Study Guide

To Autumn Themes

By John Keats

  • Man and the Natural World

    There's a lot more to say about this poem besides the fact that it's a "nature poem." By itself, the term "nature poem" doesn't tell us much. "To Autumn" contains very specific natural landscapes and images. The first stanza offers images of the interaction between humans and the plants that surround them. The second describes the production of agriculture, a natural process that is controlled by people. The third stanza moves outside of the human perspective to include things that are not used or consumed by humans, such as gnats and swallows. This third section captures some of the "wildness" and unpredictability of nature.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Which parts of nature does Keats choose to represent in the poem? Does he devote any attention to the wilderness?
    2. How are natural events treated like human beings?
    3. Why is autumn described as "careless" (14) and "patient" (21)?
    4. How do the last four lines fit with the rest of the poem? Do they contain any "ideas"?

    Chew on This

    Keats portrays nature as if it were a shortsighted person who focuses only on the present time without care or concern for the future.

    Despite several agricultural settings, the poem consciously ignores human beings and their activities.

  • Time

    We don't think it's a coincidence that "To Autumn" mentions autumn and spring, but not winter. Keats doesn't want to dwell on the cold days to come. To appreciate autumn, we need to forget about how each passing day seems a little shorter and chillier. For the most part, the speaker stays focused on the present moment, just like the personified figure of autumn, who doesn't seem to have a care in the world. Nonetheless, the poem moves forward in subtle ways. The natural world is at the peak of sunlight and ripeness in the first stanza, and by the third stanza the sun is setting.

    Questions About Time

    1. What evidence can you find of time passing within the poem?
    2. Why is autumn an unconventional choice for the subject of an ode?
    3. Does the speaker succeed in undermining spring at the beginning of the third stanza? How so or how not?
    4. Why does the speaker ascribe feelings of mourning onto the gnats by the river? Do you think he is projecting his own feelings?

    Chew on This

    The primary tension in the poem is between the forward motion of the day and the season and the speaker's desire to freeze time in each stanza.

    The speaker recognizes that autumn has no chance of competing with spring.

  • Awe and Amazement

    This ode is almost like a pep talk delivered to autumn. The speaker knows that autumn often gets short shrift in the catalogue of seasons, so he reminds her (and, maybe, himself) of its many wonders: the bounty of the harvest, the dropping of seeds that will become next year's flowers, and the symphony of sights and sounds at sunset. Strangely, autumn herself seems blissfully unaware of any need to be praised or appreciated by anyone. She wanders through the scenery and examines her work without concern or urgency.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. How many images of ripeness can you find in the poem?
    2. Judging by the actions of the personified figure of autumn, what effects does the season have on people?
    3. What other kinds of autumn scenes could Keats have added to the poem?
    4. Does the speaker appreciate autumn on its own merits, or does he only value the benefits that it provides to humans?

    Chew on This

    The poem's transition from mid-day to sunset parallels the transitions from summer to winter.

    Despite the speaker's attentions, autumn neither wants nor needs his praise. Autumn's inaccessibility contributes to his awe.

  • Transformation

    Autumn is the time of transformation between the growth of summer and the dormancy of winter. Things are winding down, and once the harvest is complete, there is nothing left to do but wait until the next season. Much of the transformation in the poem occurs between stanzas. For example, in the first stanza fruits and gourds are swelling outward before they will be picked for food. By the second stanza, the harvest is already complete, or mostly complete, and the ripe apples have been turned into rich, delicious cider. The third stanza focuses only on one transformative event, the setting of the sun.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. How does Keats contrast images of different kinds of motions? What motions do you imagine in your head when you picture the poem (expansion, contraction, forward, backward, rising, falling, etc.)?
    2. Why does the poem make no mention of the coming winter? Is the speaker trying to avoid the subject?
    3. How does the image of the sunset at the end of the poem fit with the idea of autumn?
    4. Does the mood or tone of the speaker change at all throughout the poem?

    Chew on This

    The scenery of "To Autumn" changes, but there is no development of themes or ideas.

    The end of "To Autumn" is much more ambivalent about the season than the beginning.

  • Mortality

    Autumn is frequently used as a symbol in literature for old age, the time before death, symbolized by winter. "To Autumn" avoids any super-obvious references to death, but we do get some subtle ones, like the oblivious bees that think the summer will last forever, or the "hook" that spares the poppy flowers from their inevitable end. As the day begins to "die" in the final section, the entire landscape contributes to the song of mourning.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why do we tend to automatically associate autumn with death? Does the poem make this association anywhere?
    2. Are the animals in the last four lines part of the "choir" of mourning suggested in line 27, or is their music of a different kind?
    3. Do you think the personified figure of autumn is immortal, like one of the Greek gods?
    4. How does Keats show the connection and continuity between the seasons?

    Chew on This

    The concept of death can only be applied to the natural elements in the poem by projecting human experience onto them.

    The mysterious and reflexive noises made by the animals in the last four lines subvert the speaker's anxiety about the death of the day.