As the last throes of summer sunshine fade, we find ourselves in autumn, with a nip in the air and dusk falling ever-earlier. The English Romantic poet John Keats was inspired to write one of his most famous poems at this time of year.
After Keats took a walk near Winchester one autumnal evening, in September 1819, he began writing To Autumn. It was the last great poem that he wrote and became one of his most well-known. He developed the poem with lots of imagery of autumn and ended it cleverly by corresponding the lyrics to the end of the day.
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Born in October 1795 in Moorgate, London, Keats was the eldest of four children born to Thomas and Frances Keats. He attended a small school, John Clarke’s boarding school in Enfield, as his parents couldn’t afford to send him to Harrow or Eton.
The school had an almost family outlook and was more liberal than the bigger schools of the day. Its progressive curriculum nurtured the young Keats’ interest in history and the classics, but he didn’t become a writer on leaving school.
Instead, he became an apprentice to Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary in the village of Edmonton, where Keats’ grandparents lived. On completing his apprenticeship, he became a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in London, in October 1815.
He achieved a significant promotion to the role equivalent to a junior house surgeon today and looked set to have the financial security of pursuing a lifelong career in medicine. On the face of it, he wished to become a doctor, but his youthful interest in writing persisted.
He seemed to become less interested in medicine quite quickly and at the age of 19, in 1814, he wrote his first poem, An Imitation of Spenser. He was inspired by fellow poets, such as Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt. Financial worries caused him to feel depressed and he had to continue studying, gaining his apothecary’s licence in 1816. His brother, George, feared he would “never become a poet”.
Now eligible to become a fully-fledged physician and surgeon, Keats decided to follow his dreams and announced his intention to become a poet full-time. In 1816, his sonnet, O Solitude, was published in The Examiner magazine. Then, in 1817, he published his first book of poetry, simply called Poems. It received a mixed reception from the critics, but undeterred, he devoted more time to studying literature.
Keats changed publishers after his first book’s lack of success, leaving Charles and James Ollier and joining Taylor and Hessey, on Fleet Street, instead. James Hessey became Keats’ friend and planned a new volume of his poems, while also making rooms available, where aspiring young poets could meet.
In the course of his work, Keats met the literary and drama critic William Hazlitt. This was a turning point in Keats’ life, as it established him as a leading light in a “new school of poetry” with Hazlitt’s help. He wrote classic poems such as Ode on a Grecian Urn in 1819.
He gave up his medical career once and for all but sadly ended up nursing his brother, Tom, who later died of “consumption”. Biographers later suggested the whole family was prone to tuberculosis, which was described as the “family disease”.
Keats then went to stay with his friend, Charles Armitage Brown, at Wentworth Place, Hampstead Heath, where he continued his career as a poet. This was when he wrote most of his greatest poetry, including five famous odes, such as Ode to Psyche and Ode to a Nightingale. The latter was said to be composed as Keats sat under a plum tree in the garden.
After he wrote To Autumn, in September 1819, he was proclaimed a literary genius. The English academic, Sir Andrew Bate, declared every generation had a “nearly perfect poem” – and To Autumn was the one in the early 19th century. Literary critic MR Ridley said it was the most “serenely flawless poem in our language”.
Published in 1820, in a volume of Keats’ newest poetry, it was the final work in the group of poems labelled his “1819 odes”.
The critics have long deliberated if there is a hidden meaning to Keats’ finest poem. Many say it is simply a beautiful depiction of the season. Rich descriptions of autumn are said to challenge landscape artists with the mental pictures it conjures up through the use of the English language.
Generally seen as being split into three distinct parts, the poem begins at the start of autumn when the season is described as a friendly entity that works with the sun in bringing fruits to perfect ripeness. Autumn is described as a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” – a “friend of the maturing sun”. It will “fill all fruit with ripeness to the core” and produce “later flowers for the bees”, who “think warm days will never cease”.
Early autumn is seen as being a transitional period after the last days of summer.
In the second part of the poem, Keats emphasises the traditional activities of autumn, such as the harvest, when people would be threshing, reaping and cider-making. He talks of the “gleaner” – an old-fashioned term for the farmworkers who would pick up the grain left in the field by the harvesters.
He mentions waiting by the cider-press with a “patient look”, as the freshly-picked apples would be turned into the traditional alcoholic beverage. He personifies the autumn, describing it as “sitting careless on a granary floor” or resting in a “half-reaped furrow”.
In the third and concluding part of the poem, Keats talks of the sounds of autumn, produced by the animals, insects and birds. He finds this natural music to be as sweet as the sounds of spring. The narrator again personifies the autumn, telling it, “Thou hast thy music too.”
He describes full-grown lambs bleating from the hillside, the singing hedge-crickets, the “red breast” robin who “whistles from a garden-croft” and the “gathering swallows” as they “twitter in the skies”.
The conclusion of the poem talks not only of the end of the day, as the birds gather at twilight, but also the end of autumn as it transitions into winter. It is thought of as quite a melancholy poem towards the end, as the colourful beauty of summer and rustic charm of autumn die off, leading into the bleak winter.
It was said that after writing To Autumn, Keats reluctantly decided he could no longer afford to devote his life to poetry and was looking to find salaried work again.
However, at the age of only 24, he fell ill and began to display the symptoms of tuberculosis that had claimed the lives of other family members. He recognised the signs himself and was advised by his doctor to move to a warmer climate, as the cold, damp London air wasn’t doing him any good.
In September 1820, he left for Rome, arriving on 14th November, after the long sea voyage from England. He was very ill by the time he arrived but said he felt better than he had done living in quarantine at home. Sadly, he died from tuberculosis on 23rd February 1821, at the age of only 25.
Today, his former residence, Wentworth Place, in Hampstead, has become a museum called Keats House. Dedicated to the poet, it contains artefacts from his life and times.