Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; (lines 1-2)
The first line distinguishes autumn from the other seasons, while the second line sets up the personification of autumn throughout the poem. Why would the sun be friendlier with autumn than with any of the other seasons? Oh, spring is going to be so mad when she hears about this.
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; (lines 3-4)
The first stanza gives an optimistic view of nature plotting to help people. Moreover, the imagery integrates plants and human dwellings.
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, (lines 13-14)
Tracking down autumn is like trying to track down a leprechaun. Autumn has a few choice hideouts (sadly, not at the end of rainbows), but she's always on the move. She has no cares once the work of harvesting is finished.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? (line 23)
Keats makes a reference to the pastoral tradition that started in Ancient Greece. Within this tradition, shepherds piped simple songs in honor of the seasons. He may even be referring back to his own famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn," in which a young Greek man pipes a tune beneath a tree.
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells. (lines 10-11)
The bees have no sense of past of future: they live for the present. Does the poem argue that we should be more like the bees? Because "summer" has made it all the way inside the flowers, the time is probably around mid-day.
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep, (line 16)
No sleeping on the job, autumn! Since she has only reaped half of the furrow of poppies, we think that the day has progressed since the first stanza. This is her afternoon siesta.
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours. (line 22)
From the half-way finished job of reaping, we arrive at the completely finished job of cider-making. It's almost quittin' time, and the sun will set soon.
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-- (line 24)
The speaker advises autumn not to look back in jealously on spring's music. Spring never seems so distant as at the peak of autumn.
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue; (lines 25-26)
The progression from mid-day sunlight to sunset could be a metaphor for the progression from summer to winter. That would be using one measure of time to represent another – a neat poetic trick.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, (line 1)
Autumn is the most subdued and least flashy of the seasons. That's why they call her mellow yellow... er... "mellow fruitfulness." Though we do tend to associate autumn with the color yellow.
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells (line 6-7)
The language dives in to the very center of the fruit, only to push outward again like a balloon. Autumn is the secret ripeness expanding from the center of things.
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind; (lines 14-15)
A granary is where grains like wheat are stored. This is the only image in the poem that seems to eroticize autumn, as her hair is blown to and fro by the wind.
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies. (lines 32-33)
The end of the poem moves from human industry to an appreciation of the deeper mysteries of the season, the ones that only the animals seem to be aware of. What are they whistling about?
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; (lines 5-6)
The transformation into ripeness proceeds slowly, as the branches bend more and more under the weight of the growing apples. The speaker imagines this process as the outcome of secretive plans between autumn and the sun.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? (lines 12)
The second stanza moves subtly from ripeness to the harvest process. While the first stanza was centered on fruit and nuts, which are more like luxuries, the second stanza focuses on grains, the most essential food staple.
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook; (lines 19-20)
The poem moves through the different events of the season without the reader hardly noticing. At the end of the stanza on harvesting, Keats compares autumn to a gleaner who picks the last bits of grain left on the field.
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, (line 25)
Even at the end of the day, symbolizing the end of the season before winter sets in, something is "blooming." Namely, the red sunset. Keats uses the language of spring ironically in order to describe the end of the season of growth.
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; (line 2)
The word "maturing" reminds us that the sun is figuratively growing "older," its rays are getting weaker and the days become shorter.
while thy hook (lines 17-18)
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
The hook is used for reaping but is also associated with death, i.e., the "grim reaper." But Keats softens the blow of this image by "sparing" the next patch of flowers, at least for now.
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; (lines 27-29)
The language of mortality is extremely subtle in this poem. The gnats are like a funeral choir, singing a requiem for the "dying" day. Also, the wind itself "lives or dies." The speaker has death on his mind in the final stanza.
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies. (lines 30-33)
How does the end of the poem relate to the earlier hints of mortality? Do these animals continue the song of mourning, or does this song evolve into something that cannot be understood on human terms? Maybe these animals, like the bees, have no knowledge or concern for when the season will end.