Nov 4, 2016

Ode to Autumn: A Study of John Keats' Poetic Vision

“Ode to Autumn” by John Keats is a short poem which is considered to be the culmination of the poet’s concerns about beauty, truth and permanence. The poem immediately appeals to the physical senses through a voluptuous description of autumn. Nature is seen to bring forth her fruition, leading to a final seasonal maturity, through a subtle yet steady progress. The entire scene extends over
the realm of visibility. A series of relaxed and languorous movements follow through the stanzas culminating in the recognition of the autumnal music which is a bliss in itself.

However, such an apparently simple impression of the poem is quite misleading as it conceals the poet’s complex thought processes. The central theme of the poem is not just autumn as a natural phenomenon but as an embodiment of the poet’s conception of maturity. It is an unflawed center of refuge in a world of flux. It is through such a conception that Keats sets to resolve the dichotomy between the world of the ideal and that of reality, within the order of experience.

Keats’s urge to establish such a balance is carried out through the trilogy of odes namely “Ode to Nightingale”, “Ode on a Grecian urn” and “To Autumn”. In “Ode to a Nightingale”, the poet addresses a bird which appeals to his physical senses, and seeks to unite with it. When his wish is fulfilled by his poetic Imagination, he exclaims “Already with thee”. However, the very same statement presupposes “I” and “thee” as two separate entities and hence not entirely united. He realizes, as he returns to reality, that man, with his transient state of mortal existence cannot eternize the ecstasy of the imaginative world. Interestingly, he mentions the word “fancy” and calls it “deceiving elf”, perhaps as a foil to “Romantic Imagination.” The experience of merging with the nightingale is based on sensuous experience and hence lacks the elevation of true Imaginative awareness. Therefore, the poet is left perplexed with doubts.

This conflict is carried on to “Ode on a Grecian Urn” where Keats acknowledges that,
“Heard melodies are sweet but those
Unheard are sweeter.”
Here, he recognizes the superiority of Imagination over reality. However, he is still troubled by the “cold pastoral” lifelessness of the moment frozen on the urn. In both these poems, as Douglas Bush observes, there is a “belief that whereas the momentary experience of beauty is fleeting, the embodiment of that moment in art, in song or in marble is an imperishable source of joy.” It echoes Keats’s words, “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

In “Ode to Autumn”, Keats tries to hold on to this belief firmly. Instead of linking the fine autumnal day to the chain of seasons, or contrasting its falling beauty to the deathly winter or the happy rebirth of spring (as does Shelly in his “Ode to the West Wind”), he captures the season in its entirety. The season of autumn is, as if, frozen irrespective of time and change. Such a conception of the season is far beyond the actual physical experience of it. There is however, a realistic acceptance of the summer that has passed and the winter that is approaching: “While the barred clouds bloom the soft dying day.”

Maturity does not imply only ageing and extinction but also fulfillment.  The entire structure of the poem is symbolic of transience, opening at a high noon and ending at dusk. The transitive and somewhat rare use of the verb “bloom”, with its obvious association with spring is also quite original. Moreover, the conjunction of “stubble plain” with “rosy hue” directs at a similar incongruity despite the convincing use of the image itself.

There is, evidently, a movement from maturity to death, operating at the background. Keats was obviously preoccupied with the idea of permanence even while he was well aware of its price. Middleton Murray understands this and observes, “It is a perfect utterance of truth contained in the magic words ‘ripeness is all’”. This truth is not accessible through fancy but through the spiritual elevation of Romantic Imagination. This is not merely a recognition of transience, but an acceptance of it and a celebration of its virtue of fulfillment. He does not look beyond the present moment for vernal music, he finds the music of Autumn equally pleasant and unique: “Thou hast thy music too.”

Such a celebration is presented implicitly in the description of autumn. All four images are characterized by the same timeless repose: “thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours”. Autumn, personified, sits careless of time and change; her hair soft lifted by an almost imperceptible breeze which is too feeble to shake her statuesque composure. She is “drows’d in the fume of poppies”. If time exists, she steadfastly chooses to ignore it. It is this ability to ignore temporality that renders autumn a permanence which the poet sought so much to access all throughout.

Permanence, which is beyond the grasp of physicality, is an essence. On the other hand, transience is an experience which is felt through the senses. Only through the sensuous world of reality can one reach the ideal world of permanence. For a young romantic like Keats, who felt the anxiety of extinction even at a young age for his failing health and consumptive lungs, this alone provided the breath of sustenance. “To Autumn” set his agonized heart at peace, helping him reach a calm recognition of the true order of things. From his fears of extinction he reaches the recognition of the worth that his lifetime, no matter how short, could contain. 

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