Study Guide

To Autumn Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By John Keats

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

The Figure of Autumn

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.

  • Lines 2-3: Autumn is personified for the first of many times in the poem. She and the sun whisper together like a bunch of gossipy teenage girls. But the goal is serious and necessary: they are responsible for the bounty of fruit and crops that will sustain people through the winter.
  • Line 12: The speaker asks a rhetorical question to introduce a connection he believes the reader will recognize, between autumn and the harvest.
  • Lines 13-15: The personification of autumn feels most explicit in these lines, where her long hair is gently lifted by the wind. "Winnowing wind" is an example of alliteration. Implicitly her hair is compared to chaff, the inedible part of a grain that blows away after the threshing process.
  • Lines 16-18: Autumn has several different roles in this poem. Here she is a laborer in the fields, taking a nap after working hard to harvest the flowers with her "hook." The hook, too, is personified. It is presented as a conscious thing that chooses to "spare" the flowers, rather than as a tool that just lies idle.
  • Lines 19-20: From a laborer, autumn then becomes like a "gleaner" in this simile, which compares her to the people who pick up the scraps from the field after the harvest.
  • Lines 21-22: Autumn's "look," the appearance on her face while watching the cider, is an example of metonymy when the word "patient" is attached. An expression cannot itself be patient, but her look is associated with the patience of her character.
  • Line 24: Autumn is addressed for the final time, as the speaker tells her not to feel jealous of spring.

Weight and Ripeness

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.

  • Line 3: Fruit doesn't just grow on the vines; the vines are "loaded" with fruit, the way you might "load" a shelf with heavy items.
  • Line 7: The gourd is "swollen" with ripeness and the hazel nuts are "plump" with meat.
  • Line 15: In this implicit metaphor, autumn's hair is like the light chaff that surrounds a heavy seed. On a threshing floor, the weight of the grains prevents them from being blown away in the air.
  • Line 20: Autumn's head is described as "laden," or heavy, when she crosses over the brook.
  • Line 29: The line contains a vivid image in which the gnats rise and fall in concert with the strength of the wind.

Pastoral

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.

  • Lines 4-5: Pastoral artworks often show how nature and humans coexist within a landscape. Here the vines run around the eves of thatched houses, and mossy trees grow next to cottages.
  • Line 24: The reference to music could allude to the tradition in which shepherds and other outdoorsy-types played rustic music on a lyre or pipe. Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" features a musician playing a pipe, for example. Here Keats uses "music" as a metaphor for the harmonies of the scenery.
  • Line 27: Gnats are an unusual choice to include in the symphony of autumn's metaphorical "music," but Keats describes them so well that we don't notice an incongruity. In this extension of the metaphor about the "dying" of daylight in line 25, the gnats are the metaphorical chorus that "wails" in mourning at the funeral.
  • Lines 30-33: Lay it on us, Keats. He decides to go all-in with the pastoral imagery, picking out some of the genre's most recognizable images: lambs on the hillside, crickets in the hedge, and birds in the garden.

Spring and Summer

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.

  • Line 11: Silly bees, you can't hide inside those flowers forever. "Clammy cells" implies a metaphor that compares the insides of the flowers to the small, damp cells of monks or even prisoners. The warmth of summer reaches all the way inside the flowers.
  • Line 23: The speaker asks a rhetorical question to begin the third stanza, as he did with the second. He alludes to the tradition in which poets and lyricists sang to celebrate the new life of springtime. He might be thinking specifically of Ancient Greece, where the ode as a form of poetry was invented.

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