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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Regarding Love and The Birth of Art: On Keats’ "To Autumn"

To Autumn
John Keats

I.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

II.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

III.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Comment:

She is shrouded in mystery, and when she creates, she does not do so in a boastful manner, limiting herself to one area of excellence. Her lover is also quiet, being older himself, and the progress of their relationship is only quietly given away by their fruits. First there were the simple joys of sensuality, which made the Bacchae ecstatic, but led these two to a quiet domesticity (the vines wrap around a domicile, I assume). Then there were the mistakes couples make that they weather together, and are more prosperous for so doing: note that the Fall is a beginning – it is by no means final. At some point, there is plenty (“gourd”), and that extends finally to reproduction (“hazel,” with its “kernel”), the true wealth of love.

Now this realm of love based on the purely sensual is best defined by the labors of the bees. There is a narrow-mindedness intrinsic to these creatures; they cannot see their labors and blessings will soon come to an end.

As the Sun goes away, one finds Autumn more and more upon the earth, trying to work, but seemingly wistful. The list in that second stanza is a strange one, as it uses elements from the first stanza, but not entirely, and absolutely not in the same way: the “wind” is what is needed for kernels of hazels to be planted and grow, but instead it merely lifts her hair. She sleeps on the material that might be the thatch of the roof of the house. Instead of the plenty of the gourd filling her, there is merely the fume of poppies, and finally, all that is left of the apples is cider. “Gourd” from the first stanza is obviously gone, as is the grape that was more significant than the thatch, and the order has shifted from grape (thatch), apples, gourd, hazel (wind) to wind (kernel), thatch (grape), poppies (gourd), apples. If sensuality and its fruits that were produced were more important before, emotions are more important here. Each element from the first list has lost some of its physical nature, and the first and last elements are the key to the list: the first stanza links sensuality and reproduction, here, feelings and what is left of couplehood are linked.

I always felt that the world’s most beautiful woman was being described in the second stanza, and she was heartbroken, and maybe didn’t even quite realize it.

The third stanza moves from objects to music. The music occurs while the day dies, and the image of rosy clouds touching the plain is a complete literal and thematic inversion of the Homeric image of “rosy-fingered Dawn.” The music is from animate creatures, not just ones with nutritive souls or no souls at all. We ascend from river banks to hills with the animals, but that doesn’t quite satisfy the speaker, for he builds another more important distinction into that list, one more than physical – we also move from fragmented sounds (gnats, lambs, crickets) to the song of a bird and then to a song that perhaps God only can understand, in His realm.

Now those of you familiar with my take on Sonnet 73 know that I hold Autumn to be the reflective season, where maturity and art reach a pinnacle, as they are in the shadow of death directly. Keats throws a new wrinkle into that logic in this poem, with the sun moving to an empty sky: the Muse comes about because of the unfulfillment of her own erotic longings, and the inspiration of the artist – the speaker of the poem – is the combination of beauty and loneliness. The birth of art is the birth of tragedy; the great love that creates must die away, and art is that longing for an eternal love, the hope that as thought and reflection fade, separated from their ability to create, they can meet again elsewhere.

1 Comment

  1. Wow!!

    At first all I got out of it was that the guy was horny and wanted a child. Boy was I wrong!

    Seriously though, that was excellent, perhaps one of your best – if I can speak so brashly. It leaves a-lot to think about. It is odd that it fits so nicely with the dream I had last night. Oh, of waking dreams and living nightmares, mind has has known all, as if a haze has burdened me, and filled me with mirth and decay. But the fall, the fall is a time of reflection isn’t it. More mature? It is and I never realized that before, even though I know you have told me this before.

    Much much to think about. If not for the waking sun and greening leaves I feel it would be a most miserable day!

    PS

    Thanks for the call about the lesson’s. Sorry about not calling yesterday. I was too tired to be much use. Call tonight, or better yet, call me sooner and maybe you can come for dinner. I believe my brother is home tonight. Peace.

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