What makes the season of autumn so special? Perhaps it is the transitory nature of autumn. The last breath of summer mingles with the first breath of winter and creates pleasant autumn breeze. Autumn is the time when the earth prepares to go to sleep after the harvest, under the blanket of the approaching winter. Autumn is both a beginning and an end.
As autumn is approaching, my heart wants to return to my favourite autumn stories and poems. ‘To Autumn’ by John Keats is one of them. From tattered, yellowing pages of an old book, the poem had worked its way into my heart when I was in school. I turn to this poem during my leisurely hours in autumn evenings, when the memories of past autumns haunt me.
The poem begins with autumn conspiring with summer on how to ripen fruits, swell gourds, fatten hazelnuts and make flowers bloom with the help of sun. The bee-hives overflow with honey, and the bees assume that the warmth is never going to cease. We come across an image of abundance. The trees are laden with apples and fruits are fully ripened. Nature is overbrimmed with the produce of the season.
In the next stanza, the poet compares autumn with a woman, sitting carelessly on a granary floor, when the wind plays with her hair like a winnowing thresher. Then she is a reaper, who has fallen asleep feeling drowsy in the fumes of poppies, in the furrow of a half-reaped field. In the next lines, autumn is also seen as a gleaner, and a cider-maker. The second stanza gives the reader a calming sense in the midst of all activities. Autumn is sometimes seen to be carelessly sitting, sometimes falling asleep. Sometimes she steadily carries loads of left-over crops, or patiently watches the cider-press till the last drop oozes out.
In the third and final stanza, the poet compares the songs of spring to the music of autumn. The line ‘Where are they?’ implies more than what meets the eye. The phrase is often used in poetry to emphasize on the temporary nature of life (ubi sunt in Latin). The poet focuses on autumn’s own unique music created from the chorus of gnats, bleating lambs, songs of crickets, whistles of red-breasts and swallows. In the light of the ending day, the plains, recently harvested, adorn a soft reddish glow. The willows by the river sink and rise up with the flow of wind.
It is noticeable how often words like ‘dying day’, ‘wailful choir’, ‘mourn’, ‘wind lives and dies’ have been used. The ‘full-grown’ lamb also indicates that it is ready for slaughter. The mood of the poem becomes melancholy. The poet conjures up the image of death through the inevitable end of day at the end of the poem.
Autumn is a time of transformation, of change. Change never comes without loss–be it of any kind. Perhaps all the mourning and wailing signifies the loss of what had been before the change came in autumn.
The poem is full of vivid imagery and it engages all the senses. It feels as if autumn is the climax in a story of seasons, with summer being the beginning and winter is the culmination.
Keats wrote the poem in the autumn of 1819, when he was already infected with tuberculosis. His condition worsened quickly. In 1921, he died at the age of 25.