John Keats was one of the greatest British Romantic poets, but he didn't have a long career like earlier generation Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. "To Autumn," published in 1819, was one of the last poems that Keats ever wrote and, boy, what a note to go out on. Many readers count this short-and-sweet beauty as one of their favorites in the English language. It's normally grouped among the set of his poems known as the Great Odes, including "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Ode to a Nightingale." Keats had mixed feelings about his poetic career and often considered himself a failure. However, many critics think that if Keats hadn't caught tuberculosis and died at the age of 25, he would have gone on to write many more classics.
As it were, Keats wrote "To Autumn" on September 19, 1819, at the height of his skill. He had just returned from a stroll near the town of Winchester in Hampshire, England. As he put it in a letter to his friend J.H. Reynolds:
How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather – Dian skies – I never lik'd stubble fields so much as now – Aye better than the chilly green of spring. 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.
As the letter suggests, the poem professes Keats's preference for autumn over spring, but the real star of "To Autumn" is the language and, more specifically, the sound.
The influential American poet Allen Tate said that "To Autumn" is "a very nearly perfect piece of style but it has little to say" (source). Well, OK, we'll let that last dig slide. Yale Professor Harold Bloom calls it "as close to perfect as any shorter poem in the English language" (source). Labeling a poem as "perfect" or "flawless" has come to sound outdated to many readers: after all, we're talking about an artistic experience, not a gymnastics floor exercise. There are no perfect scores in poetry. But the raptures that critics, poets, and readers have had over this poem should tell you something about what it has meant to a whole lot of different people.
"To Autumn" is a poem for anyone who has a little trouble letting good things come to an end. It could be a relationship, a cherished experience, or just something you outgrow. And, of course, it could even be a favorite time of year.
Before he set out to write this poem, John Keats surely knew that the hip thing to do would have been to write a poem in praise of spring, the season of life and rebirth. But despite their reputation for intense emotions, the British Romantic poets were not sentimentalists. They famously wrote odes in praise of things that most people wouldn't think to praise, like "Dejection" or "Melancholy." They found beauty in the neglected corners of life. In "To Autumn," Keats finds beauty in the lengthening days, chilly weather, and brown fields of fall, the time just before winter squelches the last bit of warmth and everyone retreats to their fires and hot cider.
So what's the secret to letting a good thing end with grace and good humor? First, always look forward, never back. When Keats thinks about the flowers of spring and summer, he's thinking about the seeds that are being dropped to bloom next year, and not what happened last year. Second, soak up every last bit of goodness at that moment without worrying about what comes next. The woman who personifies autumn in this poem spends her time napping in the fields and watching cider being made. She doesn't fret about winter. Finally, take a snapshot in your mind (or better yet, on paper), so you'll always have a powerful memory to return to. Each of the three stanzas of "To Autumn" is like a different Polaroid put into words, and filled with the light, smells, and sounds of the season.
Sadly, Keats was to become a living example of things coming to an end too soon. He died at the age of 25, only two years after completing this poem.