The Human Seasons
Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;
There are four seasons in the mind of man:
He has his lusty Spring, when fancy clear
Takes in all beauty with an easy span:
He has his Summer, when luxuriously
Spring’s honey’d cud of youthful thought he loves
To ruminate, and by such dreaming high
Is nearest unto heaven: quiet coves
His soul has in its Autumn, when his wings
He furleth close; contented so to look
On mists in idleness—to let fair things
Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook.
He has his Winter too of pale misfeature,
Or else he would forego his mortal nature.
We are invited to compare “the measure of the year” with “the mind of man.” One wonders if external and internal time are parallel, or dependent in some way on each other as the poem progresses.
The image of man knowing is that of a bird. In Spring he is most full of lust, because he can fly everywhere (“easy span”) and take in many things. Summer’s heat seems to ground the bird in one way, but allow him to take off in others – the produce of summer is the “rumination” on what Spring had given, those beautiful things that are ignored wholly in Autumn. There is contemplation in Autumn, but it has a wistful quality, as if the best has passed.
Now usually, when one is talking about the seasons, one says that Spring is the time of birth, Summer of lust, Autumn of contemplation, and Winter death. Here, the order is lust, contemplation of beauty, contemplation of mystery, and then “pale misfeature.” One could say that the difference in these lists in elements and order results from the fact that in one, we are talking about man living simply, the other we are discussing the mind purely.
But the mind purely is not something we are given in this poem immediately. “Pale misfeature” is just one of the problems with that argument; the other problem is the sequence of seeing, thinking, reflecting, and finally the changing of the bird. The seeing and thinking are linked to the power and love of beauty that the bird has. When Autumn comes, the bird has virtually stopped wanting to fly, stopped wanting to behold beautiful things. A love of power is dependent on a love of beauty, and that isn’t there anymore.
What is there is “idleness,” followed by “pale misfeature.” And I’m tempted to say some glib nonsense like “Keats is romanticizing sensuality at the expense of age” here, but that’s too obvious to say, so obvious that I think it’s a joke the poem is playing with.
Rather, the mind has moved because of physical changes from love of knowledge to love of mystery. What exactly is dying here, what is the key to our mortal nature?
I think the answer is in “idleness” and “pale misfeature” – these are not bad things. “Idleness” is the consequence of tiring of beauty as a standard, and power as a means. One wants to be something better than what one beholds.
“Pale misfeature” then speaks to change. It is the literal difference between someone learned, who camps out with his books all the time, and someone devoted to being vigorous for vigorousness’ sake. What is dying is not the bird – what is dying is the standard that governed all things previously. The mind of man is that which is truly changeable, as we can change it purely by thinking differently. All other things decay, especially those things which before caused flight “nearest unto heaven.”