I’m going to talk a little about why I have come to love the poem “To Autumn,” why I enjoy reciting it, why it has become pure pleasure letting the words appear beautifully one by one for the benefit of whoever is listening, even if that’s only me. I want to explain why it has become as important a part of fall as colorful leaves or apples.
Here’s something that amazes me. This poem follows the rules of a particular, and I think complex, poetic form. It contains three eleven-line stanzas, each line has ten syllables, plus, it follows a complex rhyme scheme. That alone is admirable, yet a poet could do all that and still end up with a boring poem that does not move the reader. That’s not the case with “To Autumn.” John Keats stayed within the boundaries of this poetic format and yet was able to use words almost magically, painting vivid word pictures and creating sounds I have come to hear almost like music. For example, the first line, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” sweetly intersperses m’s and s’s. Repeat the sentence to yourself, savoring each syllable. “To Autumn” taught me that poetry involves more than just rhyming but also the sonorous arrangement of sounds.
I’ve been waiting all year to write about my favorite sentence of all time, from among all the sentences I have ever read. It’s in this poem’s third stanza. Here it is:
And full grown lambs loud bleat from hilly borne.
Speak it aloud and listen especially to the l’s and the b’s. The sentence is an intertwined dance of those two letters, both verbalized and silent, in words that fit the poem’s pattern and express the hope of new life (lambs) and the certainty of death (full-grown lambs are ready for slaughter). I could speak this sentence over and over again. I do, sometimes.
This poem personifies Autumn. The poet refers to the Season as if he were someone luxuriating in the heart of harvest: “…sitting careless on a granary floor, thy hair uplifted by a winnowing wind,” and “…in a half-reaped furrow sound asleep, drowsed with the fume of poppies…”and also, “…by a cyder-press, with patient look, Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours. In the last stanza, Autumn is concerned that Spring has sweeter music than he does: Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too. Keats portrays the season as a friend or a wise, generous uncle.
Memorizing poetry for over three years now, I’ve come to believe a person could almost teach a poem simply by memorizing and learning to recite it. Living in such close quarters with one as you are learning it, you can’t help but get to know it pretty intimately. I have often, after my initial reading of a poem, thought it nice and worth memorizing. Then, while committing it to memory, I become stunned at the depths I hadn’t seen at first, the clever uses of words, its rhymes and rhythms, that I didn’t notice after one time through. That was definitely the case with this poem.
I remember reading “To Autumn” just one month after I first started memorizing poetry and thinking, “I could never tackle this one.” The next year I did and I made a friend for life, whose images and sonorous words continue to delight, to thrill, to excite. Maybe you don’t want to memorize “To Autumn,” but at least consider inviting it to be a seasonal guest. Read through it a few times each Fall, as you would sing or listen to Christmas carols in December. Read it slowly and aloud, enjoying the sounds, the rhymes, the vivid images.