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《John Keats' "To Autumn" -- from another angle》__Wong Hin-Shing (61)

INTRODUCTION

This article is a not an in-depth analysis of the poem “To Autumn”.  For that purpose, please read Yu Fong-ying’s article Why is Keats’ “To Autumn” Such a Popular Poem?
 

To begin, please refer to “To Autumn” at the Wikipedia website.
[The following is an extract from the above (underlined highlights for emphasis are mine)]:

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“To Autumn” is a poem by English Romantic poet John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821).  He composed the work after a walk near Winchester one autumnal evening on
19 September 1819. A little over a year later, he died.

The poem has three eleven-line stanzas which describe a progression through the season, from the late maturation of the crops to the harvest and to the last days of autumn when winter is nearing. The imagery is richly achieved through the personification of Autumn, and the description of its bounty, its sights and sounds, with Keats himself describing the fields of stubble that he saw on his walk as being like that in a painting.

The work has been interpreted as a meditation on death and as an allegory of artistic creation.

Background
On 19 September 1819, Keats walked near Winchester along the River Itchen. In a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds written on 21 September, Keats described the impression the scene had made upon him and its influence on the composition of "To Autumn": "How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it [...] I never liked stubble fields so much as now [...] Somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it." Not everything on Keats's mind at the time was bright.

Themes

“To Autumn” describes, in its three stanzas, three different aspects of the season: its fruitfulness, its labor and its ultimate decline. Through the stanzas there is a progression from early autumn to mid autumn and then to the heralding of winter. Parallel to this, the poem depicts the day turning from morning to afternoon and into dusk

The first stanza of the poem represents Autumn as involved with the promotion of natural processes, growth and ultimate maturation.  In this stanza the fruits are still ripening and the buds still opening in the warm weather.

In the second stanza, Autumn is not depicted as actually harvesting but as seated, resting or watching. In lines 14–15 (“Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind.”), the personification of Autumn is as an exhausted laborer. Near the end of the stanza, the steadiness of the gleaner in lines 19–20 (“And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep Steady thy laden head across a brook”) again emphasizes a motionlessness within the poem. The progression through the day is revealed in actions that are all suggestive of the drowsiness of afternoon: the harvested grain is being winnowed; the harvester is asleep or returning home, the last drops issue from the cider press.

The last stanza contrasts Autumn's sounds with those of Spring. The sounds that are presented are not only those of Autumn but essentially the gentle sounds of the evening. Gnats wail and lambs bleat in the dusk. As night approaches within the final moments of the song, death is slowly approaching alongside the end of the year. The full-grown lambs, like the grapes, gourds and hazel nuts will be harvested for the winter. The twittering swallows gather for departure, leaving the fields bare. The whistling red-breast and the chirping cricket are the common sounds of winter. The references to Spring, the growing lambs and the migrating swallows remind the reader that the seasons are a cycle, widening the scope of this stanza from a single season to life in general.

Of all of Keats's poems, “To Autumn”, with its catalog of concrete images, most closely describes a paradise as realized on earth while also focusing on archetypal symbols connected with the season. Within the poem, autumn represents growth, maturation, and finally an approaching death. There is a fulfilling union between the ideal and the real. Critics have tended to emphasize different aspects of the process. Some have focused on renewal; others have emphasized the completion, the finality of death. The progress of growth is no longer necessary; maturation is complete, and life and death are in harmony...

Most important about "To Autumn" is its concentration of imagery and allusion in its evocation of nature, conveying an "interpenetration of livingness and dying ness as contained in the very nature of autumn".

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Here is a summary of the main points of the extract:

1.  Keats wrote the poem in 1819 and he died in 1821.  His mood at the writing was

     Therefore not “spring-like” but rather late “autumn-like” – “Not everything on Keats’

     Mind at the time was bright”.

2.  The 3 stanzas (phases) of his poem are about:

      a.  the late maturation of the crops - fruitfulness;

      b.  the harvest - labor;

      c.  the last days of autumn - decline.

3.   There is heavy use of imagery.  (Note:  This is one of the main reasons for the

      creation of my slideshow.)

B.  GLOSSARY IN THE POEM

      cider-press: a press for crushing apples

      croft: a small farm

      furrow: a long narrow trench

      gleaner: a collector of grain left in the field by harvesters

      gnats: small biting flies

      granary floor: a storehouse for grain

      hedge-crickets: grasshoppers

      hilly bourn: hilly brook or hilly boundary

      river sallows: low-growing willows

      stubble: cut stalks of grain plants left sticking out

      thatch-eaves: roofs made from straw, reeds or palm leaves

      winnowing: blowing

C.  THE SLIDESHOW   [please click the image to view the slideshow]

       
There are three components in the slideshow:

        1.  images

        2.  the reading of the poem

        3.  background music

        As the poem is being read, particular portions of the poem are shown at the top of

        the screen, with specific images pertaining to the words...

        Here is an example:

               

        At 00:22, while the speaker reads “To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees/ And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core”, the image of ripe, red apples hanging from the trees is displayed, and background music can be heard.

        The background music is the last portion of the 3rd movement from Brahms’ Symphony #3, befitting the autumn mood.

D.  CONCLUSION

       As the poem is being read, the words are shown at the top of the screen and vivid

       images are displayed with appropriate music in the background.  This should help

       our understanding and appreciation of the poem.

 2016-01-27
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