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To Autumn
By John Keats (1795-1821)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Composition and Publication
Source of Inspiration
Themes
End Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Meter
Poem Text and Notes
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Keats
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
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Type of Work

......."To Autumn" is a romantic ode, a dignified but highly lyrical (emotional) poem in which the author speaks to a person or thing absent or present. In this famous ode, the speaker addresses autumn personified while developing his theme. The romantic ode was at the pinnacle of its popularity in the nineteenth century. It was the result of an author’s deep meditation on his subject. 
.......The romantic ode evolved from the ancient Greek ode, written in a serious tone to celebrate an event or to praise an individual. The Greek ode was intended to be sung by a chorus or by one person. The odes of the Greek poet Pindar (circa 518-438 BC) frequently extolled athletes who participated in games at Olympus, Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth, and Nemea. Bacchylides, a contemporary of Pindar, also wrote odes praising athletes. 
.......The Roman poets Horace (65-8 BC) and Catullus (84-54 BC) wrote odes based on the Greek model, but their odes were not intended to be sung. In the nineteenth century, English romantic poets wrote odes that retained the serious tone of the Greek ode. However, like the Roman poets, they did not write odes to be sung. Unlike the Roman poets, though, the authors of nineteenth-century romantic odes generally were more emotional in their writing. 

Composition and Publication Dates

.......John Keats completed "To Autumn" in September 1819. The London firm of Taylor and Hessey published the ode in 1820 as part of a collection entitled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems.

Source of Inspiration

.......Keats explained the source of inspiration for "To Autumn" in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds (1794-1852), a friend and fellow poet. Keats wrote,

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. (quoted in Stephens 917)
Work Cited

Stephens, James; Edwin L. Beck, and Royall H. Snow. English Romantic Poets. New York: American Book Company, 1961.

Themes

Season of Fruition

.......Autumn is the season of fruition. It yields the bounty that sustains life—grapes, apples, pumpkins, squash, nuts, and honey—and fills the granaries with the field harvest. Then, to the mournful sound of gnats riding the wind, the sun sets on the season and “gathering swallows twitter in the skies.”
.......People also bear fruit—children, poems, scientific and technological advancements. They teach, build, heal, entertain, and advocate for change; they give time and money.  And then they fall asleep on a furrow as “barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day  / And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.”

Contentment

.......Because autumn is a season of fulfillment, when the fruits of labor abound, it is also a season of contentment. Personified autumn reflects this contentment when it sits 

careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind; 
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies (lines 14-16)
End Rhyme

.......The end rhyme of the first stanza is abab cde dcce. The end rhyme of the second and third stanzas is abab cde cdde.

Internal Rhyme

.......The poem also contains internal rhyme. Here are examples.

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells (line 7)
Until they think warm days will never cease (line 10)
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? (line 12)
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind (line 15)
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep (line 16)
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook (line 17)
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep (line 19)
Meter

.......The meter of the poem is iambic pentameter, as the second line demonstrates. 

........1.....................2...............3..............4..............5
Close BOS,..|..om-FRIEND..|..of THE..|..ma TUR..|..ing SUN
Text of the Poem
 
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-eaves run; 
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,      
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 
To swell the gourd,1 and plump the hazel2 shells 
With a sweet kernel;3 to set budding more, 
And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
Until they think warm days will never cease; 
For Summer has o'erbrimm'd their clammy cells.4................ 11

Who hath not seen thee5 oft amid thy store?6
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,7
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook 
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers: 
And sometimes like a gleaner8 thou dost keep 
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press,9 with patient look, 
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.................... 22

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? 
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,— 
While barrèd 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,10 borne aloft 
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;11  
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;12
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies........................... 33


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Notes
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1.....gourd: Plant family that includes pumpkins, melons, cucumbers, and squash.
2.....hazel: Having to do with trees and shrubs that produce edible nuts, such as hazelnuts (filberts). 
3.....kernel: Nut inside a hazel shell. Hazel shells are referred to in line 7.
4.....their clammy cells: Hexagonal-shaped wax cells that make up a beehive.
5.....thee: Autumn personified.
6.....store: granary; storehouse.
7.....Thy hair . . . asleep: Autumn personified is seen one moment in the granary and in another moment asleep in a field.
8.....gleaner: Gatherer of grains.
9.....cyder- press: Cider press, a machine that extracts juice from apples. The juice is used to make cider.
10...wailful choir . . . sallows: The choir of gnats provides the music referred to in line 24. The gnats' song is a dirge signaling the end of autumn. A sallow is a willow tree. 
11...bourn: boundary.
12...croft: Small plot of land.
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Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)

Alliteration

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness (line 1)
Conspiring with him how to load and bless (line 3)
With a sweet kernel to set budding more (line 8)
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? (line 12)
Apostrophe
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?  (lines 12)
The speaker addresses autumn.
Assonance
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep (line 19)
Metaphor
later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease
Comparison of bees to humans. (Only humans can think.)
Personification
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-eaves run (lines 1-4)
Comparison of autumn and the sun to persons

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn (line 27)
Comparison of gnats to humans. (Only humans can mourn.)

Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a ten-line poem that imitates the rhyme scheme of the first stanza of "To Autumn." The subject is open.
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem, such as "To Autumn," and a ballad?
  • Write an essay explaining how the events in Keats's life influenced his poetry.
  • Write an essay on your favorite season of the year. Be sure to explain why you like this season, using many interesting examples.
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