Nov 8, 2011

John Keats, "To Autumn," and Amy Lowell "Autumn," Part One

To Autumn
by John Keats (1795-1821)

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,   
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook    
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 cider-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 redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,     
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Keats’ “To Autumn” is about as famous as a poem can get, and deservedly so, especially for the sumptuousness of its imagery and the way it reiterates Shakespeare’s theme in the sonnet last week:  “To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

Like everything, however, perfect language is only a virgin once.  No matter how much I enjoy and admire the poem’s focus on sensuous details, fleeting fullness in autumn’s plants and animals as they’re about to leave us, no matter how often that poem and I have gone warmly to bed together, no matter how gracefully it has declined to preach tidy morals, even as closure, the fact is, we’ve been there many times. 
So as I browsed for additional autumn poems, look what jumped out at me.  Amy Lowell’s “Autumn” isn’t necessarily a better poem than Keats’ “To Autumn,” but the force of its bold, boastful yellow, its “fire-ball” of a dahlia and the insult of that fertility as it’s presented to a “barren” and now furious, hurt woman—all that creates another, legitimate image of what autumn can mean.  Compared to the familiar beauty of Keats’ season, Lowell’s portrait of autumn as a wound has a fierce vigor that slaps me awake.

Autumn   by Amy Lowell

They brought me a quilled, yellow dahlia, Opulent, flaunting.
Round gold
Flung out of a pale green stalk.
Round, ripe gold
Of maturity,
Meticulously frilled and flaming,
A fire-ball of proclamation:
Fecundity decked in staring yellow
For all the world to see.
They brought a quilled, yellow dahlia,
To me who am barren
Shall I send it to you,
You who have taken with you
All I once possessed?

Keats’ speaker regards autumn as a filling of things that promises the passing of things; he bestows upon it dignity, elegance and admiration. He doesn’t find autumn cute or cause for a sappy greeting card, the way so many of us do. But as I hear Keats’ ode, he’s much more observant of the luxuriant plenty of what's gorgeous, the climax and afterglow, than the darker fact of its mortality.

That’s more than enough for one day. Part Two will come in a day or two, with more emphasis on Amy Lowell’s poem.


Stickup Artist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stickup Artist said...

Sorry, embarrassing typo. I'll try again.

Hi Banjo. Nice to make your acquaintance. Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting. As much as I enjoy poetry and analysis, I am totally taken with the photo of the little red bridge! It's a Japanese print married to an impressionist painting more than photograph, and I love it...

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, welcome, and thank you. Coming from you, that means something. I wish I were clearer on what I did to get the impressionism. Camera malfunction? But I too like it, I confess.

Brenda's Arizona said...

So were you a Keats aficionado at one time? Oh my, I was. It would be lovely to find a fellow romanticist.

I wonder if Keats is still that good to anyone? Do you think he ever strikes anyone anymore? (Yesterday at the library I found two books on Keats -for sale in the discard store- and they are stories of his life/death, not of his poetry. Fascinating!).

Amy Lowell, do you know who brought her the dahlia? I love this poem! Do you think she is suffering from a broken heart??? Tell us more!

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, I thought the Bright Star movie a couple years ago might revive interest, but I don't know. I bet he's still big in academic circles, still a subject of articles and dissertations. The poet and professor Stanley Plumly has an essay on him in the lastest Kenyon Review; I like it, but haven't finished it yet.

For what it's worth, Keats always stood head and shoulders over Byron and Shelley.

To me, Amy Lowell's "they" sounds more like family or friends. I think the fascinating question is how she gets away with leaving that out, IF she gets away with it. For now, I think she does because the poem's focus is the image and season--of her life and psyche, as well as the season outside.

But it seems to me she's taking a big chance. I'd love to have heard her internal debate on whether to expand on "They" . . . But maybe it was an easy call for her?

Lovers' Lane