“The Human Seasons” by John Keats
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This sonnet is an attempt by Keats to link the natural life cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth to the four seasons and from there to the nature of human existence. Taken literally, the poem is essentially a very eloquent description of the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter, applied to the “mind of man” or the human demeanor. If interpreted in a more metaphorical sense, the poem takes on a distinctly different meaning. Keats opens the sonnet by establishing the fact that “There are four seasons in the mind of man”. This could be taken to mean that this ‘changing of seasons’ affects only the abstractions of mind and spirit, and not the physical form of man. This idea is maintained throughout the poem as Keats goes on to describe in detail the different seasons of the “mind of man”. It seems that Keats has a desire for his life to become cyclical and wishes that he could “forego his mortal nature”. The final couplet however, reminds us of the “mortal nature” of man and questions the abstractions presented in the poem.
The final line suggests an interpretation that is more like an analogy. “The Human Seasons” could be taken to be an analogy linking the different periods or “seasons” in a human life with the four seasons of the natural world. Keats begins by describing spring which when applied to the analogy represents the youthful time of man. “his lusty Spring, when fancy clear” is Keats’ description of youthful exuberance and of the search for well defined desires (“fancy clear”). Spring is the vigorous period of human existence when man has no limits and is occupied with the quest for “beauty” something that he can obtain with a measure of ease, “Takes in all beauty with an easy span:”. “Beauty”, in addition to its literal meaning, could be interpreted as meaning ‘success’, or ‘desires’ and thus this quest for beauty becomes more complex. Summer represents the transition to and the period of middle age. “when luxuriously / Spring’s honied cud of youthful thought he loves”. Keats shows this period as a time of contemplation of the things of youth.
A time to appreciate moving away from youthful desires. He portrays summer as a time “To ruminate” and through this contemplation bring near the things of dreams “and by such dreaming nigh”. Keats then goes on to describe Autumn or the time between middle and old age. “when his wings / He furleth close; contented so to look”. Autumn is shown as a time to bask in the splendor of life. Man closes his wings and contents himself in being an observer of the comings and goings of others. Man is now “On mists in idleness”, he sits and is content to simply exist as part of something and to “let fair things / Pass by unheeded”. Keats shows Autumn as the waning of the glory of life. Not quite a time of decline but neither a time of growth. The final lines bring to light the unfortunate truth of mortality. Keats uses winter to represent decline, sickness, and death “He has his Winter too of pale misfeature,”.
Throughout the sonnet Keats gives the impression that he wishes that life were as the seasons; cyclical, beautiful and immortal. The final line reveals the folly behind this notion. If man did not have his “Winter too of pale misfeature,” the he would “forego his mortal nature”. Thus Keats touches on a natural law. If man forgets his “Winter”, his mortal nature then he will also forget the other “seasons” and will not experience the vigor and exuberance of Spring, the success and contemplation of summer or the contented idleness of Autumn. To truly be alive, man must experience all four of “The Human Seasons”