Ode to Autumn: Synopsis and Commentary

Synopsis of Ode to Autumn

To Autumn illustration by W J NeatbyThe poem is a richly pictorial description of the season as summer ends and winter encroaches. The first stanza is a celebration of ripeness (vines, apples, gourds, hazel nuts etc.). Autumn is personified as the guiding spirit, the goddess behind so much abundance and creativity. She is depicted first of all as ‘conspiring’ with the ‘maturing sun’ to produce a rich range of crops.
Stanza 2 moves to the autumn harvest and the season is personified in various tableaux of agricultural work: winnowing in a granary; harvesting in the fields with sickle or scythe; gleaning the left-over ears of corn in a basket; overseeing the conversion of apples in to cider by a ‘cyder-press’. The fruits of autumn must serve human beings throughout the year. 
The final stanza concludes with a sense of loss, as all the produce has been gathered in and nature awaits the inexorable onset of winter – but even here Keats gives us hope as the robin sings providing a tuneful counterpoint to the beautiful but melancholy ‘wailful choir’ of the gnats. 

Commentary on Ode to Autumn

Keats himself described the context of the poem in a letter to his friend Reynolds on 21 September 1819:
      How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather – Dian skies – 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 – in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it … I somehow always associate Chatterton with autumn. He is the purest writer in the English language.     


bosom-friend: close friend, confidant
thatch-eaves: the overhanging edges of roofs made of thatch (straw or leaves)
o’er-brimm’d: filled to overflowing
clammy cells: the honey-filled partitions of the honeycomb
winnowing: the separation of wheat from chaff by tossing it into the wind so that the heavy grain falls back down whilst the light refuse is blown away
Drows’d with the fume of poppies: Keats is probably thinking of the drug made from opium poppies.
hook: could refer either to the curve of the scythe or a reaping-hook/sickle which is a traditional curved cutting tool for grass and grain
swath: the quantity of corn that can be cut with one stroke of a scythe or reaping-hook
gleaner: someone who gathers up left-over grain stalks after the harvesters have bundled the main crop into sheaves
cider-press: a machine for extracting juice from apples in order to make cider (an alcoholic drink)
wailful choir … mourn: the faint sound made by the insects’ wings has a mournful effect
sallows: low growing, shrubby willow trees
hilly bourn: hills which limit how far the eye can see
red-breast: the robin, a bird which has distinctively red breast feathers. It is a common garden bird and its appearance and song are especially associated with the winter months.
gathering swallows: Swallows congregate in large numbers before they migrate south in the autumn.

Investigating commentary on Ode To Autumn

  • What does Keats find especially inspirational about the season of autumn (he did not compose odes to the other three seasons)?
  • What is significant about the way in which the focus changes between one stanza and another?
    • How does Keats convey the passing of time through the season?
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