February 24, 2018

John Keats, Autumn

On this day in 1819, twenty-five-year-old John Keats wrote to his friend, Charles Brown, to say that he was giving up poetry for journalism. This is also the first day of autumn; four days earlier in 1819 Keats had written "To Autumn," now one of his most popular poems, and one which many critics regard as "flawless in structure, texture, tone, and rhythm":
    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....
Keats had quit the study of medicine for poetry in 1816; in three years he had published some, earned little, and been much-attacked by the critics. This new decision was a response to the harvest that never was, and a resolve to fill his cupboard himself: "It is quite time I should set myself doing something, and live no longer upon hopes. I have never yet exerted myself, I am getting into an idle-minded, vicious way of life, almost content to live upon others." In this personal light, the second stanza of "To Autumn" becomes an appeal for more time:
    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....
If an appeal, and heard, it was not to be granted. Four months later Keats experienced his first lung hemorrhage -- "That drop of blood is my death warrant," he now wrote to Charles Brown -- and a year after that he was dead from tuberculosis. With "To Autumn," says critic George Bush, "Keats's poetical career was now virtually ended"; gathering up all the poems Keats wrote in the preceding twelve months-most of the famous ones, including the Odes -- many have judged it, as biographer John Gittings puts it, "the greatest year of living growth of any English poet." The third and final stanza of "To Autumn":
    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.

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