autumn_leafOn a September day in 1819, 24-year-old John Keats wrote the ode “To Autumn.”

It had not been a great year. He wrote to his brother, “Nothing could have in all its circumstances fallen out worse for me than the last year has done, or could be more damping to my poetical talent.” He was suffering from a multitude of financial troubles throughout the year, including concerns over his brother, George, who, after emigrating to America, was badly in need of money.

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Sketch of Keats by Charles Brown, August 1819, one month before the composition of “To Autumn”

But Keats wrote lots of poems that year. On September 19, he walked near Winchester along the River Itchen and the poem hit him.  He wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds two days later about the walk and the poem:
“How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it […] I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now […] Somehow a stubble plain 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.”

It is one of the most anthologized poems in the English language, but that doesn’t mean it is an easy read.

The poem is interpreted as a meditation on death, an allegory of artistic creation, as his response to the Peterloo Massacre of that year and as an expression of nationalist sentiment.

“To Autumn” has three stanzas and three takes on the season through morning, afternoon and dusk.  First, early autumn’s fruitfulness. Then mid-autumn’s time of “labour” and then the decline and into winter.

Symmetry.

That year of 1819 he write a series of odes including “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “Ode to Psyche.” “To Autumn” was the last of these odes.

Keats died from tuberculosis less than two years later, at age 25.

TO AUTUMN

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 cider-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.

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