: Oh, my gosh. So jealous. I wanted to live on a cherry orchard after reading…
Wes: [laughter] Right.
Erin: …The Cherry Orchard, which makes no sense if you actually live that way… [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] You know, he’s immediately seizing on this idea of fruitfulness, which it’s not my first association with autumn, although when you think about it, right, autumn is when you’re getting the apples, for instance. But it wasn’t an immediate association for me. I don’t know if it is for others. You think of autumn as a time of dying. And yet it’s, I suppose, the dying of the other things is our… it’s fruitful for us. So I guess that’s the way in which the mellowness qualifies it, so..
Erin: The softness of ripe fruit being mellow, you know, this isn’t the kind of the hard, unripe fruit of spring that he’s talking about, maybe in Grecian Urn, but the thing that sat on the vine all summer long and is now softening. And now it’s perfect. It’s juicy and delicious and ready to be enjoyed.
Erin: The maturing sun, as you say, in the next line, also had that process, as you suggest, kind of happened to it. Now the sun is mature, and it’s also mellowed, and it’s not as harsh, and it’s softer, and it’s old age or something. [laughter]
Wes: I think, in the beginning, if you, on the first reading, you have to kind of figure out that it becomes clear, as the poem goes on, that autumn is being personified. But the first clue is the fact that he’s… this autumn is given a friend, a close bosom friend, and then the next clue is that Autumn is conspiring, which is another cool idea. So conspiring how to load and bless. So, again, you get a kind of contradictory idea. To conspire, you might expect something negative there, but instead it’s a conspiracy involving a plan to give the world something.
Erin: This is maybe the first hint, taking the poem for what it is, which many readers of the poem probably do. It’s just a beautiful discussion of the season of autumn, an appreciation of the season, but this is maybe for readers like us, who have gone through the previous two odes and know that it’s always about poetry, or it’s always about some kind of creativity, this is maybe the first hint that Autumn is Keats himself, or the maker, or the poet himself. And the Sun, therefore, in relation to him is perhaps the muse or, you know, some kind of form of poetic inspiration, maybe, because of the fact that the season of Autumn, or the poet, is conspiring with the sun, the giver of life, the giver of maybe poetic inspiration in order to load and bless the Earth with these beautiful fruits or the fruit of poetic inspiration, so great poems, or whatever the artistic metaphor you prefer, great symphonies, or something like that. So this is maybe the first hint that that also could be read into the poem at this point.
Wes: And actually, I was thinking before that mellow fruitfulness, I was talking about the smoothness of the poem, but it’s actually a good description of Keats poetry.
Wes: We’ll see by the end of this we get an idea. Autumn is going to overbrim, right, the cells of the bees. And it reminded me of Ode on a Grecian Urn in saying that it is describing human passion that our heart is cloyd. It’s almost too full.
Erin: Yeah, so we have “the vines that round the thatch-eves”, which I love. It’s such an English image that there’s this thatch-eve cottage or house that has these vines running around the doors, maybe, or between the first and second floors of the cottage. So the fruit on those vines is getting loaded down, is getting heavy with this abundance. And the same thing with the “moss’d cottage-trees”, which I love the layers upon layers upon layers of abundance in the images in this poem that the apple trees in the yard of this cottage are becoming so heavy with apples that the bows are actually bending, which of course, happens. But not only that, but that the trees themselves are also the trunks of the trees and maybe up into the branches are also covered with moss. So there’s that double layer of abundance there, that there’s a tree, and then the moss, and then the apples on the tree, and then the sun shining on that tree in order to make all of these things come to fruition. It’s just a very… it’s like a layer cake. It’s so loaded with all of these layers of fruitfulness.
Wes: Yeah, so you feel the bountifulness within the images of the way the images themselves are multiplied here. Just going back to your… you know, if we do take autumn as the poet, then we get this interesting tension, which again, I think, you know, maturing sun and other images speak too, between what the poet is losing, what trees are… well, now I’m thinking of kind of modifying the metaphor here, but the way in which loss and falling and ripened fruit, which is… it’s fruitful for us, but for the tree, it’s essentially something being given up and lost. And so I think we start to think of what the poet is losing and the perhaps mournful quality of the creative process, and it… I think we’ll be able to say, ultimately, compare that to the ideas in the other two poems. So what’s going on with the bees in the end?
Erin: So there are flowers here, just like there were many, many flowers in Nightingale. And the bees are continuing to take the nectar from the flowers all summer long, suggesting the bees have been storing up this nectar and making all of this honey. And autumn continues to produce these late flowers so that the bees can continue to produce honey. And so he says, the bees will “think warm days will never cease” and that “summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.” So the bees have stored up so much honey over the entire summer, and now, with autumn and the sense of abundance and things being over-brimmed, overflowing, the bees have now stored up so much that the honey is spilling out of the cells off the hive, which I think is just such a great image. It’s like that image of wine overflowing a glass, that image of abundance. But for bees, their wine and their glasses is honey and the little cells of their hive. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah. So maybe this idea of creativity is overflowing. I’m just trying to think about it in relation to some of the other ideas that we revisited in the previous poems. So wanting to escape, in Nightingale, and assimilate the poetic to the natural and the effortless, which ends up, not really when you escape humanity as well, and all those things end up not really working, and poetry is brought back to… and creativity, are brought back into those contexts. An audience is required. It’s not inherently natural. And so there’s always a tension with trying to deploy these natural metaphors. I’m trying to think about it in this case, in this particular case, where we have now this idea of… it’s not a poet who’s trying to… it’s not someone who’s trying to escape, whether through creative process or through aesthetic experience, it’s now just having something to give being overflowing. And in a way, it’s no longer if you’re over-brimming with that stuff, it’s like it’s not a choice exactly. It’s just something you have an excess of that tends to come out.
Erin: Yeah, it’s very full with itself, we might say. As we’ve seen with Grecian Urn, he was looking at spring as a way to suggest some sort of idea about maybe himself or human nature or in relation to the scenes on the Urn and in Nightingale. He goes from spring sort of into, maybe, late spring, early summer, and he projects out that summer is a time when you have the fullness of the beautiful musk rose but also it’s a time where the flies swarm around, and there’s the sense of death inherent in the summer that he projects in that poem…
Erin: …and again using it as a way to signify his kind of bitterness about the progression of the seasons, about his relationship with the nightingale, about his relationship with himself and his own gifts. Now he’s in autumn. He’s progressed through the seasons, and now, rather than using autumn as yet another vehicle to kind of get somewhere or to illustrate some kind of criticism or to put the season in relation to something else, he is doing that, but in an extremely subtle way. And this is just more of an appreciation than anything else. We would expect, from the previous two odes, that he might come to autumn in almost an accusatory way, where he’d say, “Hey, you know… Okay, now we’re finally here and you’re sucking the life out of me. Everything is going to die and I’m going to die. And autumn is when things die and I’m P.O. about that” or something. Instead, he’s sort of abandoned the surrounding vehicles. It’s almost like he’s now riding a bike without the training wheels, like he’s abandoned those. And he’s not talking about what this is taking away from him anymore. He’s not talking about it in relationship to another art form, to the statuary or the bar relief on Grecian Urn, or in relation to the song of the nightingale. He’s just talking about it in itself and appreciating it for itself, and in the process, he’s over stuffing the poem in the same way that autumn is overstuffed. And he’s in the moment, you might say, and you know, more modern terms, so much so that in this first stanza (and we’ll see this progression happen over the course of the poem) in the first stanza he’s talking about early autumn, and this is an appreciation of early autumn because we know the fruit is still on the vine, it hasn’t been harvested yet, and the later flowers, we know, happen only in the earliest parts of autumn, the September and maybe early October flowers. Those were the last flowers that bees can really take advantage of. So this is the beginning of autumn, but it’s also the beginning of the day, mist or something that really only happens in the morning, in autumn, before they burn off. So he’s totally in the moment of autumn. He’s talking about a specific time, early morning, and a specific part of the season, early autumn. And then the whole poem is going to be a progression both through that season, and through that day. He’s in it. He’s not using it as a reflection for something else. He is, and he’s not. He never breaks away from it. His attention is totally in autumn, and then whatever associations that has as a larger metaphor for his relationship with his work is totally unexpressed.
Wes: I was thinking about the ways in which the first two poems are sorts of… you know, they start out with theses that get rejected. So he’s playing around with ideas and then negating them, or at least refining, modifying them. So the idea of the urn in relation to historical truth and then ending up at the point in which truth is actually beauty, and we’re not irritably reaching after facts and reasons, as he says, but we’re finding our way to truth through beauty. And then again with the Nightingale, where we get the idea that poetry is a narcotic or an escape, a merging with the natural world. And I think we get away from that at the end. But here I don’t see that same structure. He’s sort of arrived, I think. And so, as you said, the poem is what it is. He’s in the moment. If you’re going to read it metaphorically, you really have to work to do that, you could take it entirely on its face…
Erin: And it’s interesting because, as you say, it’s kind of the least philosophically obvious. You know, he’s not really advancing any thesis here, which he’s so concerned with doing, sort of coming up with propositions or questions and then trying to solve them or something, in the other two. And yet critics pretty much considered this to be one of the most perfect poems in the English language. It’s almost like now that he’s finally kind of gotten out of his own way and… you know, not that the other two poems are failures in any respect, but now that he’s sort of dropped this wrestling with his own ideas or his philosophical frame in which he puts everything in and he’s not sort of obviously reaching for these larger concerns, suddenly the simplicity of this makes it the most perfect and the most fulfilling of all of his poems.
Wes: It’s funny, because I actually prefer the Grecian Urn the most, [laughter] which speaks to my philosophical tendency to be reaching towards facts and reasons. But you were saying the poem itself is not engaged in that reaching.
Erin: At least not obviously.
Wes: Yeah, I was just trying to get at the… my different… my ranking them differently. The way I approach these things is in that interpretative mode, and the more material there is for that, the more immediately satisfied I am, or the more strange metaphors I can find, or contradictions, or seeming any intentions, like maturing sun or something like that, the more my interest is aroused. So there’s a lack of that, even though I’ve spoken of some of the tensions here, I find it like the least tense. The other poems, they are odes, but there’s a subtle undercurrent or something retracting the praise, let’s say or making it questionable, or complicating it, let’s say, complicating the praise. Here, I don’t find that complication.
Erin: I think something about this poem is kind of resigned, maybe. It’s stop pushing things anymore. It’s saying, “hey, I’ve reached the end here and I’m just going to appreciate that.” And maybe that’s… maybe that’s what autumn is or something. [laughter]
Wes: And it’s sincere. It’s pure sincerity. Yeah, and I think that’s a good point, that is, that sort of acceptance that Autumn is.
Erin: Yeah, it’s a place that he had to get to in his own life, which is why so many critics call this, you know, a valediction. This is the point that, maybe, for his own sanity, say, he had to reach in order to come to the end of his career at such a young age and feel as though he had accomplished something in spite of all of the criticism that has been hurled at him and everything, because the fact of the matter is that he’s going to die at 25, and this idea of death has weighed so heavily upon him that in a way, it’s kind of a mercy, maybe that he can get to this place…
Erin: …and have this kind of long, long view of the questions and answers he’s tried to get to and become reconciled with his own legacy, his own place in the world before he goes.
Wes: Well, the other word I wanted to use when I said sincere was gratitude, which is what makes it such a perfect thanksgiving poem as well, that the sincere gratitude, that is very perfectly expressed.
Erin: In the beginning of the second stanza, he does ask a question “Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?” but it’s not a philosophical question, like in his previous odes. It’s a rhetorical question. He’s going to answer right away, as he does with the other two questions in the poem. Who hasn’t seen you? Of course, we’ve all seen you in your store, ‘store’ meaning the storing up of the abundance. Now he’s moving into the harvest time, the height of summer, midday in this middle stanza. And he’s saying that whoever looks around in the countryside in autumn can find you. And here we have the real personification of autumn going on with an individual sense.
Wes: Yeah, exactly. Yeah
Erin: We can see you “sitting careless on a granary floor, / thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind.” That word ‘winnowing’ gets a lot of critical attention.
Wes: Well, say more about that.
Erin: The idea that the wind is delicate, it’s soft, because it’s lifting “the hair of autumn”, who we can assume is a woman. She’s that.. she’s a goddess, sitting on this floor. And yet it’s also a wind that it’s not entirely an innocent wind, it’s a narrowing wind, in terms of… he’s using kind of a technical term here, we might say it’s actually… to winnow something is to blow wind onto a stalk of grain so that the chaff is removed.
Wes: Ah! I didn’t know that’s how it was done.
Erin: Yeah, so in the granary, the wind is kind of blown through the top of the husk of the grain and the chaff is removed, and then you just have that usable stuff underneath. There’s a term for it, but I don’t know it. And so the hair of the Goddess of Autumn is being gently lifted, but the wind is also kind of purposeful. It’s a, you know, an agricultural method. Then there’s also, of course, in winnowing the idea of kind of just blowing, but also a blowing that’s kind of a subtraction.
Wes: Yeah, so let me give you my naive and embarrassing associations [laughter] to these lines. I was not thinking of autumn as a woman, as a goddess, because we get these images now of leisure, like, so strangely enough, he’s talking about work, the work of harvesting, right. But autumn herself, I guess I should say, is sitting careless, drowsed, or sound asleep, and doing other things like that, so… or it actually progresses through the stanza. I’ll say more about that later. But in the beginning… So I was actually thinking of a Huckleberry Finn type of boy [laughter] in the beginning, with overalls on and somewhat mischievous, really just out trying to have fun but sitting with his legs out on the granary floor.
Erin: But the first time I read this, I had in my head, for many years, a man with kind of golden colored hair, you know, an older teen, maybe, or something, and someone, I suppose, who looked like Keats in my own mind. But then later, when I studied the poem more, I learned that autumn is supposed to be a goddess and I sort of… probably in college or something, and so that image entered into my consciousness. But yeah, for a long time, I thought that it was a young man. You’re right, there’s this tension where he’s sitting, or she is sitting, careless at this time of great work. I mean, I suppose we can imagine that there are workers nearby who are actually doing the work, and autumn itself is what’s sitting around being worked on or something. A better way of phrasing that, I’m sure, exists.
Wes: The spirit of autumn infusing things. Yeah.
Erin: Yeah, and he’s -he or she- is sleeping “on a half reap’d furrow.” I love that the furrow is half done, halfway through the day, maybe this is another signal that this is midday or halfway through the harvest. He’s just taking a little nap, maybe with the sun being so beautiful and kind of relaxing at the height of the day, at, you know, one or two or something in the afternoon, taking a break midway through the harvest, and then we have “drows’d with the fume of poppies.” So, of course, we can’t help but think of Nightingale here, that what’s putting you to sleep is poppies, which are actually an autumnal flower, so he’s smelling all this stuff and going to sleep. I always try to explain this to my students by saying, “Oh, you know, it’s like in The Wizard of Oz, of course, when Dorothy is on her way to the Emerald City and the Wicked Witch tries to slow her down by putting her in a field of poppies. And it’s only when the good which makes it snow, that the smell of the poppies is dulled and she’s able to wake up” and everybody stares at me for a long time. And then I come to find out that kids these days don’t watch The Wizard of Oz anymore, and they have no idea what I’m talking about. It’s so funny.
Wes: [laughter] It’s funny because I… the other… the association I left out because it was too embarrassing, but it was actually… I was thinking of the scarecrow of the “sitting careless on a granary floor” just because of the scarecrow being stuffed full of straw, and being associated with fields, and sitting careless as in, you know, the way The Scarecrow in the movie, in the book, I guess too, you know, it’s about bodily structure…
Erin: Yeah, absolutely. It’s no such thing as too embarrassing.
Wes: [laughter] Well here we have autumn. She’s “sparing the next swath” because of its flowers, or I’m saying ‘because’ but with all “and all its twined flowers.” So that’s an interesting idea. So we have someone using their hook, so I vaguely have the idea of someone doing some farming… [laughter] Whatever. What’s going on with the hook, exactly?
Erin: Oh, you’re asking me, right? Because I’m the farming expert of the two of us.
Wes: Is it a scythe? Is it a…?
Erin: I think it’s supposed to be a scythe which, of course, has the death implication there, coming for you because the furrow is half reaped, he or she is, um… [laughter] I just think it’s so funny that the two of us with our lack of agricultural knowledge… [laughter]
Erin: …are trying to figure this out. We’re such city people, but… [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, I could have done more work to look this up, but I thought we’d just struggle straight. [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] I wish we had, like a farmer as a special guest to consult so that we can figure this out. Anyway, we’re hopelessly detached from the land, but the scythe is, beside autumn, and therefore because he or she is taking a nap in the middle of the day, it is momentarily spared the next swath of grain on the furrow and, like the cottage trees in the first stanza, the grain, the stocks of grain, are also intermingled with it and entwined with these flowers, which I just love. Again, it’s like layer on layer on layer of bounty that the grain, which is reaped for our consumption and is a plant that has been planted, is itself entwined with another layer of beauty of something else that has… of a wildflower, that has blown its way over and has itself grown up in the stock of the wheat. So just a beautiful doubled image again.
Wes: And the flowers, they would have been collateral damage to the use of the scythe, right?
Wes: Were there to get the wheat, but there’s flowers there as well, and so the benefit of this pausing, of going to sleep, actually leaves us with another… I guess it’s temporary, that leaves us with something else bountiful.
Erin: Absolutely. Yeah, the collateral damage. I love that. You’re gonna have to reap the furrow all the way, eventually, and the flowers are going to go with it. But at least it has a purpose of harvesting the grains, it’s to provide later sustenance. So though the flowers have to be killed in the reaping, it’s not a senseless cutting down. There is a larger purpose to it.
Wes: So there’s a progression in this stanza from the sitting carelessly to sleeping, and now we get a comparison to someone who’s actually doing some work
Wes: So the gleaner, right, is picking up what’s been gleaned and carrying it.
Erin: Yes, making sure nothing goes to waste.
Wes: Yes, it’s an interesting progression here now, too, as we get through the stanza up from careless, from play, let’s say, to sleep, to work, and then the last two lines will be to watching, and maybe even empathizing. I like the movement through the stanza. It’s almost like maturing, in a way, that we see here, like a little child in the beginning and then to, I guess, someone who’s resting from work, and then to work, and then the last two lines, “Or by a cyder-press, with patient look, / thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.” In a way, an overseeing of work.
Erin: Yeah, and this is the kind of the flip side to the bee image at the end of the previous stanza, where the bees were over brimming their cells with a lot of honey. Now we have the cider press. It’s getting towards the end of the harvest, and the press is pressing down on the apples, and the last bits of it are now being released. And so now we’re watching, rather than something being filled up to overflowing, now we’re watching something being pressed out, and those last ending drops are leaving the apple in the cider press and we’re watching that fading away.
Wes: So this is something I actually have experienced. [laughter]
Erin: Oh, good.
Wes: I did a residency at a wooden boat building. It’s called The Carpenters’ Boat Shop. So it was like a… where I learned how to build wooden boats, but we also did various other things. And in October we would… I guess I only did this once, but we’d make a bunch of cider, go apple picking, and… so I suppose people might do… I don’t know if when you go apple picking, people do that here, make their own cider. But yeah, so it’s quite a bit of work to use that press, and for a few hours.
Erin: Am I right that the apple is pressed down to get all the juice out of it?
Erin: Yeah, so we have “last oozings” of the cider press. The last bit of sustenance is being extracted in this harvest. Then we have another question at the beginning of the third stanza, which is just the most poignant question considering what he’s gone through, the progression he’s taken through the previous odes: “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, Where are they?”
Wes: So here are the first hints of the possibility of missing something else, missing… If we’re associating autumn with dying and death and even though it’s all… there are also lots of these associations with a fruitful bounty. It’s perfectly… you know, in a way, this is what I’m waiting for when I start reading the poem, this sort of unflattering comparison to a better season. Although, let’s face it, everyone loves autumn. So you get here a question about… isn’t there something more to be had in the phase of life in which there’s youth, and things are beginning, and things are just beginning to bloom, and all of that stuff, and the associations with mating, and the romantic. Whether a year at the end of your life, or whether you’re in the state of acceptance, or whether you’re actually just in this season that sorts of things that he’s been praising in the poem, you might be left yearning for something else, but he’s going to tell you why that’s not so in the stanza.
Erin: You might think he’s going to go into a criticism, and then in the second line of this last stanza he doesn’t, cuts it off, he says, “No, don’t worry about it.” [laughter] “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,” Okay, so we’re not gonna worry about spring, and the fact that there’s this dying off in autumn, which is unfortunate, because of the positive associations with spring, as you say. But no. Autumn itself has its own music, has its own thing to be appreciated.
Wes: No. And if we’re thinking about a comparison to poetry, we are… This is a metaphor for poetry. We begin to think about those two things as different conceptions of poetry, songs of spring versus songs of autumn, or autumnal hymns, or however you want to think of it, something that springs out of us through that kind of passion or something that is the result of acceptance. So we have talked, at the end of the last episode, about, you know, I had talked about manic, the two moments, creative moments, one manic and one depressive. So one where you’re sort of in a frame of mind, inspired, and somewhat narcissistic enough to think that others need to hear what you have to say and, uh, somewhat tempted into being overly controlling of one’s work or one’s characters, all those sorts of things, and the way in that which has to be tempered by giving up one’s rough magic and by embracing negative capability. So here, I think of this transition, this sort of contrast between spring and autumn, it evokes a similar sort of dynamic, I think. So it’s not the creative, it’s not just all about giving life to things in a spring-like way. It is also about this mode of letting things fall, letting things go, acceptance. So it’s not just like you are giving birth as a poet or as an artist. You are giving something to an audience, you are losing something, you’re giving up control, you’re giving up something of your own life. So poetry is not… or being creative, is not just about giving life to things, being a parent to something. It’s about letting go and giving up and the stuff that we associate more with autumn. So it’s not just spring. It’s also autumn.
Erin: Yeah, and the music of autumn that he refers to in the second line of this last stanza is actually “the wailful choir of gnats,” which is interesting that he goes to gnat. I mean, they’re not uneasily romanticized. Few insects are easily romanticized, but they’re a “wailful choir.” So he takes something kind of ugly, like the flies on the musk rose, and makes them profound, maybe, and beautiful in that way, that they’re a wailful choir, they’re mourning “among the river sallows” what’s left now that the barred clouds are blooming, the soft dying day, we’ve gotten to the end of the day, the progression that he’s gone through here, it’s now evening. The day is dying, but it’s also now the end of autumn, almost winter and the plains are stubbled with rosy hue. I believe I was reading a little bit in his letters and the places where he was inspired to… where he’s thinking about writing this ode, and in one of his letters, or a friend’s account of where his mind was when he was writing this, I guess he went through a field and saw that there was, you know, the stubble on the field that the grain had been harvested, everything had been reaped, and just that bit of stubble was left on the field. And rather than seeing it as a really sad sight, which we might expect, he said that there was this incredible warmth about that color, about the look of the field, that it wasn’t this place of death or something having died, but it was warm. The color of the stubble and the light of the evening sun on the stubble was incredibly warm and positive and full of this kind of a glow of fulfillment and that from that he was inspired to write this poem, maybe because he was surprised himself. I don’t know. I wouldn’t presume to say what inspired him to write anything, but perhaps that he was expecting to find some kind of desolation in this reaped field, and instead he found this surprising comfort from it. He’s dealing with that, with the fact that there’s something beautiful about this, of course, but also a kind of a death in it, and with the gnats, even a kind of ugliness. So he’s saying that the sun is touching these stubble plains with this “rosy hue.” So there’s this warmth here, as he said to his friend and then these gnats who are wailing. But there’s a beauty about it. There’s beauty about the morning in the river sallows, you know, essentially, just like congregating in these shallow bodies of water, which is a little gross. But he mentions it in a kind of a beautiful way and that they’re “born aloft / or sinking as the light wind lives or dies.” So they’re following this kind of progression of the wind getting lifted up, as the wind gets stronger, and sinking as the wind dies down a little bit. So there’s something kind of musical about that, about the… almost like the flow of the notes on a staff or something.
Wes: There’s a similar line in Nightingale, “the murmurs haunted flies on summer eves.” So I like this. Yes, and as you said, the use of something that is not typically, it’s not going to be obviously beautiful. And, of course, all of these images, all the… he’s vindicating autumn, right? So we have to… the way we vindicate it is through finding beauty in things that we might think of as… well, they’re associated with dying. But even what’s left once you’ve harvested, once you’ve taken your bounty, now there are stubble plains, you know, At the end of the day, you’re… it’s no longer about light, it’s clouds. And of course the gnats and the mosquitoes come out at dusk and annoy the hell out of you. [laughter] The compensation here is aesthetic. So… and this says something more broadly about the aesthetic in general, which is that the aesthetic appreciation is actually very tightly wed to some sort of loss. The way philosophers have thought about this is in terms of… partly is in terms of the concept of disinterest, or for Schopenhauer, for instance, the aesthetic is about a giving up of a willful or desiring relationship to the world. So when you appreciate something aesthetically, it’s not about feeding one’s appetite with the object, -I think I mentioned this in previous episodes- but the painted apple is… our appreciation of that is not, “oh, it’s delicious and it can feed me.” It’s about the formal experience. We give up something appetitive anyway, when we are aesthetically engaged with objects. So this autumnal quality is an inherent part of that experience. Just going back to the gnats. I think we’re all familiar with that, and this is why so many people love fall. Just that kind of calming, peaceful, maybe even nostalgic feeling that you get, so, strangely enough, if you’re seeing a field that’s already been harvested, the association, instead of barrenness, is just… it’s something more peaceful and arguably beautiful here. But of course he takes that, with the gnats, he’s taking that… he’s doing something even more interesting, and…
Erin: Yeah, and the lambs. Let’s see, the gnats as a kind of song, so we have several different songs here, we have the gnats, the full grown lambs, the hedge crickets, the red breast and swallows. So five different types of music. So the second of these is the “full-grown lambs.” So these are not the, you know, of course, the newborn lambs of such promise in springtime, but they’re full grown. And he appreciates this too, of course, by putting in the poem, there’s an appreciation here where they’re bleating “from hilly bourn.” And maybe that the fact that they’re full-grown, of course, maybe is… there’s some death in there, too, right there, ready to be killed.
Wes: Or just fleeced. I don’t know how this works either. Do some of them get killed and some of them get fleeced? Or both? I don’t know, but…
Erin: Yeah, both. I guess I should go straight to them being killed. But it’s there, um, [laughter] And the bleat again. So he’s encouraged us to view that even that, with this incredible in aerial sense of this wailful choir and the morning. And then, of course, when we hear the second song, the lambs, he doesn’t have to say, but there’s a… maybe something also of a death knell, or that’s a little too strong, but you know something, a little plaintive in the lambs’ song. And then we have the hedge crickets singing, and the red breast whistling. And then this last song of this great, great last line, “gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” There’s a lot of things we could say about this last line. I don’t wanna put too much of an association here where there might be none. But as I mentioned last time with the mythological implications of the nightingale, this also makes me think of the story of Philomela because the legend goes that the sister of Philomela, Procne, was turned into a swallow. So maybe there’s something there, maybe not, but just something that puts me in mind of that myth since we were just talking about Nightingale.
Wes: So is poetry more like spring or more like autumn? Or is it… or not just poetry but creativity? Where I guess I’ve been arguing that it’s both, but it’s, I suppose more like spring.
Erin: Sure. I mean, in my experience, maybe it’s more like autumn because it’s more about pain and death. Um… [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] Yeah, Right.
Erin: I think, for me, this is truer to the creative experience. For me. Maybe the appreciation of poetry is certainly more like spring. It’s ever new. Every time you come to a new poem, you discover new things, and that makes it like spring. But the act of creating it, for me, is certainly… it’s something that has a cost to it. You know, there’s an expenditure there of energy, certainly, which renews itself ideally, each time you come to a new poem, but it takes something out of you.
Wes: I wonder, even the experience of poetry… because I’m thinking of Plato’s… I just wrote a review recently of a book on tragedy and part of what this book is about is Plato’s attack on the poets. And a lot of it is about tragic poetry, So he’s really thinking about… so Plato, Socrates, let’s say, he’s really thinking about tragic poetry and the way it corrupts people by making them comfortable with their pain. Or in other words, because we identify with characters on the stage to whom horrible things are happening. And, you know, for Aristotle, right, it would be catharsis of feelings of pity and fear that we get through that identification. But for Plato, it’s just we become comfortable with those feelings, and we begin to think of ourselves pessimistically or as sort of subject to the whims of our environment, anyway, and as essentially irrational, and there’s nothing we can do about it, so it undermines us in that way. And then he has lots of complaints about poetry in general. His complaint is precisely the Keatscian equivalence of beauty and truth. And although he’ll say things which make it sound like you know, for Plato, those two things are closely related as well. In his critique of poetry, he thinks that the beauty of poetry can deceive us into… it’s almost like a rhetorical trick. So it gives us the strong feeling that something is true, even when it’s not necessarily true. And what we need to do is to approach things with more rational scrutiny. There are a lot of good defenses against those critiques of tragedy and of poetry and I’m not sure how seriously Plato actually takes it himself, the extent to which he’s being ironic. But I wonder if the experience of poetry is actually not to fit everything into one container but if there’s a kind of tragic consciousness that is inevitably part of the experience of poetry. So that’s just me thinking about… I’m not sure. Because I… poems create a lot of different feelings, obviously.
Erin: I think maybe for Keats, what he’s asking here is, we can see, especially in Grecian Urn, that he thinks the most beautiful point or the highest peak is this moment. As you’ve mentioned before, before consumption this moment of the highest peak of spring, we might say, this moment of birth that hasn’t yet been used up. To me, what he’s getting at here is his acceptance of mortality and of death as being part of the beauty that makes spring possible. I mean, I think you’re right. I think there’s something inherently autumnal, maybe, about poetry, and the reading of poetry, and that kind of catharsis that you’re talking about with Greek philosophy.
Wes: Yeah. Well, it’s normally thought of in relation to tragedy, but I was trying to expand it to poetry in general, which may not work. And also there’s something I think, the experience of poetry, to some extent, there’s a recapitulation of the creative process of the poet itself. So there’s an identification, I think, with the poet and with that whole creative process that is inherent to the experience of literature in general, especially tragedy and poetry, so that whatever giving up our loss is involved in the creative process will also be felt by the audience, I think.
Erin: I think you’re right. I think that we do feel that at the end of this poem, say, we feel that loss at the end, but also that sense of completion and fulfillment. I think those two things go hand in hand with the consumption. There is also the sense of bellyful. The autumn is already in spring and spring is already in autumn, and I think he’s maybe sort of collapsing the entire span of all of his odes here, in this last ode. I mean, he already was dealing with themes of death as being prefigured in spring. And so here he’s kind of maybe pre figuring spring in his acceptance of autumn. Also just in the sense of this being a single day. The day itself is the single year cycle within 24 hours. And so he’s emphasizing that, too, that even in spring there’s nighttime, there’s the death of each day that happens in spring. And so there’s this idea that everything is kind of coiled on top of each other, that it’s all existing in the same moment, that life and death are the same, in this way.
Wes: Yeah, that’s very good. I’m thinking again of the ancient Greeks and Aristotle and the Poetics´s famous idea that the artwork is… you know, he’s thinking specifically of tragic, ancient Greek tragic drama poetry. But there’s an organic structure to it. It has a beginning, a middle and end. You see this even in film scripts, right? So you have this building up of tension, or in any sort of narrative structure that follows a typical form, you get a building up of tension, and then ultimately you get a climax and a resolution. But you also get that there’s a kind of fractal quality, because if that happens, even within scenes, right, so every… if you’ve taken a screenwriting course, every scene is supposed to do that as well. You get the whole beginning. It should be a almost a complete little story in and of itself, with a beginning, middle and end. And so, where I was going with that was just the idea of some things being structured at all. To be aesthetic, it has to have that structure, is to… or for it to be complete, let’s say, their associations between completeness and death as well, is to evoke the idea of death and mourning.
Erin: Maybe this is an incredibly stupid parallel to make after after discussing the Greeks, but I think of people’s arguments against getting puppies. [laughter] This’ll get silly. But one of the things that… like I when I was in grad school, I was considering getting a dog, and several people said to me, “You know, well, you just have to be mindful of the fact that you maybe don’t want to get a puppy because you get really attached to it, really close to it and then eventually you know they die.” [laughter] So people actually, by saying that, people actually put me off getting a puppy because I was like, “Oh, I can’t get a puppy because it’s going to die [laughter] eventually.” What am I trying to say? Well, this is incredibly stupid. I shouldn’t have mentioned that.
Wes: No, no. I think it’s important because the capacity to tolerate loss is an important part of being able to love and appreciate something. And so if you don’t…
Wes: …have that capacity, if you’re not… if that’s not built in up front, then it becomes impossible and people have a lot of other strategies. It’s a pretty common feature of psychical life to foreclose the possibility of loss by simply not engaging in experiences, you know, not being engaged with beauty, not being engaged with longing, just to avoid them altogether.
Erin: Yes, thank you for ennobling my incredibly…
Wes: No, no, no, no, it’s not…
Erin: Un-noble. [laughter] Just wanted to mention… one of the things that many critics point out about this poem is the use of the senses in the poem, that each of the three stanzas focuses on a different sense, which kind of lends itself to this feeling of completion that we get at the end, that he’s sort of run through each of the senses in such a satisfactory way that he’s kind of covered all of the spectrum of human experience, not only going through the day and going through the the season of autumn, which is kind of like going through a whole year in a single season. In the first stanza he goes through the early part of the day with the tactile, the sense of touch, is things being plumped and swelled, most critics say unloading and bending, that these were all tactile senses. In the second stanza, he emphasizes both sight and smell, the fume of poppies and watching the oozing of the cider press. In fact, one critic made the point that Keats actually, in an earlier draft, had a different word in there. Besides “drows’d with the fume of poppies” he had something… something else in there. I remember what it was, but he changed it to the “fume of poppies” to emphasize the sense of smell. And then in the last, of course, we have hearing with the music of these five different animals. So there’s the four senses. And then, of course, the last being taste is the one, maybe most inherent to autumn, that runs through the whole stanza, sort of subliminally the idea that the harvest is, you know, going to be consumed. So that by the end, we have this clever… in the way that he weaves the senses through. Maybe we’re not conscious of all five senses being engaged in the poem. But maybe it does result in that incredible sense of completion that we get with the swallows twittering in the skies and perhaps, you know, moving away, moving on in the same way that the nightingale moves on to the next valley and flies away.
Wes: Very good. Okay, so… thank you.Erin: Thank you.