Autumn has evoked a variety of responses from poets.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882), in Autumn, pictures the season as a royal figure who makes a grand entrance “like imperial Charlemagne, upon the bridge of gold”, and whose follower, the wind, “scatters the golden leaves” in tribute.
In Autumn Song, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882), the poet sees the season as analogous to a person’s later life, when “sleep seems a goodly thing”, when “the chief of joys seems – not to suffer pain”, and “the soul feels like a dried sheaf”.
For one of my favourite poets, John Clare (1793 – 1864), Autumn (in his poem of the same name) is a season in which the seed-strewn countryside is a place of contrasts between the streaming waters of brooks and rivers – “The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot; Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot” – and the harsh dryness of the land: “The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread”.
William Blake (1757 – 1827), in his poem To Autumn, personifies Autumn as a “jolly” visitor, who sits beneath the poet’s “shady roof” and beguiles “modest Eve”, including more than a hint of the erotic. The poet implores Autumn to “Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers”, in consequence of which “The narrow bud opens her beauties to / The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins”. By the end of the poem, Autumn has “o’er the bleak / Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load”.
Amongst the many other famous poets inspired to express their thoughts about Autumn are Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Baudelaire, Dorothy Parker, Walter de la Mare, William Morris, Thomas Hardy and Stevie Smith – here’s her quirky, tiny poem, Autumn.
He told his life story to Mrs. Courtly
Who was a widow. ‘Let us get married shortly’,
He said. ‘I am no longer passionate,
But we can have some conversation before it is too late.’
But perhaps the most well-known and best-loved of all the Autumn poems is the ode written by the Romantic poet John Keats (1795 – 1821).
To Autumn was written in September 1819, the last of the five odes included in the collection published in 1820, the final collection published while he was still alive. It is said to be the last poem that he wrote in his very short life. It portrays the season as a friendly conspirator, working with the autumnal sun to produce a rich harvest of fruit, nuts, crops and flora. It is a highly sensuous piece, rich in imagery of all kinds – sights, sounds, taste, touch and smells – replete with unintended irony, given the fact that he wrote it in the autumn of his life. Although some have suggested that the poem has an undercurrent which references the Peterloo Massacre, which had occurred the previous month (August 1819), I think this stretches the bounds of probability.
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-eaves 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,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-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 barrèd 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 redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Page 1 of the original manuscript of Keats’ To Autumn.
Source: public domain