Are you looking for the wrong thing?

It’s interesting looking at the searches that bring people to “Martin’s Notes”. Most of them are honest enough, but some betray all the signs of a late night gander across the internet in search of an essay or critique to copy. If this is what’s bringing you here — well, it’s enough to have got you here. But, think: are you really actually gaining anything by simply lifting text?

One of the more common things people come here looking for is a critique of (or help on, or an explanation of) Keats: To Autumn. Quoi? Come on guys, this is not a difficult poem!

Let’s consider (for a moment) its characteristics:

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.

Remember the STRIVE method? It’s a way of unpacking a poem by looking at subject, theme, rhythm, imagery, versification, and effect. The subject of To Autumn is spelled out in the title. It’s about Autumn. There is no hidden meaning to this poem: it is not an allegory of God, sex or death (the main subjects for allegories in poems). This is Keats at his very best, which is also – a not unusual feature for a poet – one of the characteristics of Keats at his very worst: he is a word-painter much more than he is a thinker. Probably one of Keats’s worst poems was ‘On leaving some friends at an early hour’, which is a dreadful catalogue of over-ripe word-painting. To Autumn is arguably his finest poem. The difference is that he has a really very clear subject in his own mind, which has got enough characteristics that inspire his words to rise above his own tendency to get caught up in his own language. Autumn may not be one of the great subjects of English poetry, but it was sensuous enough to capture Keats.

Theme is, in many poems, quite different from subject. In To Autumn, it’s almost indistinguishable. Perhaps if the subject is ‘autumn’, the theme is the sensations that autumn evokes, or perhaps the theme is Keats’s own power to recall in the reader the memory of many autumns, all rolled into one. When I say that this is not a difficult poem, this is what I principally mean: you are not being called upon to wrestle with imponderables, or to extract a theology out of a few meagre words. In many respects, this is the very opposite of William Blake’s the Tiger, a poem which palpably cannot be understood without at least reference to the Lamb, and where the exact subject and theme are matters of considerable debate.

To Autumn is clearly a triumph of rhythm. Don’t take my word for it – read it out loud (it is very difficult to get a sense of the rhythm of a poem unless you read it out loud, or at least sound the words in your head). If you’ve read it out loud, and don’t get any sense of the masterful way Keats uses rhythm, then you really should question whether or not you should be studying English at all. This is why I am so concerned that people are coming here just to download essays (incidentally, these notes are very unlikely to be easily transposable into essays). Up to a point, you can get by in English by reading other people’s critiques, choosing between the views of the critics, and making your mind up about the evidence. Up to a point, and if you don’t want to get caught out, make absolutely certain that you properly cite quotations and the source of your arguments. But that is only up to a point. I’ve met people studying English at universities who could talk learnedly about the various theories around a text, but, when pressed, admitted they had not actually read the text itself. Of course, there is always a tendency (which one should try to work to correct) to let oneself get carried away in conversation, and give the impression of more knowledge than one actually possesses. Nonetheless, when all is done and said, if you are studying English you ought to be able to hear that some poems are great, while others are not. This critical faculty takes time and experience to tune. To my mind, the language of To Autumn is exquisite, and one of the finest examples of word-painting in English. But the poem does not go on beyond that. Anyway, I digress. The reason that the rhythm of To Autumn is superb is that, within the constraints of the iambic pentameter, Keats has captured something which sounds perfectly natural, but is also rich and slow. It would be going too far to suggest that the rhythm on its own conjured up the mood of autumn. But it is fair to say that the rhythm perfectly supports and underlines the visual imagery of the poem. If you are rereading the first stanza now, and still not seeing how this is the case, remember not to pause except where there is punctuation. It is highly tempting to pause at the end of each line, but this incorrectly breaks up the flow. ‘…load and bless…’ runs straight on into ‘…with fruit…’, otherwise the lines make no sense at all. The line itself retains the underlying metre, but Keats does not need (and neither should anyone else) to confine the sense to where the metre is going.

Although the rhythm is magnificent, it is the imagery which is the triumph in this poem. We would normally distinguish between literal language, metaphor, simile and symbol, and we might consider anthropomorphism on the way. This poem pushes straight past the words we have to describe imagery in the very first line: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Is this an anthropomorphism? The term ‘mellow’ might imply that it is. Equally, though, the visuality of this line is entirely literal. “Season of mists…” immediately conjures up the magical autumn early morning. Line two takes us straight into anthropomorphism: “close-bosomed friend of the maturing sun”, which casts autumn and the sun in the role of friends, but also introduces a word-play. Is it the sun which is maturing, in which case the sun and autumn are cast as young people, or is it that the sun causes other things to mature? Then, the impact of ‘conspiring’ in the next line is profound. Again, my hope it that you can see all this without me having to tell you. You could write an essay on the imagery in each line. The images are hard to categorise, but they are more profoundly effective for all that.

The versification is less interesting in this poem than it might be. If you were in an examination, and this poem was given for a critique, the first thing that you should do when looking at the versification is to count the syllables in the line, and count the number of lines in a stanza. Then scan a couple of lines (marking them with stresses and unstresses). At first glance, this looks like it might be three sonnets. But it isn’t: the stanzas are eleven, not fourteen lines long. The lines themselves, though, are iambic pentameters — ten syllables long, following the basic pattern of unstress-stress. The rhyme scheme is interesting enough: ababcdedcce, and, equally notable, despite the complex scheme, there is no sense of thumping rhyme bringing the line to a close. In fact, as already noted, the lines run-on in several places, disguising the rhyme scheme and making it much more transparent.

Finally, effect. Again, this is something you can only know yourself, not read from someone else. What is the effect of this poem on you? To me, it is a warm, drowsy, nostalgic effect – a poem I want to return to late in an autumn evening, or perhaps during winter. My guess is that nostalgia will play a part for most readers. However, in an essay, or an examination, you can only write about what the effect of the poem is on you. Naturally, you will want to avoid the scatterbrain approach – the examiner is not interested in reading the story of your first bike when you were seven, or whatever. For most people in Britain today, autumn is indelibly associated with starting a new school, or at least starting a new school term. There is no echo of this in the poem, and it’s important to distinguish between the effect of the poem, and the effect of further reflection on your part prompted initially by the poem, but then moving into other memories.

To Autumn really is one of the easiest good poems in English to make sense of as a critic. But the point is: do you see what I’m saying, or are you just taking my word for it? The purpose of these notes is to open your eyes and ears to English literature. Not to be a place to mine last-minute escapes from homework left undone or essays left unwritten.

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