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The Odes of 1819 (John Keats)

Published onJan 29, 2024
The Odes of 1819 (John Keats)

The Odes of 1819

By John Keats


The Odes of 1819

Introduction: The Odes of 1819

By Nick Roe
Used with permission of the Keats Foundation

During 1819 Keats composed some of the greatest poems in the language, including ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, ‘Lamia’ and his famous ‘Bright Star’ sonnet. He made progress with his epic Hyperion.

Readers have often wondered whether Keats’s odes should be read in a sequence, forming six lyrical reflections on the Shakespearean themes of life, beauty and art, time, transience and mortality. It is possible that the first to be composed was ‘Ode on Indolence’, followed in spring and early summer by ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and ‘Ode on Melancholy’ (all composed at Wentworth Place, Hampstead – now Keats House), with ‘To Autumn’ as a later lyrical impulse dating from September at Winchester. All the poems grew out of Keats’s experiments with sonnet forms, constituting independent yet interwoven meditations with similarities of theme, style, and phrasing.

With little internal evidence from the poems or from Keats’s letters, chronological sequencing of the poems (apart from ‘To Autumn’) is inevitably conjectural. But we do have one clue as to how Keats wished his odes to be arranged and read: this is the running order that he devised for five of them in his final 1820 collection of poems, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. Here, Keats sequenced his poems in two groups: ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘Ode to Psyche’ form a lyrical trio, followed a few pages later by ‘To Autumn’ and ‘Ode on Melancholy’ paired together. Perhaps this arrangement allows us to hear a melancholy undersong that links the poems, entwining joy with sorrow and gathering towards the ‘cloudy trophies’ with which ‘Ode on Melancholy’ concludes.

All readers agree that Keats’s 1819 odes established his place among the English poets, and numerous poets from Tennyson to Owen to Heaney have been fascinated by the poems’ formal mastery and haunting verbal music. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘To Autumn’ may now have most appeal for readers. Yet it is perhaps the enigmatic ‘Ode on Indolence’ — a poem that seems to have been suggested by an opium-induced dream — that carries us furthest into the mystery of Keats’s creativity to encounter its terrifying, troubling presiders: Love, Ambition and, lurking darkly in the shadows, his ‘demon Poesy’.

“Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Introduction I

By Stephen Hebron
The British Library
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is one of the five great odes Keats composed in the summer and autumn of 1819. It was first published in July that year, in a journal called Annals of the Fine Arts, and subsequently in Keats’s third and final publication, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems (1820). The poem bears similarities to the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (which was probably written slightly earlier) in its exploration of the relationship between imagined beauty and the harsh, changeable reality of everyday human experience.

Urns were used in ancient Greece to hold the ashes of the dead. Keats does not describe a specific urn in his ode, but he knew Greek art from engravings, and experienced it at first-hand on visits to the British Museum, which had recently taken possession of the Elgin Marbles. His friend the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon had taken him to see the marbles in March 1817 and Keats had responded with two sonnets, published in the Annals in April 1818. Greek sculptures were admired for their formal perfection and ideal beauty, by which, wrote William Hazlitt in his essay ‘On Gusto’, ‘they are raised above the frailties of pain or passion’.[1]

In the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ immortality is glimpsed in the bird’s effortless song; in the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ it is to be found in the stillness and silence of classical sculpture. Keats praises the urn as a ‘foster-child of silence and slow time’, a ‘Sylvan historian’ whose pictorial narratives are sweeter than words:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

Where are the places the urn depicts? asks Keats. Who are the people? What are the legends and passions it narrates? He then describes, rather vaguely, what he sees. In one scene there is a lover and a maiden in a grove of trees, and a piper (‘happy melodist’); another shows a crowd on its way to a ritual sacrifice, and a ‘mysterious priest’ leading a heifer to an altar. Keats’s descriptions are richly ambivalent. The silent scenes are timeless, and speak, unchanged, across generations, and that stasis protects the subjects of the urn from the impermanence of human life:

All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

For this very reason, however, they are prevented from achieving the joyful consummation that is also a part of human experience. The trees may never lose their leaves, but they are forever caught in spring, and so will never come to their full, summer fruition. The maiden will never elude the pursuing lover and his love will never fade, but he will never reach her: ‘never, never canst thou kiss, /Though winning near the goal’. The scenes depicted on the urn exist outside time, but this separates them from humanity.

A turning point in the poem comes when Keats imagines the ‘little town by river or sea shore’ that has been emptied of its inhabitants due to the sacrifice. Its empty streets will always be silent and still; and here the silence is a kind of loss, and the stillness is not the formal perfection admired by Keats at the beginning of the poem, but a kind of desolation. Just as ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ turns on the word ‘forlorn’, so here the poem turns on the word ‘desolate’:

And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
What thou art desolate, can e’er return

In the final stanza the urn is both friend and stranger. Its ‘silent form, dost tease us out of thought’, providing a relief from the feverous activities of the brain. Unchangeable, it will provide friendly relief to future generations afflicted by different sorrows. Its pastoral delights are not, however, warm and human, but cold.

There is some uncertainty about the poem’s famous conclusion:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Is the ‘ye’ of the final line the urn itself, or the viewer, representing humanity? It is not altogether clear, but Keats had equated truth with beauty more than once in his letters. ‘What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth’, he wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey in November 1817, ‘whether it existed before or not … The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth’ (22 November). ‘[O]n my word I have thought so little that I have not one opinion upon any thing except in matters of taste’, he told his brother and sister in law in December the following year, ‘I never can feel certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty’ (31 December, 1818).

The ending of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ may be ambiguous, but this is in keeping with the ambiguity that pervades the whole poem; and, like Keats’s other odes, it is a poem notable not for the answers which it may or may not present, but for the skill and intensity with which it asks the questions. ‘It is a wonderful picture’, said Keats of Benjamin West’s painting ‘Death on the Pale Horse’, which he saw in December 1817. ‘But there is nothing to be intense upon; no women one feels mad to kiss; no face swelling into reality. The excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth’ (22 December, 1817).

Introduction II

By Grant F. Scott
Used with permission of The Keats Foundation

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is the most famous ekphrastic poem in the English language. As a verbal rendering of a visual artwork, it belongs in a genre that begins with Homer’s admiring description of Achilles’ shield and culminates in twentieth-century meditations on the Old Masters by poets like Ashbery and Auden. The psychology of ekphrasis is characterized as much by rivalry as encomium, however; it is an exercise that pits the narrative talents of the word against the spatial beauty of the image. The paragone, as it was termed by Leonardo, is apparent from the very outset of Keats’s ode, where the speaker concedes that the urn ‘canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme’ (3-4). By the end of the poem, he not only manages to escape the museum purgatory of ‘silence and slow time’ (2), but translate the urn into a silky epigram that mimics the object’s own circular shape – ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’ In so doing, he performs a daring sleight of hand, an act of ventriloquism that enables him to unseat the urn as oracle.

Keats’s interest in the fine arts had always been keen, but it was sharpened by his friendship with the painters Joseph Severn and B. R. Haydon, who on occasion would accompany him to the British Museum to see the Elgin Marbles. He admired the statuary and the bas relief fragments from the Parthenon frieze, especially one depicting a ‘mysterious priest’ and ‘a heifer lowing at the skies’ (33). He also found inspiration in the Townley and Portland Vases, recent acquisitions by the museum. The scenes depicted on the surface of these objects as well as those on the Sosibios and Borghese Vases, which he knew secondhand from books of engravings, fired his imagination, though no exact source for Keats’s urn has ever been discovered. The annual Cambridge and Oxford Prize Poem competitions provide yet another important context for the ode (1810-1820). Their remit at this time was to compose a poem on classical art and architecture. Two winning entries, for example, are titled, ‘Parthenon’ and ‘The Statue of the Dying Gladiator’. While he was not eligible for either competition, we may imagine Keats thinking of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ as his own submission for the Newdigate and Cambridge Medals. It is fitting that the poem was first published in the Annals of the Fine Arts (Jan. 1820), where one or two of the medal winners had also appeared.

“Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,

Sylvan historian, who canst thus express

A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape

Of deities or mortals, or of both,

In Tempe1 or the dales of Arcady?2

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,

Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,

For ever panting, and for ever young;

All breathing human passion far above,

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,

A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,

Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,

And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

What little town by river or sea shore,

Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,

Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

And, little town, thy streets for evermore

Will silent be; and not a soul to tell

Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.3

“Ode on Indolence”


By Hrileena Ghosh
Used with permission of The Keats Foundation

On 19 March 1819, ‘having slumbered till nearly eleven’ in the morning, John Keats experienced a reverie in which Love, Ambition, and Poetry all seemed to pass him by ‘rather like three figures on a greek vase’i. Sometime later — we aren’t certain when — he composed ‘Ode on Indolence’, apparently drawing upon his memory of this vision. The ten-line pentameter stanzas of the poem, with their opening quatrains rhyming abab and concluding sestets, make it structurally consistent with the odes to a nightingale, Grecian urn, and on melancholy. Unlike those odes, however, it was neither included in Keats’s 1820 collection of poems, nor published anywhere else until 1848.

‘Ode on Indolence’ takes as its subject a quality of mental and physical laziness, passivity, and withdrawal, which however could also signal an openness to inspiration and creativity. In its poetical lineage, Keats’s ‘indolence’ drew on such forebears as James Thomson’s The Castle of Indolence and Wordsworth’s ‘wise passiveness’. He also knew that, medically speaking, ‘indolence’ was a positive quality, for it signified a lack of pain — and it may not have been coincidental that Keats had taken laudanum to ease a black eye he had acquired while playing cricket on the night before he experienced his vision. In the poem, the figures of Love, Ambition, and Poesy come upon the poet during a time when ‘The blissful cloud of summer-indolence / Benumb’d my eyes; my pulse grew less and less; / Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower’ (ll. 16–18).

Writing to John Hamilton Reynolds on 24 August 1819, Keats noted that his physical infirmity, which forced him ‘continually to check’ himself from ‘extreme thought and sensation’ and ‘strive to be nothing’, was ‘the only state for the best sort of Poetry’. ‘Ode on Indolence’ dramatizes this conflict between the exalted reach of the imagination and the bodily ‘check’ on it, for the poet is not left undisturbed by the visit: ‘...why did ye not melt, and leave my sense / Unhaunted quite of all but — nothingness?’ (ll.19–20). The ‘three ghosts’ (ll.51) wake in the poet a momentary desire to follow them: ‘…I burn’d / And ached for wings…’ (ll. 23–24). However, this desire passes swiftly, as the awareness takes hold that even the poet’s ‘demon Poesy’ (ll. 30) has not ‘a joy, — / ….so sweet as drowsy noons, / And evenings steep’d in honied indolence’ (ll. 35 –37).

Despite their inability to rouse the poet, the visit of these three figures is not in vain. In their presence, and under the influence of ‘honied indolence’, the poet is moved to let in impressions that he was earlier impervious to, of the beauty of the physical world around him:

The morn was clouded, but no shower fell,
Though in her lids hung the sweet tears of May;
The open casement press’d a new-leaved vine,
Let in the budding warmth and throstle’s lay; (ll. 45–48)

Keatsian indolence, thus, goes hand in hand with Keats’s ideal of ‘Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. By being content to receive impressions as they came without questioning or acting upon them, the poet arrived at an appreciation of the world as it is, his head still ‘coolbedded in the flowery grass’ (ll. 52) and yet having ‘…visions for the night, / And for the day faint visions there is store’ (ll. 57–58).

“Ode on Indolence”

‘They toil not, neither do they spin.’4


One morn before me were three figures seen,

With bowèd necks, and joinèd hands, side-faced;

And one behind the other stepp’d serene,

In placid sandals, and in white robes graced;

They pass’d, like figures on a marble urn,

When shifted round to see the other side;

They came again; as when the urn once more

Is shifted round, the first seen shades return;

And they were strange to me, as may betide

With vases, to one deep in Phidian5 lore.


How is it, Shadows! that I knew ye not?

How came ye muffled in so hush a mask?6

Was it a silent deep-disguisèd plot

To steal away, and leave without a task

My idle days? Ripe was the drowsy hour;

The blissful cloud of summer-indolence

Benumb’d my eyes; my pulse grew less and less;

Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower:

O, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense

Unhaunted quite of all but—nothingness?


A third time pass’d they by, and, passing, turn’d

Each one the face a moment whiles to me;

Then faded, and to follow them I burn’d

And ached for wings, because I knew the three;

The first was a fair Maid, and Love her name;

The second was Ambition, pale of cheek,

And ever watchful with fatiguèd eye;

The last, whom I love more, the more of blame

Is heap’d upon her, maiden most unmeek,—

I knew to be my demon Poesy.7


They faded, and, forsooth! I wanted wings:

O folly! What is Love? and where is it?

And for that poor Ambition! it springs

From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit;

For Poesy!—no,—she has not a joy,—

At least for me,—so sweet as drowsy noons,

And evenings steep’d in honey’d indolence;

O, for an age so shelter’d from annoy,

That I may never know how change the moons,

Or hear the voice of busy common-sense!


And once more came they by:—alas! wherefore?8

My sleep had been embroider’d with dim dreams;

My soul had been a lawn besprinkled o’er

With flowers, and stirring shades, and baffled beams:

The morn was clouded, but no shower fell,

Tho’ in her lids hung the sweet tears of May;

The open casement press’d a new-leaved vine,

Let in the budding warmth and throstle’s lay;

O Shadows! ’twas a time to bid farewell!

Upon your skirts had fallen no tears of mine.


So, ye three Ghosts, adieu! Ye cannot raise

My head cool-bedded in the flowery grass;

For I would not be dieted with praise,

A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce!

Fade softly from my eyes, and be once more

In masque-like figures on the dreamy urn;

Farewell! I yet have visions for the night,

And for the day faint visions there is store;

Vanish, ye Phantoms! from my idle spright,

Into the clouds, and never more return!

“Ode on Melancholy”9

Introduction I

By Stephen Hebron
The British Library
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

‘Ode on Melancholy’ is one of the five great odes John Keats composed in the summer and autumn of 1819. It was first published in 1820 in Keats’s third and final publication, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems. In other odes he addressed a nightingale, a Grecian urn, autumn and the goddess Psyche. Here, he considers a universal human mood.

Melancholy had a long cultural history. In medieval medicine it was considered a pathological condition caused by an excess of black bile, one of the human body’s four cardinal humours, or fluids. Symptoms included bad temper, motiveless anger, a dark, brooding disposition and unsociability. In the Renaissance, however, it became a fashionable, carefully cultivated sadness, akin to pensiveness and sensitivity, that was linked to creativity. Such a melancholy pervades work such as the Elizabethan composer John Dowland’s Lachrimae. ‘But hail thou Goddes, sage and holy, / Hail divinest Melancholy’, wrote John Milton in ‘Il Penseroso’, and in Comus: ‘I … began / Wrapt in a pleasing fit of melancholy / To meditate my rural minstrelsie.’ Among Keats’s favourite reading in 1819 was Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. First published in 1621, this was an encyclopaedic investigation of the causes and symptoms of – and cures for – melancholy.

Burton treated melancholy as something to be avoided, and in his ode Keats considers various remedies for it; but he also argues that it is inseparable from pleasure, as human life is essentially changeable and all things are transient. As he earlier expressed it in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law on 19 March 1819, using imagery that would later appear in the ode:

This is the world – thus we cannot expect to give way many hours to pleasure – Circumstances are like Clouds continually gathering and bursting – While we are laughing the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events – while we are laughing it sprouts i[t] grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck – Even so we have leisure to reason on the misfortunes of our friends; our own touch us too nearly for words.

Following the last observation in this passage, Keats composed ‘Ode on Melancholy’ as if he were addressing and advising a friend, not by detailing his own misfortunes.

'Ode on Melancholy’ had a first stanza which Keats later cancelled, perhaps because he thought it superfluous. The consequent abruptness of the new opening effectively conveys the suddenness with which melancholy can strike. With due urgency, the poet urges the reader to avoid inappropriate solutions to sorrow: the waters of the river Lethe, bringing forgetfulness; poisonous wolf’s-bane; and deadly nightshade, or belladonna, which was associated with the Greek goddess of the underworld. These deadening, even suicidal remedies remove us from our true, properly active emotional state, or what Keats calls ‘the wakeful anguish of the soul’.

In the second stanza Keats recommends, instead, that the reader embrace melancholy, and ‘glut thy sorrow’ by contemplating things of beauty: a morning rose, a cluster of peonies, the play of sunlight on the seashore, or the abundant passion of a lover:

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

In the final stanza melancholy is joined by personifications of those human emotions with which melancholy is inextricably linked: Beauty, that inevitably will fade and die; Joy, forever saying goodbye; Pleasure, turning to poison just as it is being enjoyed; and Delight, where ‘Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine’. They all dwell together as an inseparable and essential group, creating the ‘wakeful anguish’ of the first stanza. Indeed, Melancholy’s shrine is only known by those who can experience the fullness, and simultaneous loss of joy:

… seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

At just three stanzas ‘Ode on Melancholy’ is the shortest of the odes, but it is beautifully concise. Keats deftly weaves together a series of vivid images, whether from nature (clouds, rainbows, flowers) or the classical world (temples, shrines, mythical figures). The poet’s line of thought flows effortlessly through these images, giving it a swift confidence; and echoes in the poem implicitly convey the argument that melancholy and joy are inseparable. The ‘weeping cloud’ of the second stanza, for example, becomes the ‘cloudy trophies’ of the final line, and the poisonous ‘ruby grape’ of Proserpine becomes ‘Joy’s grape’. The river, cloud, rain and morning dew give the ‘Ode on Melancholy’ a delightfully watery feel, and its evocations of touch, taste and smell have a tactile immediacy.

In this, and his other odes, Keats mused on the difficulties and pleasures of life, but, still in his early 20s, he did not think of himself as a philosopher. The greatness of the poetry comes not so much from the thought, as from the bright energy and virtuosity with which it is expressed, from the pleasure which the poet seems to take in his skill. As he told his brother and sister-in-law:

I am however young writing at random – straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness – without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion. Yet may I not in this be free from sin? May there not be superior beings amused with any graceful, though instinctive attitude my mind m[a]y fall into, as I am entertained with the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer?’ (19 March, 1819)

Introduction II

By R. S. White
Used with permission of The Keats Foundation

For Keats as trained physician and self-proclaimed poet, melancholy was both a malady and a muse, with a capacious and ancient medical and cultural history. In early humoral medicine it covered a gamut of afflictions reputedly caused by an imbalance of ‘black bile’, multiple states which we now classify as psychological and emotional illnesses – everything from depression, anxiety and love sickness to religious mania, despair and suicidal thoughts. Most importantly to Keats as poet, saturnine melancholy was regarded as a stimulus to artistic creativity, in what Shakespeare described as the ‘fine frenzy rolling’ of ‘the lunatic, the lover and the poet’. Shakespeare also contributed two notable melancholics, Hamlet and Jaques (As You Like It).

Robert Burton’s quirkily encyclopaedic Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) was Keats’s favourite reading in 1819 when he was writing the Odes, ‘Lamia’ and ‘Eve of St Agnes’. Burton, in his mélange of serious medical expertise and sprightly literary wit, voluminously catalogued the symptoms of hurt minds, and prescribed remedial ‘seeds, spices, herbs, roots’ as cures and painkillers.

Keats was as aware of melancholy’s serious side as of its decline in the Romantic age into being regarded as a cult and affectation of poets, satirically skewered by Peacock (whom Keats met at least twice) in his hilarious novella Nightmare Abbey (1818). This stereotype was parodied by Keats himself, in an opening stanza to the poem which he discarded as a false start, drawing on ghoulish imagery from gothic novels like those of Ann Radcliffe. Instead, as in his other Odes (indeed most of his poems), Keats uses the eponymous subject to meditate on the sources and nature of poetry and art. ‘Ode on Melancholy’ beckons us into a goddess’s ‘shrine’ where pleasure and pain coalesce into a heightened creative and therapeutic experience. It anticipates the contemplation of the poet as healer in the unfinished The Fall of Hyperion. A Dream’, an epic which Keats was struggling to compose while preparing for publication his magisterial 1820 collection containing the Odes.

The first stanza of ‘Ode on Melancholy’ recalls the botany classes at Guy’s Hospital in which Keats had studied as an apothecary student, detailing the properties of poisonous plants which could both cause and (in minimal doses) cure pathological melancholy – strong narcotics like ‘wolf’s bane’ (aconite or blue monkshood), hemlock (the opiate conium), and aptly named ‘bittersweet’ or woody nightshade, the ‘ruby grape of Proserpine’. Such a concoction was probably like the ‘distilled liquor’ prescribed by Shakespeare’s Friar to induce Juliet’s deathin-life state.

But the speaker resists such a temptation to escape the pain of melancholy by drifting painlessly into ‘easeful Death’ (‘Ode to a Nightingale’). ‘No, no, go not to Lethe’ in this drugged fashion, he urges, but instead confront and embrace in full consciousness the ‘wakeful anguish’ caused by ‘sorrow’s mysteries’, for they are the very element we inhabit and the secret to beauty. ‘When the melancholy fit shall fall’, then focus fully on the psychic pain caused by an acute awareness of the painful transience of experience. The rose and ‘globed peonies’ bloom and die in a morning, and a rainbow upon the shoreline sand fades in an instant, but each glimpsed epiphany holds its own raison d’être as pleasure caused by pain. If your lover ‘some rich anger shows’, then feast upon her ’peerless eyes’ at their most excitedly animated. These are the conditions of ‘Beauty that must die; And Joy …’, for these passing moments are ones of ‘aching Pleasure / Turning to poison while the bee mouth sips’. The poet in particular is capable of such an active and anguished pursuit, as ‘one whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine’ in an initiation into ‘the very temple of Delight’ where ‘Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine’. In submitting to ‘the sadness of her might’, such a one will inevitably end up among the goddess’s ‘cloudy trophies hung’, but also richly aware of the bitter-sweet pain that constitutes a poem encapsulating the experience of living intensely in the moment.

“Ode on Melancholy”

No, no, go not to Lethe,10 neither twist

Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss'd

By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;11

Make not your rosary of yew-berries,

Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be

Your mournful Psyche,12 nor the downy owl

A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;

For shade to shade will come too drowsily,

And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud;

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,

Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue

Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;

His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,

And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

“Ode to a Nightingale”13

Introduction I

By Stephen Hebron
The British Library
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is one of the five great odes John Keats composed in the summer and autumn of 1819. It was first published in July that year, in a journal called Annals of the Fine Arts, and subsequently in Keats’s third and final publication, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems (1820).

The weather in the summer of 1819 was exceptionally fine. Keats was living in semi-rural Hampstead; he had fallen in love with his neighbour, Fanny Brawne, and was enjoying a period of fruitful and confident composition. ‘O there is nothing like fine weather’, he wrote to his sister Fanny in May, ‘and health, and Books, and a fine country, and contented Mind, and Diligent-habit of reading and thinking’ (17 April). Keats’s friend and housemate Charles Brown later recalled a particularly memorable day that month. A nightingale had built a nest near their house and one morning Keats, who been delighted by the nightingale’s song, sat under a plum tree in the garden and remained there for several hours, composing. He eventually returned with some scraps of paper which, according to Brown, contained the ‘Ode to a Nightingale.’[1]

Brown paints an idyllic scene, and the nightingale was certainly an apt subject for Keats’s pen, for it had a long literary association with poetic inspiration. John Milton, in a sonnet published in his 1645 Poems, had praised its ‘liquid notes that close the eye of Day’, and Andrew Marvell, in ‘The Mower to the Glow-worms’ had observed how ‘The Nightingale does sit so late, / And studying all the summer night, / Her matchless songs does meditate’.

‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is not, however, a simple description of arcadian bliss, but an intense meditation on the contrast between the painful mortality that defines human existence and the immortal beauty found in the nightingale’s carefree song; and it considers poetry’s ability to create a kind of rapt suspended state between the two.

The opening stanza of the poem establishes its entranced, almost hallucinatory mood. We are in an obscure, rich world. The poet is drowsy and numb, as if he had taken hemlock or opiates (both medicinal sedatives), or been immersed in the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in Greek myth. Pursuing this theme, in the second stanza Keats celebrates the way wine (‘vintage’) evokes the sun-drenched landscape of classical pastoral: the ‘warm south’ of France, Greece and Italy; Flora, the Italian goddess of flowering plants, and Hippocrene, the fountain on Helicon, a mountain in Greece sacred to the Muses. Wine also promises temporary release from the dreadful realities described in the third stanza, and Keats, who had recently lost his younger brother Tom to tuberculosis, and who had trained as a surgeon, knew well the world in which ‘youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies’.

In stanzas 4–5 we move from the momentary pleasures of Bacchus to something apparently more sustainable: a magical arbour conjured up by the poet’s imagination (‘the viewless wings of Poesy’). It is a place of soft scents and haunting murmurs, where the ‘Queen-moon’ lives with her fairy attendants (‘starry fays’), and the unseen flowers, fruits and trees are strangely distinct. Within this rich nook of the imagination, protected from dull reality, ‘easeful Death’ has, for the poet, a powerful allure, and in stanza 6 he imagines a kind of consummation with the nightingale in which he expires while listening to the bird’s ecstatic song:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstacy!

But he knows that while the immortal bird would continue singing, he would be no more than an inert, insensible mass: ‘Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain – / To thy high requiem become a sod.’

With this realisation the poet loses his imagined intimacy with the nightingale. Where he is weighed down by the heavy tread of history, the bird moves easily through time and space, its unchanging song heard by people of all types (‘emperor and clown’), by figures from the remote past (the biblical Ruth) and in far-off lands:

The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

The word ‘forlorn’, in the sense of lost or deserted, brings the poet abruptly back to his ‘sole self’, and the stark immediacy of human existence. It is significant that the poem should turn on a word, rather than a sound or a thought, as it has been about the ability of language, and the imagination, to escape reality and create a world of its own. As the nightingale’s song fades he accuses his imagination of deceitfulness, for it can cheat him into believing certain things, but not to such an extent that he is unaware of being cheated.

Yet Keats concludes the poem with unresolved questions. He has been beguiled both by the music of the nightingale and by his own poetic skill, which is everywhere evident in his brilliant evocations of tangible existence, from the quick, mercurial movements (‘light-winged’) and effortless existence (‘full-throated ease’) of the nightingale, to the ‘verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways’ of his poetic bower, and the ‘leaden-eyed despairs’ of human life. He cannot therefore dismiss what he has dimly perceived and described, for this may, indeed, be the true reality:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?

Introduction II

By Heidi Thomson
Used with permission of The Keats Foundation

Charles Brown, Keats’s friend and housemate in Hampstead, tells us that ‘in the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books’. Those scraps of paper contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale’i. But Brown’s account is somewhat misleading: ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is one of Keats’s darkest poems, far removed from any poetic feelings of tranquil joy. The poem first appeared in the Annals of the Fine Arts 4 (1819), and it was included in Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems (1820), where it appeared as the first of the ‘other poems’ immediately after ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. Like ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ stages a vision of escape in a series of stanzas, but while the lovers in ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ manage to flee from the castle, the speaker of the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ ends up in limbo, between wakefulness and sleep. All he knows for sure is that the music is ‘fled’.

‘Ode to a Nightingale’ consists of eight carefully structured stanzas of ten lines each. Each stanza reads like a shortened sonnet, in which a Shakespearean quatrain (with abab rhyme scheme) is followed by a Petrarchan sestet (with cde cde rhyme scheme). This hybrid stanza reflects a golden ratio of 2:3 (four lines: six lines), and it suits the often contradictory but interdependent contents of the poem well. Any luxuriant indulgence in a wished-for escape (alcohol, medication, poetry) is undercut by a series of reality checks (numbness, suffering, decay, death).

The first four lines of each stanza state the actual position or the desired state of the speaker. He feels numb and drugged (stanza 1); he wishes for ‘a draught of vintage’ (stanza 2); he would like to escape the miseries of human existence (stanza 3); he wants to join the nightingale through the force of poetry (stanza 4); he guesses the smells of plants in the darkness (stanza 5); he confesses he is ‘half in love with easeful Death’ (stanza 6); he addresses the immortal nature of the nightingale’s voice (stanza 7); he finally admits that the fancy cannot provide an escape from the self (stanza 8).

In the following six lines of each stanza we get an elaboration or explanation of these initial statements. The speaker’s dark, depressed state contrasts sharply with the ‘happiness’ of the nightingale (stanza 1); the cool wine is associated with carefree enjoyment, but the whole purpose of drinking is oblivion (stanza 2); the miseries of life, both physical and mental, afflict both the old and the young (stanza 3); the speaker claims to have joined the nightingale (‘Already with thee!’) through the force of poetry, but notes the absence of light (stanza 4); he celebrates the smells of plants and flowers, but realizes that these are a sign of decay (stanza 5); he luxuriates in a fantasy of the nightingale’s ecstatic song as the soundtrack to his death, but knows that he himself would not be there to hear it (stanza 6); the immortal song of the nightingale is not subject to the boundaries of time and reality, unlike human life (stanza 7); the song of the nightingale gradually vanishes, and the speaker wonders about the whole experience: was it a vision or a dream, is he awake or asleep? (stanza 8).

The beauty of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ lies in the sharp contrast between the sensory intensity of the escapist visions and the unflinching portrayal of the realities which underpin them. It acknowledges the reality of suffering and death through the flamboyant portrayal of sensory life. While the ‘draught of vintage’ tastes of ‘Flora and the country green, / Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth’, it also leaves a ‘purple-stained mouth’. The ‘seasonable month’ endows the ‘grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; / White hawthorn, and the 2 pastoral eglantine’ with sweet smells, but the flowers and trees also become the ‘murmurous haunts of flies’. The nightingale’s song is one of ‘ecstasy’, but the dead speaker would only be a ‘sod’ to its ‘high requiem’. The imaginative flight associated with the immortal song of the nightingale cannot really alleviate the ‘weariness, the fever, and the fret’ of human suffering. The night may be tender, but the light is absent all the same. The upward, imaginative flight in every stanza inevitably descends into a realistic retort.

Keats was well acquainted with human suffering by the spring of 1819, and he had no illusions about ‘easeful Death’. His experiences as a medical student, the illnesses and deaths of both his mother and his brother Tom (‘pale, and spectre-thin’), and his own unsettled health prompted him to celebrate the ‘immortal Bird’ as an unachievable ideal amidst transient life itself.

“Ode to a Nightingale”


My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,14

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:15

'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,—

That thou, light-winged Dryad16 of the trees

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.


O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been

Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,

Tasting of Flora and the country green,

Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,17

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

And purple-stained mouth;

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,

And with thee fade away into the forest dim:


Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs,

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.


Away! away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,18

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,19

Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:

Already with thee! tender is the night,

And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,

Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;20

But here there is no light,

Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.


I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the seasonable month endows

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;

White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;

And mid-May's eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.


Darkling21 I listen; and, for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

In such an ecstasy!

Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—

To thy high requiem become a sod.


Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;22

The same that oft-times hath

Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.


Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

“Ode to Psyche”23


By Seamus Perry
Used with permission of The Keats Foundation

’Ode to Psyche’ was written towards the end of April 1819, the first of the sequence of odes that Keats wrote in that marvellous Spring. Keats transcribed it in a long letter he sent to his brother George and sister-in-law in America, disarmingly singling it out among his poems as ‘the first and only one with which I have taken even moderate pains’. The pains he took were largely to do with the demands of its unusual form: the poem is cast in irregularly rhymed verses, with lines of varying length, creating an impression of that unpremeditated spontaneity which the age associated with the ‘ode’. Keats seems to have been aware that the poem was the beginning of something new: ‘This I have done leisurely’, he reported: ‘I think it reads the more richly for it and will I hope encourage me to write other things in even a more peaceable and healthy spirit’. Keats may have come across the subject of his poem earlier in the month while reading Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, in which the beautiful figure of Psyche is mentioned in passing as ’the glory of her age’ and the object of rapt devotion. Her story had been treated in Mary Tighe’s long poem Psyche, or the Legend of Love (1805), which Keats would have known; but it had its most notable outing in The Golden Ass, a spirited and rambling story of enchantment and adventure by the second century Roman writer Apuleius, which Keats knew in the Elizabethan translation by William Aldington. According to Apuleius, young Psyche’s beauty was so great as to overshadow Venus herself, and the goddess, naturally piqued, instructed her son Cupid to pair the girl off with a hideous serpent. But Cupid falls in love with her instead, visiting her bedchamber nightly, his identity kept secret under cover of darkness. Eventually, with the help of an oil lamp, Psyche discovers the truth and, struck by his sheer loveliness, embraces him passionately; but Cupid, cross to be discovered, and burned by the lamp as well, abandons her. She undergoes various ordeals devised by his mother while Cupid’s wound heals: he remains as deeply in love with her as ever and, once restored, he petitions Jupiter, who grants Psyche immortality and marries her off to Cupid in a sumptuous ceremony at which Apollo provides the music.

It is striking how all the trouble of this tale is quite left out of Keats’s poem. Keats’s interest seems, at first, to lie with the picture of ’two fair creatures, couchèd side by side’, a scene which he has happened to glimpse while wandering through an enchanting forest: only at the end of the first verse do we learn that they are Cupid, the ‘wingèd boy’ and ‘His Psyche true’. There is nothing fraught or clandestine about Keats’s lovers. What seems quite as important as their loveliness is their location: they are curled up in ’deepest grass, beneath the whispering roof / Of leaves and trembled blossoms’, clearly a charming and cosy spot but not the splendid temple that one might have expected for such dignitaries. There is a point to this: as part of his research, Keats seems to have looked up the story in Lamprière’s Classical Dictionary, where he would have read that ‘Psyche’ actually meant ‘soul’, and that regarding Psyche as a person (as Apuleius and Burton do) rather than a metaphysical entity, was a relatively late development. Thanks to this lack of personification, Keats told his brother and sister-in-law, Psyche had acquired no religious followers in the ancient world: ‘No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet / From chain-swung censer teeming’, as he puts it; and this is the omission which, in its own way, his poem seeks to rectify. ‘I am more orthodox than to let a he[a]then Goddess be so neglected’: the poem presents Keats offering his services to this neglected deity, as principal worshipper and one-man choir, and also as architect, though the temple that will arise to service his new cult religion is not built out of stone but a much more exciting and precious material – the poet’s consciousness. ‘Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane / In some untrodden region of my mind’: the making of poetry, ‘branchèd thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain’, is his new act of reverence. The poem ends with an anticipatory Psyche on her own, her lamp now serving as a sign of encouragement to her warm lover, awaiting Cupid’s arrival by ‘a casement ope at night’. It is a nice additional detail that the poem was probably written in Keats’s study at Wentworth Place, from which at night he would have been able to see Fanny Brawne’s lit windows next door, separated by the thickness of a wall: this is ’the setting of Ode to Psyche’, as Robert Gittings pointed out, ‘with its hint of love always impending, just round the corner’.

“Ode to Psyche”

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung

By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,

And pardon that thy secrets should be sung

Even into thine own soft-conched ear:

Surely I dreamt to-day, or did I see

The winged Psyche with awaken'd eyes?

I wander'd in a forest thoughtlessly,

And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,

Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side

In deepest grass, beneath the whisp'ring roof

Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran

A brooklet, scarce espied:

Mid hush'd, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,

Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian,24

They lay calm-breathing, on the bedded grass;

Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;

Their lips touch'd not, but had not bade adieu,

As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,

And ready still past kisses to outnumber

At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love:

The winged boy25 I knew;

But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove?

His Psyche true!

O latest born and loveliest vision far

Of all Olympus' faded hierarchy!

Fairer than Phoebe's26 sapphire-region'd star,

Or Vesper,27 amorous glow-worm of the sky;

Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none,

Nor altar heap'd with flowers;

Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan

Upon the midnight hours;

No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet

From chain-swung censer teeming;

No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat

Of pale-mouth'd prophet dreaming.

O brightest! though too late for antique vows,

Too, too late for the fond believing lyre,

When holy were the haunted forest boughs,

Holy the air, the water, and the fire;

Yet even in these days so far retir'd

From happy pieties, thy lucent fans,

Fluttering among the faint Olympians,

I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspir'd.

So let me be thy choir, and make a moan

Upon the midnight hours;

Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet

From swinged censer teeming;

Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat

Of pale-mouth'd prophet dreaming.

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane

In some untrodden region of my mind,

Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,

Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:

Far, far around shall those dark-cluster'd trees

Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep;

And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees,

The moss-lain Dryads shall be lull'd to sleep;

And in the midst of this wide quietness

A rosy sanctuary will I dress

With the wreath'd trellis of a working brain,

With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,

With all the gardener Fancy28 e'er could feign,

Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same:

And there shall be for thee all soft delight

That shadowy thought can win,

A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,

To let the warm Love in!

“To Autumn”

Introduction I

By Susan Wolfson
Used with permission of The Keats Foundation

To Autumn ‘To Autumn’ may be the last poem Keats wrote for his last lifetime volume. It is about ending, but no dark finale. It pauses on a rich interval between seasons, undeluded about mortality, yet suspending its weight, for this day. ‘How beautiful the season is now’, he wrote to a friend from Winchester, 21 September 1819. ‘How fine the air. A Temperate sharpness about it... I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now – Aye better than the chilly green of the Spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm... this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.’1 While ‘stubble plain’ is the mark of harvest’s end, the sensation of sunlit warmth was Keats’s Sunday inspiration, still with the feel of summer, unlike winter-cold spring. Although some readers are eager to indict the Ode’s mythic turn of meditation amid a season in 1819 of political crisis, this is deeply unfair, and inattentive. Keats was not existentially tuned out. He needed a day off from his life-distresses, from following the daily news of the massacre at Manchester and the aftermath of prosecution. He was reading the newspapers every day, and just for this ‘soft-dying day’ wanted to immerse himself in a mood that feels like for ever, but which he knew was timebound, deathbound. He was still healthy and not yet twenty-four, but with a shadow of mortality in his everyday consciousness.

In aesthetic tradition, Autumn is a double season, of harvest for the winter and death in nature. Keats knows this score and he plays with it. ‘To Autumn’ is an ode of time-halted (but not, crucially, time-stopped) imagination. There is a wry joke in his half-dozen linked infinitive verbs (to load and bless, to bend and fill, to swell and plump) that thread the first stanza, taking the grammar called ‘infinitive’ (not temporally defined) into sensation of ‘never cease’, this plumped by present participles (-ing) that sing along, and conjunctions that accumulate in temporal equilibrium (‘and’ five times). The phonic score becomes hyper-harmonic in the last line’s triple mm: Summer–brimm’d–clammy. This last adjective, ‘clammy’, is for ‘cells’, a sound tuned all the way from line 1: mellow–fruitful–fill–swell–hazel shells–kernel still more–flowers. Even ‘bend and fill’ plays against the expectation of ‘fall’ in this season. Stuart Sperry nicely remarks that ‘adieu’, ‘the theatrical, slightly affected word that occurs in each of the odes of the spring,’ is absent here, though this is where you might expect it.2 Such is subtle perfection of Keats’s double-plays, evoking but not distilling.

These doubleplays against expectation stay mindful about what is being evoked but not played out. Readers of Keats know, for instance, other situations of ‘mists’, most famous in his trope of life in the world as a series of dark passages, where ‘we are in a Mist ... We feel “the burden of the Mystery”’3 to lines he took care to underline near the end of Paradise Lost, in Milton’s simile for how the angels ‘descended’ to evict Adam and Eve,

Gliding meteorous, as evening mist
Risen from the river o’er the marish glides,
And gathers ground fast at the labourer’s heel
Homeward returning. (12.629-632)

Milton’s edge is to situate ‘as’ for both visual analogy and the coming temporality of postlapsarian labor. The ‘mists’ of ‘To Autumn’ knowingly deflect these assignments, as well as any sinister sense in ‘Conspiring’. Keats draws its etymology ‘breathing with’ into a cooperative nurture of climate and sun, and into a doubled ‘maturing’ for this sun: over the course of the year, and as ripening. His final touch is a funny diminuendo about beemindedness. The season’s languor sets ‘still more, later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease.’ Bees don’t think; this is wryly indulged human-fantasy with an echo of ‘cease’ (from the ‘Season’ that seems to be doing no such thing). 2 Stanza 1 halts its still incomplete grammar (all vocative) at a period, a mark that seems merely notional on the momentum of syntax into stanza 2: ‘Who hath not seen thee...?’ No real question, but a rhetorical cue for four personified labors, in silence and slow time: winnowing, reaping, gleaning, cyder-pressing. ‘Sometimes’ / ‘sometimes’ are not time-words but spatialized positioners of time nearly suspended. How deft is Keats’s mimetic holding ‘find’ at the end of a line (‘…may find / Thee sitting’), for a pause. And ‘find’ what? Nothing more than iconic Autumn ‘sitting careless’ in an onomatopoetic ‘winnowing wind’. This is visual imagination and a soundscape: Autumn ‘on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, / Drows’d with the fume of poppies’ echoes ‘reap’d’ in ‘asleep’, scored with the flow of sound and furrow into ‘Drows’d’. Those ‘last oozings, hours by hours’, sound-spun from ‘drows’d’, linger in slowest time over cyder-pressing, even gathering up the insistent later flowers of stanza 1. In the very sound, ‘hours by hours’ verges on infinite prolongation. But ‘hour’ is temporal after all. All these luxuries are edged with such reminders: ‘store’ tells of storing for winter, ‘careless’ notes necessary ‘care’; ‘half-reap’d’ and the ‘next swath’ are rests, not arrests; ‘like a gleaner’ evokes the late season of stubble plains; and the stanza 2’s last line does say of the cyder-pressing, ‘last’. Amid these prolonged but not infinite luxuries, Stanza 3 plays its first line ‘Where are the songs of Spring?’ against the elegiac ubi sunt of elegiac tradition. Keats rebukes the sigh in the same line, nearly the same breath, by impatient repetition, and then a retuning: ‘Ay, where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—'. The spondee ‘Think not’, replacing a long distanced spring – ‘they’ with an Autumn - present ‘thy’, cues a ‘Song of Autumn’: the ode’s auto-mimesis. Keats sounds the notes from sky to plains to river to hilly bourn; its chorus joins lambs, gnats, crickets, redbreast, and swallows: ‘wail’, ‘mourn’, ‘bleat’, ‘sing’, ‘whistle’, ‘twitter’. By the time this chorus gets to ‘whistle with treble soft’, the poetry of ‘To Autumn’ itself has joined it, the onomatopoeia of ‘whistle’ spreading its sounds and letterings to ’with treble soft.’ Keats’s music is more subtle yet in the way it plays spring tones without ubi sunt. For the phrase ‘barred clouds bloom’ the soft dying day, it is no wonder that OED gives ‘To Autumn’ unique citation for this verb-use of ‘bloom’, imaging clouds as flowers, misting the stubbleplains of harvest’s end with a ‘rosy hue’. More ‘spring’ sounds in the way ‘small gnats mourn’ sounds ‘morn’, and ‘borne’ tunes to ‘born’ (springtime’s lambs). And a suspended temporality altogether hovers in the double-or sounds of ‘borne aloft / Or sinking’ (sounded first in borne) and the or of ‘lives or dies’. These are variations in the moment rather than path-markers from life to death. Even the conjunctions—‘while’, ‘then’, ‘now’—are spatial equivalences, as prepositional as the place-markers, ‘from’, ‘among’, ‘from’. Keats keeps his verbs in this double chord: the participle adjective, ‘gathering’, draws on both ‘soft-dying’ and ‘sing’. His hard knowledge is that swallows are ‘in the skies,’ because unlike bees, they instinctively know that warm days will cease and they must act accordingly. Keats’s sightline on this last song is utterly human.

Introduction II

By Caitlin Kimball
Used by permission of the Poetry Foundation

Fall is in the air. So we are reminded here in the Northern Hemisphere, by the arrival of back-to-school catalogs and tiny inedible gourds littering the desks of teachers and bank tellers. No matter how far we are from our school days, fall retains the air of fresh beginnings. And most of us are even further from our agricultural roots, making the weather a superficial consideration. It’s jacket time, and the streetlights snap on earlier. When John Keats walked the English countryside in the autumn of 1819, he witnessed day-by-day the glories—and grueling labor—of the harvest and its aftermath.

In 1819 Keats was 23 years old and fully engrossed in the poetic vocation he had undertaken a few years before. Following some grim years as a surgeon’s apprentice, he had abandoned the medical profession and chose to pore over Shakespeare, Greek myths, and museum artifacts. Full of breathless appeals to heroes and muses, his early published verse helped feed the cliché of the moony Romantic:

But what is higher beyond thought than thee?
Fresher than berries of a mountain tree?
More strange, more beautiful, more smooth, more regal,
Than wings of swans, than doves, than dim-seen eagle?
(from “Sleep and Poetry”)

As florid as they were, his first compositions flaunt all the passion and musicality that he would refine into his most admired and enduring later work. The fanciful turns of phrase seem to unreel so easily, line after line, that it can be hard to appreciate the unease that produced them. “I have been hovering for some time between an exquisite sense of the luxurious and a love for Philosophy,” Keats wrote to his friend John Taylor in 1818. The scholar Walter Jackson Bate broadly diagnosed Keats’s problem as that of a house divided, his writing a struggle to unify sense and thought, the ideal and the real. By 1819, however, Keats was gaining confidence in a hunch he had articulated in a letter to his brothers two years before, which he called “negative capability” —a quality of imaginative open-mindedness in which “a sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” In an 1818 letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse, he imagined the role of the empathic, chameleon-like poet even more powerfully:

As to the poetical Character itself . . . it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. . . .

Over the course of that summer in the country, as he composed the series of odes that would earn him his “greatness” well over a century after his death, you can almost trace the progress of this self-shedding to its realization in “To Autumn.” The poem is well-rounded in every sense—all five senses, to be exact. Visions of abundance and frantic industry yield to delicious indolence, and the poem’s luxuriously light touches, fragrances, and tastes culminate in a delicate but persistent chorus.

The first stanza is a sensory glut, however mild and pretty “mists and mellow fruitfulness” may seem. The trees and vines that climb high and crawl low are full of mature fruit and nuts; the flowers keep blooming, the beehives are overflowing with honey. It has taken all summer to grow the sweetest, densest, most delectable portion of the harvest (try to imagine a rhapsody on midsummer’s snap peas and kale). The end of summer is literally the fruition, the completion of a phenomenon of natural and manual labor. Sibilance (“mists,” “close bosom,” “bless,” “moss’d,” “swell,” “sweet,” “cease,” “cells”) and o-sounds, both long and short (“mellow,” “bosom,” “load,” “round,” “gourd,” “more,” “flowers”), help build this impression of combined pleasure and effort. Just as the mouth must work to voice a phrase such as “To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells / With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,” so is this harvest fantasia really a story of effort; the sun and season must “conspire” to “load and bless,” “bend,” “fill … to the core,” to “swell” and “plump” and “set” and “o’er-brim.” Nature has been hard at work. The stanza’s headiness and sensuality derives not just from gorgeous visions of fruit and flowers, but also from the outlay of energy, compressed into present-tense, monosyllabic verbs.

But it is summer, not autumn, that has “o’er brimm’d” the bees’ “clammy cells” (the honeycombs of their hives). Early autumn is really summer’s climax. If the sun is “maturing,” it will eventually fully mature, and then . . . what? Keats lends only the hyperproductive bees the burden of thought (“they think warm days will never cease”), setting this ode apart from his others (such as “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode to Psyche”), in which the poet’s own anxieties propel his subjects. In this final ode, the poet’s ego is absent, signaling his developing powers of negative capability.

The poem isn’t a raw record of sensation, of course. It retains touches of formal rhetoric associated with the ode. “Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?” the poet asks at the beginning of the second stanza, shifting his metaphoric imagination to see autumn as a harvester at rest. The spectacular labors of the first stanza are over; though the flowers live on and the fields are only “half-reap’d,” time has passed. The slowing of time is sensual, though the pleasures are subtler when contrasted with the visual riot of the first stanza. The sounds of the second stanza are softer, too, all f’s and w’s: “hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind,” “half-reap’d furrow,” “fume,” “twined flowers.” The drowsy, gentle imagery betrays a dramatic compression of time: the reaper has already amassed a “store” in his granary, the wind winnows (the next step in preparing grain) its contents, and the lush growth has become overgrowth (“twined flowers”). Autumn is next conceived as a “gleaner,” a kind of harvest scavenger who painstakingly picks over what the scythe (the “hook”) has left behind. Finally, Autumn, as if it has all the time in the world, watches the cider ooze through the press, drop by drop. The apples that weighted the “moss’d cottage trees” have now ripened, fallen, and been crushed. The harvest is over. Autumn, who conspired with the sun to put summer into overdrive, sending the bees into a frenzy of effort, is now under its own spell, “drows’d with the fume of poppies.”

The third stanza breaks the spell momentarily for the reader as well, opening with more rhetorical posturing. “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?” The rhetorical questions, exhorting the reader not to think about spring, of course immediately bring to mind that tender season, now played out. Spring’s promise of growth and hopeful expenditure of energy, and summer’s overwhelming bounty, are done. It is the fate of any creation. In two of Keats’s odes composed just a few months before, he tries to reconcile the surrender of life’s beauty to death by affirming its endurance in art, myth, and memory. “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! / No hungry generations tread thee down,” he proclaims in “Ode to a Nightingale,” while the figures in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” are “For ever panting, and for ever young; / All breathing human passion far above. . . .” But now Keats won’t leave the sensual realm for the visionary or philosophical, achieving the “fellowship with essence,” as he phrased it in his early long poem, Endymion, which we associate with the Romantic ideal (“I live not in myself, but I become / Portion of that around me,” wrote Keats’s contemporary Lord Byron in 1816).

The poem’s last stanza offers a mild gesture toward “resolution” in an ever-unfolding present tense. It is early evening, and the emptied fields look warm under a pink-tinted sky. The images and sounds are specific, but the vision is comprehensive: down by the river, we hear the “wailful choir” of the gnats, while over on the hillside the lambs bleat. In the hedges the crickets sing, the robin harmonizes in the garden, and swallows twitter overhead. Keats indulges in the pathetic fallacy to strike the melancholy note (the gnats are mourning!), but as the song progresses the poet doesn’t project any further emotions onto the choristers; they bleat, trill, whistle, and twitter, as is their nature. It is getting late, and the prospect of decay is everywhere, but its touch is light: “soft-dying day,” “bourne aloft / Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies.” It’s hard not to notice, after a few readings, that although the closing scene is imbued with a sense of mortality, autumn’s song sounds much like spring’s. After all, the birds and the lambs, although now “full-grown,” would have sung and bleated in May as well. The four distinct seasons, with all their sensuous variety, are one forward motion whose end is always death. We may rely on it, and must rely on it; the harvest is our means of surviving the cold that follows.

Though Keats doesn’t make any overt attempt to reconcile autumn’s tragic nature, that his consciousness makes music of the creatures’ noises reminds us that this is a poetic creation. As much as the poet has absorbed his senses in an essence apart from himself, making no evaluations or claims for transcendence, he has taken pains to rescue and preserve the season whole—diminishment and all. Like the Greek figures on Keats’s urn, the scene is forever unfolding, round and perfect in its paradox of action and stasis. It is always not yet winter.

“I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death,” Keats wrote to his would-be love, Fanny Brawne, that summer. He had watched his own brother die of tuberculosis just a few months before, and his medical training would have made clear to him the likelihood of his own fate. As he roamed the stubble-plains of Winchester in September, tubercular bacteria were already colonizing his lungs. A few months later, the illness worsened and his doctor advised him to curb his writing to preserve what was left of his vitality. That summer of 1819, the season of Keats’s flourishing that culminated in “To Autumn,” would be the poet’s own autumn.

“To Autumn”


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-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss'd 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-brimm'd 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-reap'd furrow sound asleep,

Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook29

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 cyder-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.

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