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Take a Break, Read Some Keats

As you probably know, Greece is close to defaulting on its debts, the Euro nations can’t agree on a coherent fiscal policy, the European banking system appears more fragile every morning, the Palestinians have reasons to ask the UN to recognize them as a nation, the Israelis have reasons to occupy ever more of the land the Palestinians regard as their nation, Egypt is having trouble being re-born as a democracy, the US stock market plunged 300 points the other day, unemployment remains high, the recession my repeat itself or, avoiding that calamity, this one may last for years, Congress remains deadlocked, and a recent study reveals that men who take care of their children suffer a decline in testosterone. But you know all that.

On the other hand, if you live in a city, you probably don’t know that this is the season when early morning mists blanket the landscape. You could say it’s the season of mists. In fact, John Keats wrote a poem about this season and it begins Season of mists…  To put you in the mood, here’s a photo of a misty morning landscape provided by the writer Francesca Forrest.Misty morning landscape

Keats’s poem, “Ode to Autumn,” is a complex and linguistically rich poem. Today’s common reader may be put off by the dense, gorgeous language. But you’re not a common reader…

     Keats begins by celebrating autumn. He’s aware that poets write more often about spring than fall but, he says, fall has a beauty of its own.  He praises fall for being a season of maturity, fruitfulness and harvest. Everything in that first stanza is plumped up, loaded, heavy, ripe, filled to overflowing. In the second stanza he addresses the season as if that abstraction were a farm woman. He finds her “sitting careless on a granary floor,” or “sound asleep,/Drowsed with the fume of poppies.” There’s nothing brisk or sharp about Keats’s autumn; on the contrary, there’s a passivity and languor to it. And that brings us to the third and final stanza. Autumn mists occur mostly in the morning, but the last stanza takes place at sunset and evening. A  choir of “small gnats mourn/Among the river sallows [willow trees or shrubs].” Because no matter how much you want to celebrate autumn, it’s still a season of endings. The last three lines sum up the poem and the season not only by what they say, but by the sound of the words themselves as they fade away.

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’erbrimmed 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 redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

You’ve just read “Ode to Autumn” by John Keats.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.