Analysis of Keats’ “To Autumn”
- Pages: 6
- Word count: 1416
- Category: Poetry
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The use of rhetorical devices in John Keats’ “To Autumn” We all know that the autumn is probably the most ambivalent season of the year. People have more or less fixed associations with the other three seasons, but this is not true for autumn. Summer is usually seen as the warmest time of the year, the time of holidays and relaxation. Winter on the other hand is cold and hard but also the time of feasts like Christmas – a time which brings whole families together for a while. Spring finally is the season of hope; the nature wakes up from its hibernation, it gets warmer and people discover new or almost forgotten feelings for each other. But autumn differs from the other seasons. Almost nobody has a fixed idea of how an autumn can or will turn out. It may be a wonderful season full of warmth and colorful leaves, but it can also be cold and rainy, the season of poor harvests and depression because of the ending summer. John Keats describes this season in his poem “To Autumn” in a very positive, idealized way which will be pointed out in this essay. The whole poem is full of rhetorical devices. The first one is the poem’s name, “To Autumn”, which is a personification in itself, because here the autumn is addressed like as if it was a person. Of course a poem can only be dedicated to a human being and not to a nonhuman entity like the autumn.
On the other hand the periphrasis “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” (1) makes clear that the autumn is not a human being and creates a picture of a very shady and opaque season. This idea is even underlined by the consonance “mists and mellow” (1). Maybe this description could be a sign for the autumn’s ambivalence because if something is at least to some extent hidden in the mist, it cannot be clearly identified and thus can be something nice or something less positive – like the autumn itself. However the personification in the title is by far not the only personification of the autumn. The season is described as the sun’s “close bosom friend” (3) who is “conspiring with him” (4). So both, the season and the sun are personified. They are described as good friends who are hatching up plans about ripening all kinds of fruits. Their accomplishments are listed one after the other by the use of a parallelism. Each good deed is preceded by the word “to” (3), (5), (7), (8).
First the friends “load and bless with fruit the vines” (4). In this metaphor the word order is also inverted. After that they “bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees” (5). This is once again an inversion and a vivid metaphor. The later rhetoric device can also be found in the next lines where the autumn and the sun “fill all fruit with ripeness” (6), “swell the gourd” and “plump the hazel shells” (7). The sun and the autumn also provide the bees with “more, and still more” flowers. Here an epiphora is used. In the first stanza the autumn is described as a season of superabundance: there are enormous amounts of apples and vines, huge gourds and sweet hazelnuts. The bees have so many flowers that their cells are overflown with honey which makes them “think warm days will never cease” (10). This autumn rather resembles the summer and does not give any hint for an upcoming winter. The next stanza starts with an apostrophe and the rhetorical question “Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?” directly adressed to the autumn (12).
Throughout the rest of the stanza several apostrophes can be found: “thee” (14), “thy” (15), “thou” (19), “thy” (20) “thou” (22). In addition to that a simile is used in order to compare the autumn with a “gleaner” (19). So the autumn is less seen and described as a season but more as a human harvester whom the speaker addresses. The autumn might even be a woman because the autumn’s “hair [is] soft-lifted by the winnowing wind” (15). This personification might create an image of a woman in some readers’ minds, because men usually have shorter hair which could not easily be lifted by the wind. The direct comparison of the autumn with a gleaner is not the only hint which creates the impression that the season is a kind of a harvester. Another hint is the alliteration of the “winnowing wind” (15). Here the wind, being a part of the season, is doing work, harvesters would normally have to do. The next sign is the autumn’s possession of a “hook” (17), an important tool for a harvester.
This is once again a personification and simultaneously it could be another little hint at the autumn’s gender. If by “hook” a scythe is meant, then this is an argument against a female autumn because the introduction of the scythe in the British agriculture ended the woman’s partaking in harvesting. The reason is simple – a man’s muscle power was needed to work with the scythe (Morgan 13). If on the other hand the “hook” is a sickle, a woman could also be the harvester. Before the introduction of the scythe, both genders were harvesting together using sickles which did not demand much muscle power from the workers. . The autumn’s work ethic as a harvester is very conspicuous too. Instead of operating the cyder-press fast, the autumn works rather slowly and with a “patient look” (21). It is “sitting careless” (14), not worrying about how to perform the work as fast as possible. The autumn is even “asleep, drowsed with the fume of poppies” (17). It “spares” (18) the flowers instead of picking them. In short, the autumn’s harvesting is not time or profit-oriented, but a slow and hardly noticeable process. The autumn is hesitating to do its work as a harvester.
The third and last stanza finally starts with the speaker’s rhetorical question about the “songs of Spring” (23). Immediately he tells the autumn not to think about them, because it has its own “music too” (24). This music is the theme of the entire stanza. However this music is not a happy one; it is rather a music of loss and regret. An example is the personification of the gnats which “mourn” (27) in a “wailful choir” (27). They are not the only animals which seem to be in a depressed mood. This is also true for the “lambs” that are “load bleat[ing]” (30), which is expressed by the use of an alliteration. The swallows seem to be feeling that the winter is coming and the autumn is ending as well. That is why they are “gathering” (33) and preparing themselves for the flight towards some warmer regions in the south. Just like the autumn itself, the particular day is ending too. Its end is described in the personification and metaphor “soft-dying day” (25) and even the wind “lives or dies” (29) and the river sallows are “sinking” (29).
All these expressions and images of death and decay together with the sounds of mourning and complaining create a dark and depressed atmosphere – a contrast to the happiness from the first two stanzas. John Keats’ “To Autumn” is a typical Romantic poem. It not only describes, but also idealizes the nature and does not contain any signs of a changing society, industrialization or enlightenment. The first two stanzas are great examples for the landscape and nature poetry which was common during the Romantic Period. In the first stanza the autumn is described as a generous character, providing all kinds of fruits and vegetables with ripeness and creating a superabundant landscape. In the second stanza the autumn is a hesitating harvester who is sparing the nature instead of rushing in, harvesting fast and changing the landscape this way dramatically. The third and last stanza however contains a mix of nature poetry and melancholy. The melancholy comes in when it is clear that the autumn is not lasting forever and the good times are just about to end. The image of the birds preparing for flying away is a very powerful one. So the reader is more or less painfully reminded about the transience of time.
Works Cited List
Morgan, Kenneth. The Birth of Industrial Britain: Social Change, 1750-1850. 1st ed. London: Longman, 2004. Print.