Writing about the changing of the seasons yesterday put me in mind of John Keats’ To Autumn, one of the great poems in English literature. You don’t really need any context to appreciate the poem, but I can’t resist just a couple of words about the circumstances in which it was written.
The poem was written when Keats was only 24, but he was already dying and would be dead within two years. The emotional maturity of the poem is astounding. At an age when most of us are only starting out in life, Keats had to confront the end of his life. He wrote in one of his letters that “stubble fields never looked so warm to me”. The beauty of spring, of life renewing itself, is obvious and unambiguous. The autumn is also beautiful, but it always carries within it the suggestion of the dying of the light. It takes a steady eye to focus on its beauty and not to wander forward to the death of winter and the hope of rebirth in spring; to see the birds depart without worrying about their return, which you may never see.
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.