Click on the names below to hear these readers recite "To Autumn" (requires RealPlayer):

Sven Birkerts

Emily Hiestand

Stanley Plumly

C. K. Williams
(For help, see a note about the audio.)

Previously in Soundings:

Edward Lear, "The Owl and the Pussy-cat" (May 30, 2002)
Read aloud by Gail Mazur, Lloyd Schwartz, and Richard Wilbur. Introduction by Lloyd Schwartz.

"Sir Walter Ralegh to His Son" (January 30, 2002)
Read aloud by Henri Cole, David Ferry, and Linda Gregerson. Introduction by Linda Gregerson.

Robert Lowell, "For the Union Dead" (April 11, 2001)
Read aloud by Frank Bidart, Peter Davison, and Robert Pinsky. Introduction by Peter Davison.

Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress" (February 26, 2001)
Read aloud by Linda Gregerson, J. D. McClatchy, and Heather McHugh. Introduction by Linda Gregerson.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "This Lime-tree Bower My Prison" (September 27, 2000)
Read aloud by Steven Cramer, Stanley Plumly, and Thomas Sleigh. Introduction by Steven Cramer.

Elizabeth Bishop, "Sonnet" (March 29, 2000)
Read aloud by Gail Mazur, Robert Pinsky, Lloyd Schwartz, and Mark Strand. Introduction by Lloyd Schwartz.

More Soundings in Atlantic Unbound.

More on poetry in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Atlantic Unbound | July 17, 2002
John Keats, 'To Autumn'

Introduction by Sven Birkerts

 have written on John Keats's "To Autumn" before, at essay length, and when I mentioned to a poet-friend that I was planning to present the ode in this "Soundings" format, he promptly accused me of "double-dipping," and of shirking the challenges of the new. I thanked this friend—and not for the first time, either—for taking on the burden of being my literary conscience, but decided to stay my course. For two main reasons. First, because I could not believe that what is, for me, the crowning instance of language breaking into sensation, had not yet been enshrined in these electronic pages. And second—to rebut the assumption that I am guided strictly by considerations of ease—because "To Autumn"' puts to us, over and over again, the beauty question. Simply: What is beauty? The question seems to me to be more important than ever before. The sensibility of beauty is being remorselessly conditioned out of us, even as its academic topicality grows more lustrous (consider Elaine Scarry's recent meditation On Beauty and Being Just). The whole business gets ever more difficult and vexing. I pick the familiar poem because to read it is to confront the terrible diffusion of late-modernity, even as it is to glimpse a path of possible return.

John Keats

John Keats,
in an 1819 sketch

Long a canonical centerpiece, the very touchstone of English Romanticism, "To Autumn" can obviously be taken on from various angles—surmising how it fits in the sequence of Keats's five major odes, tracking its myriad debts and nods, searching for the provenance of particular images and phrases—and one could do far worse than turning to Helen Vendler's 1983 study The Odes of John Keats for just such an informed and disciplined inquiry.

My interest, somewhat different, is to consider the poem in the light of what might be called the timeless virginal encounter, to read it, if this were possible, scrubbed clean of its background and external associations, as if this were, in a sense, the only poem, and its reader—me, you—the only reader. A whimsical conceit. I realize this, but I would argue that as much as a work of literature manifests influence and carries the informing baggage of its history, the writer's chief aim in composition is not to declare but to overcome any and all circumstantial factors, to bury them in the immediate power of language. He may be aware, peripherally or directly, of a particular debt to Milton, say, but the appropriation is not in the interest of creating a tissue of echoes so much as fanning the greatest verbal intensity, the point of which is to burn away, in the moment of encounter, all prior experience, literary and otherwise. The lyric poem wants to be a complete world, excluding all others, if only for the duration of the reading.

Elsewhere on the Web:

"John Keats: A Comprehensive Study of His Life and Work"
Selected poems and letters written by Keats, a chronology of his life and work, reviews of his poetry, and more.
A reading of Keats's celebrated letters reveals a man possessed by the ideal of sensuous immediacy. ("Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—this struck me so much in my sunday's [sic] walk that I composed upon it," Keats once wrote to J. H. Reynolds.) The poet's overriding ambition in the composition of his ode was to inhabit and carry across as completely as possible his epiphanic insight into the elemental essence of autumn, its complex, association-laden place in the full seasonal rotation. To do this he moves, in his three stanzas, from a perception that is immediately sensuous, to one that begins to discern the underlying forces of nature and the embodied spirit that represents them, and finally to what can be seen as a virtuosic sonic enactment, a transfer from the visual dimension to the auditory.

Most interesting to me, apart from the inspired line-by-line rightness, the exactitude in plenitude that Keats achieves in his orchestration of suggestive particulars, is the subliminal music, the rhythmic/structural elaboration that can very nearly be heard as its own narrative. There is a distinct Schubertian surge, a pitching up to sweetness, in the first stanza, a retraction to exhausted surfeit in the second, and then a complex, ambiguous resolution in the last that at once introduces new energies—the energies of sound—and holds them suspended in an intimation of encroaching winter darkness.
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 mossed 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-brimmed 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-reaped furrow sound asleep,
  Drowsed 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 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 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.
We can only marvel at the subtleties of sound and rhythm here, how Keats conjures from the very first line the densest imaginable texture of seasonal plenty, even as he builds a breathless rising momentum that crests in the tenth line with "warm days will never cease" and releases itself (with definite sexual undertones) in the full expenditure of "For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells."

Then follows the repose, the fulfillment, and what a remarkable shift, from the general address of the first stanza to the sudden surprise personification of the second. Autumn is a female spirit, a female spirit, moreover, presented in a mood of complete sensual repletion—relaxed, "careless," given over to indolent slumber—and only restored to some vigilance in the last three lines, where "steady" and "patient" evoke a regained equilibrium. The last line of the stanza—"Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours"—stands as a striking counterpoint to the giddy excess of "For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells." Abundant release has given way to a slow hoarding of essences. The cycle is all but complete; the transformation has been worked through with a deceptive subliminal ease.

With the completion of this cycle, the question inevitably arises: Where can the poet now take things, rhythmically as well as narratively and thematically? Keats elects, in a move of some complexity, to lift the ode into the sphere of sound, and there, in the next eleven lines, to work through a very different pattern.

"Where are the songs of Spring?" It is the first aural reference in a poem that has been overwhelmingly visual and tactile in its effects, and if the third and fourth lines look back to that earlier mode, the remaining lines create the delicious effect of assimilating the content to the medium, in effect making music about music. The shift is all the more remarkable insofar as the earlier visual and tactile elements were themselves brought as close as possible to their embodiment as sound ("mossed cottage trees," and "plump the hazel shells"); now sound itself is the subject.

And what is the point, the purpose—apart from weaving a thick audio textile—of these wailing gnats, bleating lambs, singing hedge-crickets, whistling red-breasts, these twittering swallows? The poet is ever resourceful and profound. Moving us from scale to scale—from intimate proximity (gnats) to more distant, almost "panoramic" hearings (lambs), thereby keeping faith with the presentation of the meshed complexity of the natural landscape—Keats also paves the way to a concluding image that has both visual momentum and powerful auditory suggestiveness. There is an almost oxymoronic force in the ominousness of swallows gathering at evening and the lightness of their "twitter," a collision of associations that captures as effectively as anything might the simultaneous recognition of winter darkness looming and some natural joyousness (like Hopkins's "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things" in "God's Grandeur") that heralds the eventual return of the Spring invoked in the stanza's first line.

As for the beauty question, it will never (I hope) be solved, though the soul—stirred—will never stop trying. What is it about the poet's use of sound and rhythm that so directly thrills the nervous system? Just how does the perceived concordance of means and ends—sounds and meanings—extend the promise of still profounder patternings out in the world? The old questions, but they change their valence over time. One thing does seem clear to me: that the further we move from the sense of nature depicted here, the more accelerated and distracted we become in our habits of living, the more the Keatsian beauty will strike us as "other," as part of an order largely vanished from the world. Could it be, then, that our experience of this greatest of the Odes will grow more and more profound, profundity here arising from a freshly whetted desire and the diminishing hopes for its gratification.

Click on the names below to hear these readers recite
"To Autumn" (in RealAudio):

Sven Birkerts Emily Hiestand
Stanley Plumly C. K. Williams

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

Sven Birkerts is the author of five books of essays, including The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry. His memoir, My Sky Blue Trades, will be published next month.

Emily Hiestand is a writer and visual artist. She is the author of a book of poetry, Green the Witch-Hazel Wood, and two prose works, The Very Rich Hours and Angela The Upside Down Girl. Her awards include The National Poetry Award, The Pushcart Prize, Discovery/The Nation, and The Whiting Writers Award. Her Atlantic article "Hymn" (July 1998) received the National Magazine Award.

Stanley Plumly is the author, most recently, of Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems 1970-2000. He is currently a Distinguished University Professor and Professor of English at the University of Maryland.

C. K. Williams's recent books include Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself, a prose memoir, and Repair, which received the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He teaches at Princeton University.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.