"To Autumn" (1819) by John Keats
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
In John Keats’s “To Autumn,” the idea that all good things come to an end is very apparent, but a hint of optimism towards this inevitable end is noticeable as well. Life has an expiration date, but with that expiration, comes rejuvenation: after death, comes life. In this short post, I will explore Keats’s personified Autumn and all the imagery that is presented within it through the use of the binary, “Expiration vs Rejuvenation.”
It is in the title that we immediately can see how the season of Autumn is personified. Keats has written a poem “To Autumn,” as if Autumn is going to read it. He then goes on to describe Autumn and how she fulfills her role in the seasonal cycle, but because he is personifying Autumn, therefore giving Autumn life, the seasonal cycle could be a representation of the cycle of life itself. We are born (Spring), we grow (Summer), we reproduce (Autumn), we die (Winter), and those that we have created continue the cycle (Spring again). Autumn is the phase where the young have grown up and the seeds of life will be gathered and stored, only to be planted in Autumn’s opposite: the season of Spring.
I couldn’t help but notice the use of aging imagery in Keats’s “To Autumn.” He not only calls the sun mature, but also mentions how the day dies and when the day dies, the sun goes down. The light of the sun may fade out, but tomorrow it will rise up again to start the day anew. Another instance where Keats shows the theme of maturity is in the last stanza, where he mentions the “full-grown lambs” (30). It is interesting that he calls them lambs, because a full grown lamb is actually known as a sheep. I believe he does this to express the process of aging. As many may not know, it takes a lamb 10-12 months to become a full grown sheep. That is approximately a full year. Since it is autumn and these lambs are fully-grown, then perhaps these sheep were only born last spring. The last instance that I’d like to mention where Keats uses aging imagery is in the first stanza. He says that it is autumn who “bend[s] with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, / and fill[s] all fruit with ripeness to the core” (5-6). Here I believe he is comparing a tree who is bending from the weight of these ripe apples to, perhaps, a hard-worker, whose back is troubled by the heavy burdens of a long-lived life. The tree holds ripened fruit and the aged worker holds developed experience. Or perhaps it represents a mother, who is worn-out from the children she has given birth to. A tree’s apples (if not picked) will fall from the tree only to deposit their seed into the earth so that a new tree will grow in the spring.
I believe that Keats is showing us that Autumn is the season in which we realize that the year is nearing its end. Winter is coming and it is cold and lonely and there’s not much life to be seen. If Autumn is to represent the life cycle, then it is also the time in our own lives in which we realize that our expiration date is not long off. We will soon be cold and lonely and not much life will be left in us as we come nearer and nearer to the day of our departure. But autumn is also the time that we realize that this mortality is not something to be saddened by, for it has shown us how truly beautiful this cycle can be: for when winter comes, spring will only follow.
Keats, J. “To Autumn.” The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. Eds. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 1013-14. Print.