Thursday, April 23, 2009

To Autumn

Original Illustration by W.J. Neatby
To Autumn
By John Keats

Text is here:

In my last post I discussed Keats' theory of negative capability. Basically, he believed that truly great writers could surround themselves with life's monumental problems and be satisfied with simply dwelling with the questions instead of scrambling for answers. In his later work, especially in his later series of odes, he really started to incorporate this idea of negative capability.

To Autumn seems like it would be a turn from this idea. Only three stanzas long, it is very short, not typical for the traditional ode. The poem is very positive. Keats joyously describes the autumn harvest; he discusses trees producing fruit, bees producing honey, and fields producing grain. You'd be hard-pressed to find anything melancholy in this poem.

Keats had tuberculous for much of his adult life. He recognized that he had the disease, and he was aware that there was no cure at the time. It seems that he would be confronted with his death every day, which did eventually kill him in the 1820's. 'To Autumn' was one of his last poems ever written. It is easy to see then, that human mortality probably plays a part in the work.

I think Keats chooses autumn as his subject matter because it is the season directly before winter, traditionally associated with death. Instead of mourning the loss of the summer, though, he revels in the moment. He accepts that winter will come, but he doesn't let that ruin his enjoyment of what life has to offer. I think "To Autumn" dwells in a sort of positive negative capability. Keats is confronted with death; winter is coming. However, instead of brooding, he enjoys his life in the moment. It almost seems like this is an emotion that transcends negative capability. Instead of being surrounded by life's impossible questions, the speaker accepts that they are unanswerable, and that allows him to find pleasure in the world around him. "To Autumn" is a fitting end to a writing career; it shows a clear switch from struggle to acceptance of things that cannot change. To me, the feelings of the speaker is a noble mode to enter death with.



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