October 4th is National Poetry Day in the U.K. this year, an event similar, though more condensed, to the National Poetry Month in April promoted out of the U.S.
No one’s revealed why April for the Poetry Month, though Chaucer and T. S. Eliot may have put in their votes, and the reasons for the fall date for Poetry Day could be arbitrary too. But autumn would have an emotional claim. Fall is changeable in weather, an underrated Spring of warm days and cold shuffling themselves. It has its long-established events: school years underway, harvests and harvest festivals, the closing of summer venues, Halloween, Veterans Day/Remembrance Day. Fall can also be an easy metaphor for approaching death, but poetry is one buffer we use to handle that subject anyway.
John Keats wrote one of his last and finest poems to the season almost 200 years ago in the autumn of 1819. It’s full of the strengths of Keats’ writing. Even in his time Keats was both praised and dismissed for the sensuousness of his poetry, and not a line goes by without some sensation of taste, touch, color and sound, and all that is contained in beautiful word music and an off-balance rhyme scheme that may couplet-rhyme two lines together, or tantalizingly wait two or four lines for the rhyme.
Even if some of his words are 200 years old antique, or for us Americans, peculiarly English, he crams all these sensations in his poem without them seeming forced, as if they were special or unnatural “poetic” things. Many of the sense words in this poem are of ordinary manual labor: load, bend, fill, set, reap’d, laden, press, and borne.
Where he is outrageously poetic is that this poem is an apostrophe. The entire poem is addressed, just as the title says, as if the season was a person, “To Autumn.” A poet doing that today would, intentionally or otherwise, produce a humorous effect. Still, if we allow it, the second stanza gives us a leisurely fall, a farmer taking a break on a warm autumn day from rural labor, hiding in a barn, or taking a nap in a half-harvested field, but yet also returning to pressing cider from apples down to the last drop, and bearing away hand-gathered food on his head “like a gleaner.”
Gleaner is one of those antique words. It was a practice in some places to allow the poor and those without land to gather what leftover grain might be left in the fields after harvest. Just this week I was reading on the always Interesting Literature blog that Keats may have had this practice on his mind as gleaning had just been outlawed in England, and that other images in the poem may have had social resonances with Keats at the time.
The poem’s final stanza retreats with distant banners flying, a symphony of extreme audio dynamic range. The infinitesimal sound of gnats flying is a choir. The wind crescendos and decrescendos. Lambs bleat loudly and then there is silence. Crickets arpeggiate for time. Birds whistle, twitter and leave in the sky, migrating away, and the poem ends.
Keats himself ends as a poet, this being one of his last works. He leaves for Italy in hopes it will help his tuberculosis, which it won’t. He’s dead in about a year.