As a consequence, the bees are incessantly working and their honeycombs are overflowing since summer. In both its form and descriptive surface, “To Autumn” is one of the simplest of Keats’s odes. There is nothing confusing or complex in Keats’s paean to the season of autumn, with its fruitfulness, its flowers, and the song of its swallows gathering for migration. The extraordinary achievement of this poem lies in its ability to suggest, explore, and develop a rich abundance of themes without ever ruffling its calm, gentle, and lovely description of autumn.
Where “Ode on Melancholy” presents itself as a strenuous heroic quest, “To Autumn” is concerned with the much quieter activity of daily observation and appreciation. In this quietude, the gathered themes of the preceding odes find their fullest and most beautiful expression. Keats’s approach here is particular as the line shows: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness! ” “To Autumn” takes up where the other odes leave off. Like the others, it shows Keats’s speaker paying homage to a particular goddess–in this case, the deified season of Autumn.
The selection of this season implicitly takes up the other odes’ themes of temporality, mortality, and change: Autumn in Keats’s ode is a time of warmth and plenty, but it is perched on the brink of winter’s desolation, as the bees enjoy “later flowers,” the harvest is gathered from the fields, the lambs of spring are now “full grown,” and, in the final line of the poem, the swallows gather for their winter migration. The understated sense of inevitable loss in that final line makes it one of the most moving moments in all of poetry; it can be read as a simple, uncomplaining summation of the entire human condition.
Despite the coming chill of winter, the late warmth of autumn provides Keats’s speaker with ample beauty to celebrate: the cottage and its surroundings in the first stanza, the agrarian haunts of the goddess in the second, and the locales of natural creatures in the third. Keats’s speaker is able to experience these beauties in a sincere and meaningful way because of the lessons he has learned in the previous odes: He is no longer attempting to escape the pain of the world through ecstatic rapture (as in “Nightingale”) and no longer frustrated by the attempt to eternalize mortal beauty or subject eternal beauty to time (as in “Urn”).
The poem recalls earlier poems as in the lines: “Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind” In “To Autumn,” the speaker’s experience of beauty refers back to earlier odes (the goddess drowsing among the poppies recalls Psyche and Cupid lying in the grass), but it also recalls a wealth of earlier poems. Most importantly, the image of Autumn winnowing and harvesting (in a sequence of odes often explicitly about creativity) recalls an earlier Keats poem in which the activity of harvesting is an explicit metaphor for artistic creation.
In his sonnet “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” Keats makes this connection directly using the metaphor ‘ripen’d grain’. In “To Autumn,” the metaphor is developed further; the sense of coming loss that permeates the poem confronts the sorrow underlying the season’s creativity. When Autumn’s harvest is over, the fields will be bare, the swaths with their “twined flowers” cut down, the cider-press dry, the skies empty. But the connection of this harvesting to the seasonal cycle softens the edge of the tragedy.
In time, spring will come again, the fields will grow again, and the birdsong will return. The speaker knows joy and sorrow, song and silence are as intimately connected as the twined flowers in the fields. Thus the prime note of the poem is that of optimism as the following lines reveal. “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too” ‘Ode to Autumn’ reveals not Keats’s pictorial quality only; but also a deep sense of purpose underneath.
Although the first impression may be that John Keats is simply describing the main characteristics of autumn, and the human and animal activities related to it, a deeper reading could suggest that Keats talks about the process of life. Autumn symbolizes maturity in human and animal lives. Some instances of this are the ‘full-grown lambs’, the sorrow of the gnats, the wind that lives and dies, and the day that is dying and getting dark. As all we know, the next season is winter, a part of the year that represents aging and death, in other words, the end of life.
However, in my opinion, death does not have a negative connotation because Keats enjoys and accepts ‘autumn’ or maturity as part of life, though winter is coming. Joys must not be forgotten in times of trouble. Blake’s dictum, ‘Under every grief and pine/Runs a joy with silken twine. ’ The two are the part of life. Thus ‘thou has thy music too’ is the right approach to life showing the process of maturity and optimism. In short, what makes “To Autumn” beautiful is that it brings an engagement with that connection out of the realm of mythology and fantasy and into the everyday world.
We are part of Autumn when it is personified and presented to us in the figure of the winnower, “sitting careless on a granary floor”, the reaper “on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep”, the gleaner keeping “steady thy laden head across a brook”, and a spectator watching with patient look a cider-press and the last oozings therefrom. The reaper, the winnower, the gleaner, and the cider-presser symbolize Autumn. Through his process, the poet has learned that an acceptance of mortality is not destructive to an appreciation of beauty and has gleaned wisdom by accepting the passage of time that it is engagement; not escape is the purpose of life.