Ode to Autumn
What John Keats can teach us about evoking a season.
As a teacher of English Literature, I love it when students who mainly study science also opt for my subject. Scientists are usually precise, analytical and objective. What’s more they don’t waffle! It’s the same with writers – scientists can write well because of their clarity and accuracy.
The Romantic poet John Keats originally trained to be a surgeon, quite a brutal profession in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century. Yet his early training gave him an almost forensic eye for detail. Although he later abandoned medical training for poetry, the skills he acquired in medicine transferred well to his new profession.
On 19th September 1819, Keats walked near Winchester along the River Itchen. In a letter of 21st September to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats wrote "How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it [...] I never lik'd stubble fields so much as now [...] Somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it." The composition he referred to was to become his famous poem ‘Ode to Autumn’.
Although we are now in November (thanks, probably, to global warming the seasons seem to arrive later these days) the glorious colours we are currently experiencing in the countryside are very reminiscent of Keats’ poem. We can learn a lot by the sensuous way he evokes autumn. The warmth he refers to in his letter emerges as the ‘mellow fruitfulness’ and ‘maturing sun’ in the first stanza. The action of the sun is evident in the verbs: ‘plump’, ‘load,’ ‘bless,’ ‘swell,’ ‘fill.’ Everything is basking in the glow of the sun’s affection. Later in the poem (stanza three) we have sounds: the lambs bleat, the crickets sing, the swallows twitter. Smell is implicit in references to flowers and ripe fruit (stanza one) and the physical manifestations of autumn are described in its intricate sights – the twisting vines, the apple boughs bent over with the weight of the fruit, the half ploughed furrow. All of our senses come alive in this poem, a reflection of the sensuousness of the season itself.
Like the surgeon he initially aspired to be, Keats dissects his subject to examine its constituent parts then reassembles it brighter than before. We could do well to follow his example. Even if we don’t consider ourselves to be scientists, we can still write with forensic detail.