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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Daily Diary: Keats to Autumn

Friday, January 15, 2010

Today, Friday, usually a productive day for me as I realise with terror that I need to finish all the things I have put off from earlier in the week, is frustrating and slow. I begin by finishing off my OU tutorial preparation, with a reading of Keat's "To Autumn":

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.


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.
 
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.

It is clearly a highly evocative piece, with a whole host of poetic special effects on display. That enjambment in "to set budding more,/And still more, later flowers for the bees" is the clearest possible example of form and content working together in harmony, and perfect for my purposes as I am trying to show this to my OU students. They seem very capable of noting particular poetic techniques being used, or at understanding the narrative of a poem, but not necessarily of connecting the two, to see how the techniques draw out what is being said.

One of the criticisms often levelled at the poem is that, though clearly a highly achieved work, it lacks by being too perfect, too transparently evocative of the moment of Autumn, and lacking an ambiguous or complex engagement with the subject (of the sort evidenced, say, in Wordsworth's "Lines Written in Early Spring," which I discussed yesterday).

However, I find that lavish superabundance especially in the first stanza, somewhat ominous: conspiracy, clammy cells. These are not the terms of a definitively positive sentiment. And I also find that personification in the second stanza deliberately deceptive. Explicitly, it may be an effeminate Autumn who lies careless on the granary floor, or watches the last oozings of the apple press. But if the standard claim is that the poem conjures up the real atmosphere of Autumn, here we have an odd substitution that actually obscures reality. After all, the reality is that it is people who reap the harvest, get drunk, laze in the sun. Autumn is actually exploited by man, the product rather than the recipient of its own bounty, and so its treatment here seems an ironic kind of reversal. Finally, of course, we have that sense of decay in the final stanza, and although often read as Keats having come to terms with his imminent death - note the "soft-dying day" - that line "in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn" seems, to me, genuinely dark (as well as, for my didactic purposes, an excellent example of assonance).

All this study takes at best an hour, and I then switch into marking my OU essays on poetry, which dropped into my inbox in the small hours this morning. The first is positive and genuinely insightful, though as is common at this level the essay structure does not do justice to some of the insights, and the overall effect is patchy. By the time I get to number three, late in the afternoon, the alt-tab key testifies to my lack of concentration.

Instead, then, I finish off the first draft of a report I am writing for one of my university's research institutes, which involves dragging text boxes around the screen, and not much that requires intellectual concentration.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:03 pm

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