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Monday, 24 September 2012

John Keats: To Autumn


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Sparsholt Road, Hampshire. Field and copse by Sparsholt Road, west of Pitt. Looking north: photo by Peter Jordan, 19 November 2005

John Keats to George and Georgiana Keats, Winchester, 21 September 1819:

Some think I have lost that poetic ardour and fire ’tis said I once had—the fact is, perhaps I have; but, instead of that, I hope I shall substitute a more thoughtful and quiet power. I am more frequently now contented to read and think, but now and then haunted with ambitious thoughts. Quieter in my pulse, improved in my digestion, exerting myself against vexing speculations, scarcely content to write the best verses for the fever they leave behind. I want to compose without this fever. I hope I one day shall. You would scarcely imagine I could live alone so comfortably. “Kepen in solitarinesse.” I told Anne, the servant here, the other day, to say I was not at home if any one should call. I am not certain how I should endure loneliness and bad weather together. Now the time is beautiful. I take a walk every day for an hour before dinner, and this is generally my walk: I go out the back gate, across one street into the cathedral yard, which is always interesting; there I pass under the trees along a paved path, pass the beautiful front of the cathedral, turn to the left under a stone doorway,—then I am on the other side of the building,—which leaving behind me, I pass on through two college-like squares, seemingly built for the dwelling-place of deans and prebendaries, garnished with grass and shaded with trees; then I pass through one of the old city gates, and then you are in one college street, through which I pass, and at the end thereof crossing some meadows, and at last a country alley of gardens, I arrive, that is my worship arrives, at the foundation of St. Cross, which is a very interesting old place, both for its gothic tower and alms square and for the appropriation of its rich rents to a relation of the Bishop of Winchester. Then I pass across St. Cross meadows till you come to the most beautifully clear river—now this is only one mile of my walk. I will spare you the other two till after supper, when they would do you more good. You must avoid going the first mile best after dinner—

John Keats to John Hamilton Reynolds, Winchester, 22 September 1819:

My dear Reynolds—I was very glad to hear from Woodhouse that you would meet in the country. I hope you will pass some pleasant time together. Which I wish to make pleasanter by a brace of letters, very highly to be estimated, as really I have had very bad luck with this sort of game this season. I “kepen in solitarinesse,” for Brown has gone a-visiting. I am surprised myself at the pleasure I live alone in. I can give you no news of the place here, or any other idea of it but what I have to this effect written to George. Yesterday I say to him was a grand day for Winchester. They elected a Mayor. It was indeed high time the place should receive some sort of excitement. There was nothing going on: all asleep: not an old maid’s sedan returning from a card party: and if any old woman got tipsy at Christenings they did not expose it in the streets. The first night though of our arrival here, there was a slight uproar took place at about 10 o’ the Clock. We heard distinctly a noise pattering down the High Street as of a walking cane of the good old Dowager breed; and a little minute after we heard a less voice observe “What a noise the ferril made—it must be loose.” Brown wanted to call the constables, but I observed ’twas only a little breeze and would soon pass over.—The side streets here are excessively maiden-lady-like: the door-steps always fresh from the flannel. The knockers have a staid serious, nay almost awful quietness about them. I never saw so quiet a collection of Lions’ and Rams’ heads. The doors are most part black, with a little brass handle just above the keyhole, so that in Winchester a man may very quietly shut himself out of his own house. 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.

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.

John Keats (1795-1821): To Autumn, 19 September 1819, from Poems, 1820

File:River Itchen Ovington.jpg

The River Itchen at Ovington in Hampshire: photo by Joolz, August 2005

File:Itchen Stadtmauer.jpg

The River Itchen at the city wall of Winchester: photo by JuergenBeer, 24 September 2009

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The River Itchen, a chalk stream in the Hampshire Downs near Winchester.
The stream is shallow, slow flowing, and has much long grass growing on the river bed: photo by Colin Smith, June 2000
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The River Itchen at Woodmill. Looking South West along the River Itchen from Woodmill Bridge on a fine summer's evening: photo by GaryReggae, 13 July 2005
File:View across the water meadows towards St Cross - - 1072500.jpg

View across the water meadows towards St Cross. The view here is from the east bank of the Itchen Navigation, across the water meadows of the Itchen valley, towards the huge chapel at St Cross Hospital: photo by Jim Champion, 20 November 2005

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Panoramic view on South Downs in southern England, as seen from Angmering Park Estate near Arundel: photo by Gottik666, 13 April 2008


Susan Kay Anderson said...

River Itchen

Stubble fields
frost and moss

sadness digested
quite properly
wild longing
in the catalog

"the last oozings
hours by hours"



Very beautiful, "To Autumn" of course and the letters too -- how Keats "Kepen in solitarinesse," as he says, how the view "struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it."

Good to see on this still fog-bound day out here. . .


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, jay calling from shadowed branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

in various places this idea,
one talks about talks

in the midst of silence, is
thus that was, itself

lines of white clouds in pale blue sky,
cormorant flapping across toward point

Susan Kay Anderson said...

"fill all fruit with ripeness to the core"

job of Autumn
more than task

poets attempt

TC said...

This great poem has in effect alternate versions, reflected in Keats's several drafts.

To Autumn: ms: p. 1

To Autumn: ms: p. 2

The manuscripts reward a bit of close examination, particularly in the labours of the second stanza. Here he revised extensively, motivated by the desire for easier rhyming words. In the "winnowing" process, another, fascinating version of the poem emerges. Only an abundance of riches could cause a poet to throw out a brilliant pun like "husky barn" ("While bright the sun slants through the husky barn").

In successive drafts we can see him hesitating over the word that turns out "Drowsed" in the 1820 published version. "Dosed with read poppies...", his first attempt, moved the critic Christopher Ricks to call this apparent "mistake" a "part of the rich opiate" of the poem. (Poppies grew wild in the grain fields around Winchester.) "Dased," in another draft, brings this implication out perhaps a bit more plainly.

In line 33, "And gathering swallows twitter", there is a reminder of Keats's schoolboy reading of the Aeneid, wherein Vergil represents swallows as souls gathered on the shore of the underworld, awaiting emigration. And for this poet who found in the great poets the "life texts" that comprised in effect a basic commonplace book, there was likely also the fresher memory of reading Dante in Henry Cary's translation -- Dante's massed starlings and calling cranes, again natural symbols of transition to another place (or state, or world).

Keats wrote his poem at Winchester. Gilbert White, across the South Downs at Selborne, carefully observing these seasonal swallow migrations in his naturalist's journal, noted on 7 September 1791: "Such an assemblage is very beautiful, & amusing, did it not bring with it an association of ideas tending to make us reflect that winter is approaching, & that these little birds are consulting how they may avoid it."

In one draft, presented to his friend Richard Woodhouse for fair copying, Keats had the swallows "gather'd". Another poet he had read, James Thomson, in The Seasons, has the end-of-summer swallows "gathering" and "twittering". Whether or not those epithets were in Keats's mind, in the letter draft sent his brother George (the one followed in Poems 1820), the tentative "gather'd" becomes "gathering".

"The present participle," writes Barbara Everett, "becomes the most exquisite, disturbing word in the whole serene poem because of all that it communicates of incipience in time, or the survival of selves beyond the present self."

Keats at this point had little more than a year to live.

Hazen said...

Over this way, we’ve enjoyed two glorious, cool, dry, and absolutely cloudless days, so with your permission I’ll borrow those two cumulus clouds from yesterday’s post and install them in the mind's eye for effect. Your ‘storybook casement’ evokes boyhood memories . . . of books and casements both. Coincidentally, this dry weather makes me less short of breath, so I'm off to rake some of autumn’s ‘mellow fruitfulness’ from the yard.

Jonathan Chant said...

Uncanny, seeing the picture of Pitt. I was once a regular visitor to Sparsholt College. We were often tempted to graffiti the sign for Pitt by adding 'the younger.'

Susan Kay Anderson said...

"Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they?"

Eye, where are they
present participle

hidden despair--

roots all there
but what to reach?
Not yet
the system frozen

Susan Kay Anderson said...

A verb form--made by adding -ing to the base form--that functions as an adjective. Present participles are the only verb forms that are completely regular.

The present participle is used with a form of the auxiliary be to express the progressive aspect.

The chalk stream
progressive regular

stream of consciousness
(they call it now)
active progress
to the ooze point
of hope in despair
over Autumn
its light
& non-light.

TC said...

It is curiously agreeable to consider the conspiracy of Autumn with the "maturing sun" (in the holograph draft one of the poet's serendipitous slips of the pen makes "maturing" into "naturing") to bring harvest and season to fruition. The sun is characterized as male, but its embrace with Autumn is not amorous but that of a companion, a "bosom friend" -- German busen freund < Sanskrit bhas to puff out or swell -- they are, it may be said without too much stretching, bosom buddies, conspiring to bring everything to a state of bursting fullness; but it all happens as if without the assertion of any Will.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

"To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells..."

"Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun..."

lush filling detail
enclosed, encapsulating

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Nature, then, is explored without conquering--this is a different kind of mapping out of the territory of the season. It is more than noticing or observation. It is co-(mm)union? Right word?

TC said...

Susan, as to the time-sense in the participle, it seems a kind of sustain, mimetic of the sostenuto hum of the "waiful" -- as ms. has it -- "choir" of gnats. Pitt the Younger might have reminded us that here in the last of the Odes Keats has altered his Ode stanza, extending it to eleven lines and including a couplet in lines 9-10 that works as a kind of crest, with the closure of the stanza a falling-back, followed by a distinct pause.

With the close of each stanza, as Barbara Everett puts this, the poem "seems to be slowing to a standstill, to be stopping (on "cease', 'look', 'croft'), overspilling into the retrospectively rhyming eleventh line that brings the stanza home."

In a poem that seems to be about concession, resignation and subsidence as much as it is about the ripeness and fullness that precedes those states, this sostenuto effect contributes subtly but (I think) essentially to the total meaning.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

My Italian Busen Freund

we do everything together
there is nothing you don't I don't know
about you
trusted friend

yes we make everything together
we smile our little smiles
about each other
when someone else mentions it

I never said thanks
but I don't have to
bosom friend neither do you buddy
bud hazelnut shell gourd bee leg filling
sunshine Autumn light warmth

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Yes, I see=the middle pedal to help sustain or prolong the life of a piece/song/poem/blossom/oozing.
the n
means winter


Susan Kay Anderson said...

What They Would Eat Along Bachelor Creek

Stayman Apple: (A.K.A. Stayman Winesap)
Firm apples
with a complex sweet tart flavor,
prized for cooking, eating and storing.
Their primary color
is deep crimson,
with touches of green.
They are fall apples.
They began as a seedling of winesap;
originated in Kansas;
and were introduced in 1866.

D’anjou pear: (A.K.A. Buerre D’Anjou)
Found sometimes before 1700 in the Anjou region of France.
It was brought
to the United States in 1842. One hundred years later
the red variations were developed in Oregon.
This winter pear
has a mild, sweet flavor and abundant juice.
It is best eaten fresh out of hand for baking
or poaching before they are fully ripe.

Seek-No-Further apple (A.K.A. Rambo, Cooper and Scribner)
Introduced in America
ca 1640
by Swedish settler Peter Gunnarson Rambo.
This apple was later known as Johnny Appleseed’s—
John Chapman’s—
favorite apple.

Starking apple: (A.K. A. Starking Delicious, Hawkeye)
Started as a small, insignificant seedling in Jesse Hyatt’s Pern, Iowa orchard, about 1870. A yellow Bellflower tree was thought to be one of the parents as it was near and had the peculiar long pointed shape terminating in five points at the blossom end. It was said by Luther Burbank to be “the best quality of any apple I have so far tested.” Hiatt sent four apples in 1893 to a fruit show sponsored by Stark Nurseries. It won first prize and was named Delicious: it has become one of the most popular apples.

Baldwin Apple: (A.K.A. Woodpecker)
The Baldwin
is a medium to large yellowish
or greenish apple
mottled with red,
and a slightly tart taste;
the flesh is crisp, firm,
rather tender, juicy.
It is good for desert and cooking.
It ripens in autumn.
The seedling originated in Lowell, Massachusetts,
around 1740.
By 1852, it had become the most widely used apple
in the U.S.
until the 1920s.

Canut pear: no information found

Fall Pippin apple: (A.K.A. Autumn Pippin; Cathead, Cobbett’s Fall, Cobbett’s Fall Pippin, Concombne Acien, Holland Pippin, Pound Pippin)
This large yellowish winter apple is enjoyable eaten raw
or used in cooking.
It has been confused
with the Holland Pippin,
ripens later,
but is of better quality.

(Found along Bachelor Creek, Margaret Kanipe Homestead, Oakland, Oregon)

Anonymous said...

Beauty all around. Ochre, red, yellow, golden, brown, orange, crimson, copper... So many hues take hold of the dry leaves that our eyes cannot grasp its entire splendour...

My favourite season, no doubt about that. And this Ode is only comparable to the glow of Autumn itself.

Blessed wise Nature that keeps on inspiring poetic words in the souls of men and women.

TC said...


Wonderful to hear from you -- now at the beginning of your Springtime!

-K- said...

I'm sorry, all I can say is that top photo is so incredibly well composed.

TC said...

It's awfully good, isn't it, Kevin?

And to think that the Geograph UK project covers the whole of the UK, grid coordinate by grid coordinate, so that the photos serve a useful mapping function, as well as capturing terrain that would otherwise go unseen. And the compositions are almost always impressive. No glitz and no gloryland, although in a case like this one the glory is already there in the landscape, so it's the composition, as you suggest.

gamefaced said...

winchester, our sister city.

Wooden Boy said...

I'm coming a little late to this but, there we are.

"With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, And still more, later flowers for the bees"

That "thoughtful and quiet power" is something to be reckoned with. The words, "...and still more..." pressing us close to the tipping point where ripeness ebbs to entropy ("concession, resignation and subsidence") have been turning about my head all day.

We never had Keats at school; a moral failing in our education. As with most of the good things, I had to hunt him out myself.

TC said...

That is amazing truly.

It was poor Keats's ambition to be "numbered among the English poets when I die."

And now in "the fullness of time" his poems must be hunted out by impoverished scholars as a clandestine pleasure!

Nora said...

I just ran across this review, and thought you might enjoy it: Beauty that must die

TC said...

Nora, thanks very much for that. Such a short life, so many long biographies. But this one sounds interesting. There are always scales left to be balanced. In this case, off with the frail, sickly, sensitive poet. "Keats emerges as a caloric, even occasionally robust figure..."

A caloric Keats, for an age of furious workouts and scrupulous nutritional balancing. This expands our conception!

Nora said...

See, you've got your traditional Keats, and that's fine if you don't want him for anything more than a few hours' quiet contemplation on some Grecian Urns. But today's lifestyle calls for Power Keats. Sha-ZAM.

TC said...

I can see a brand emerging here. A couple of John Keats Power Bars, yes -- the New Poetry Spinach.

Artemesia said...

Keats in his “To Autumn,” and then (in my mind) Rilke’s “Herbsttag, (Autumn Day).” The music of Keats whose ear was made of gold will keep poetry alive forever. Rilke too was a master of the major and minor keys…One can forget how beautiful poetry can be until one is once again startled by the sheer magic of what is truly poetic genius. Thank you TC for bringing Keats forward.

TC said...


I think it's that subdued minor key, in To Autumn, with its acceptance of a recessive mode of feeling, as the shades of evening come down, that sets off the abundance of the harvest (the major key). Those full-grown lambs may not be around for long, and the gnats will surely be gone by morning. The expansiveness of the embrace of life, in all its majestic fullness -- and all its fragility and fleetingness -- is truly remarkable. Indeed I don't know that there's a better poem in English than this one.

Not many poems that I can think of offer such breadth, such dimension, such depth. Were one to wish to speak of the consolations of poetry, it's here I'd want to turn first.

Unknown said...

The genius of my German 101 teacher: we learned Herbsttag by heart the first week and 55 years later I can still recite that beautiful poem. Keats and Rilke in these two poems offer two similar yet distinct meditations on the season.