"To Autumn" doesn't sound very much like normal speech. It has a formal quality appropriate to the ode form. It sounds like Poetry with a capital "P." Not to say that the elevated tone feels unnatural at all. It's as if the speaker were delivering a complicated three-part argument to a crowd of skeptical people who are thinking, "Who is this 'autumn' we keep hearing about? We want spring!"
You can see what we mean when we say it's not like normal speech if you imagine someone walking up to you and starting a conversation, "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!" Even if our name were "autumn" this would be a confusing opener. He starts right off with description and does not let up until the end of the poem. Look, for example, at the number of adjectives. There's hardly a noun in the poem without an adjective attached: "twined flowers," "winnowing wind," "soft-dying day," "rosy hue," even, oxymoronically, "full-grown lambs."
The complicated rhyme scheme contributes to a sense of formal difficulty. Some of the rhymes are right next to each other (in the first stanza, "brook" and "look"), while others are spread out over several lines ("trees" and "bees"). Finally, if you've read any Shakespeare, you'll notice that Keats sounds remarkably similar. Keats obviously read a lot of Shakespeare, and this poem has the grandeur and the descriptive range of a great soliloquy. Like Keats, Shakespeare had a thing for adjectives.
"To Autumn" seems to be missing a key word when compared to Keats's other Great Odes: the word "ode." You would expect the title to be, "Ode to Autumn," but maybe Keats felt confident that he had this whole ode thing down and could just use a shorthand.
However, "To Autumn" seems to change the meaning, as well. It sounds like a dedication you might read in the front of a book: "To Mom and Dad," "To My Kindergarten Teacher, For Not Failing Me At Finger-Painting," "To Autumn." Or Keats could merely be helping us understand whom the speaker is addressing. Otherwise, when he asks, "Who hath not seen thee?" in the second stanza, we might think he had forgotten to introduce a character. Whatever your explanation, "To Autumn" stands out as a title among Keats's odes.
Can you guess which season this poem is set in? "To Autumn" gives us all the ripe, growing things we would expect from a poem with this title, and Keats even throws in an aimless, super-chilled-out lady, to boot.
When you look closely at the poem's images, you notice all kinds of hidden movement. In the first stanza, you get a sense of the "conspiratorial" tone between the sun and autumn, as the unassuming vines and fruits creep around houses and trees until – boom! – everything bursts into a surge of ripeness. The setting of the first stanza is characterized by growth and swelling under the influence of the sunlight, and this growth even carries us into the spring and summer, as if time itself were expanding.
The second stanza is all about the harvesting process. Autumn sits with her "store" of grains like King Midas with his gold. She may have been hanging around the poppy plants too much, because she seems a little tipsy. She just kind of wanders around, inspecting things and taking occasional naps. What a life. Despite being a tad out-of-it, she's a tough bird to track. The speaker follows her around like a bodyguard, from field to brook to, um, cider factory.
In the last paragraph, Keats ties everything together with the idea of music and songs. He uses a few powerful images to suggest that all of nature works in harmony to produce the beauties of autumn. This music is associated with the sunset, in particular, and you might think that the sun has been slowly going down through the entire poem. Only we were too busy admiring the poetic landscape to notice the passage of time, just as the speaker is too busy admiring autumn to notice the approach of winter.
The speaker of the poem has a direct hotline to speak with the seasons. He also has an omniscient viewpoint on this woman named "autumn" who likes to relax in various autumn-y places. He manages to track her down from place to place, which sounds like no small feat. He has a keen imagination and takes notice of things the rest of us might miss, like the "bars" in the clouds or the moss on the cottage-trees. His perspective has the effect of a magnifying glass.
He assumes that everyone knows who this lady autumn is, and that all of us readers have seen her sitting in granary. What he really wants to say is, "I've seen autumn on the granary floor." He's also slightly aggressive when it comes to springtime. At the beginning of the third stanza, he puts his hand to his ear and is like, "Where are you at now, Spring?" He looks around and shouts, "I can't hear your songs, Spring!" He's obviously protective of autumn and, on the plus side, he would make a loyal friend. He's the kind of person who always wants to remind you of your good qualities when you're feeling a little inadequate. "But what about the time you did this cool thing?" Oh, yeah, thanks!
"To Autumn" is probably the most straightforward of Keats's Great Odes. It does not contain any references to Greek mythology or complicated metaphors spanning five stanzas. The main challenge with Keats is the density of his images. You can't skim a poem like this, but then again, why would you need to: it's only three stanzas. When you slow down your pace, you recognize the little things, like the comparison of a flower to a monk's "cell" or the connection between the choir of gnats and the death of daylight. These small connections are what makes the poem great, so you don't want to miss out on them. Also, look for hidden patterns, like the use of rhetorical questions.
A bouncer should have carded Keats every time he took a walk outdoors. "My name is John Keats, and I'm a nature-holic." No one else we know of becomes so intoxicated simply from the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. Don't just take our word for it. Check out his other poetry. In "Ode to a Nightingale" Keats describes his need for a "draught of vintage" (a glass of wine) that tastes likes "Flora and the country-green." In the "Ode on Melancholy" he laments the "poisonous wine" of an herb called "Wolf's-bane." In "To Autumn," he describes autumn as "drowsed with the fume of poppies." Poppies are used to create opium, so we're fairly sure he's making a drug reference here. But he's also simply pointing out the effect of smelling flowers. He finds nature intoxicating.
As a poet, Keats is probably most famous for his odes. An ode is a poem that addresses a person or object that can't talk back. The form originated in Ancient Greece, where poets like Pindar and Horace sang them at public events, often accompanied by music. Here Keats addresses a season of the year. To use a technical term, it's like one big long case of apostrophe. (Apostrophe is when an idea, person, object, or absent being is addressed as if it or they were present, alive, and kicking.) But the ode is more than just a device; it's a highly structured form with built-in divisions and transitions. Compared to Keats's other odes like, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or "Ode to a Nightingale," "To Autumn" is shorter at three stanzas of eleven lines each (the other two are five and eight stanzas apiece).
The rhyme scheme of each stanza is ABAB CDEDCCE. You'll notice that this scheme divides the stanzas into a section of four lines and a section of seven lines. The first four lines set up the specific topic of each stanza – ripeness, harvesting, and song, respectively – and the last seven lines elaborate.
The meter of the poem is generally iambic pentameter, in which each line has five ("penta") iambs consisting of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one:
A-mong | the riv|-er sal|-lows bourne | a-loft.
But the iambic pentameter is more like the default setting than a strict requirement in "To Autumn." Maybe critics have marveled at this poem's complicated use of many different kinds of rhythm. For example, the beginning each stanza departs from the iambic meter in the same way: with an accented syllable right off the bat: "Sea-son," "Who," and "Where." You could write an entire paper on the meter alone, never mind the meaning.
Odes often address an inanimate object or abstract idea directly, but they do not always portray that object/idea as a person, as Keats does. We think that autumn is a woman, because the seasons were typically personified as beautiful women in European Art. The Italian painter Botticelli, for example, depicted spring as a pregnant woman. (Check out the painting here.) In this poem, the lady autumn teams up with the sun, basks in the breeze of a granary, and takes lazy naps in a field.
Autumn is the season when things fatten up and come to fruition. It is a season of harvest and abundance, one with which we associate the overflowing cornucopia. Keats tries to illustrate the incredible thickness and richness of autumn in the language of the poem. He contrasts images of lightness and heaviness, of things falling and things flying.
A "pastoral" poem is inspired by shepherds, shepherdesses, and other forms of simple life in rural settings. Pastorals commonly feature natural scenery so rich and vivid that you could drown in it. Like the ode, pastoral artworks are a staple of Ancient Greece, so it's natural that Keats paired the two together. As autumn traipses through the landscape, we're treated to a full range of traditional images of the joys of the English countryside.
The poem doesn't miss the opportunity to contrast autumn with its competitors, spring and summer. (Winter gets left out in the cold – thanks, folks, we'll be here all night). Summer is great, but it has to end sometime, a fact that the bees don't seem to realize. And spring has some kickin' songs, but autumn's playlist is just as good.
We'd excuse you for finding this poem a little steamy, what with its tumescent gourds, oozing cider, and the bee pollinating a flower. Still, we'll chalk it up to your vivid imagination rather than to anything particularly erotic in the poem itself.