Ode to Autumn: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of Ode to Autumn


The poem’s language seems to explode with nature’s fecundity. The impression of endless richness is conveyed not only by the profusion of concrete nouns (‘vines’, ‘apples’, ‘trees’, ‘fruit’, ‘gourd’, ‘hazel’, ‘kernel’, ‘flowers’, ‘bees’, ‘granary’, ‘poppies’ etc.) but also by all the active verbs. Monosyllabic verbs such as ‘run’, ‘load’, ‘bless’, ‘blend’, ‘fill’, ‘swell’, ‘plump’ convey much of the season’s energy. 
Words such as ‘bosom-friend’ and ‘conspiring’, in their use of personification, suggest a mysterious magic intimacy, a power creating life and wealth everywhere. The adjective ‘plump’ is used as a verb, onomatopoeically seeming to make the hazel shells expand before our eyes. ‘Maturing’ and ‘ripeness’ work together, leading to the hint of sadness, of acceptance of this world’s mutability. Although the bees may think that ‘warm days will never cease’, human consciousness knows that they will. Keats language enacts the process by which nature gathers to a ripeness and reaches a climax in harvest (but will inevitably have to decline).
The poem abounds in a rich variety of musical effects. Notice the effect of the repeated ‘i’ sounds and alliteration in ‘soft-lifted by the winnowing wind’. Similarly the reader hears the gentle buzz of the insects in the lines: ‘in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn … borne aloft / As the light wind lives or dies’ – as well as seeing their movement and feeling the movement of the wind. Keats’ use of language is truly multi-sensory.


The tone of the poem is celebratory, relishing autumn’s riches. However, it also reflects the transitory nature of life. Keats knew only too well how fragile existence is. A year before he wrote this poem his brother Tom died. Keats’ own health was far from good and he would soon discover that he too would die of consumption. And yet the tone of the poem is one of quiet, calm acceptance as it dwells not so much on the poet’s subjective feelings as on recreating for the reader nature’s abundance.

Investigating language and tone of Ode to Autumn

  • How does Keats use language to appeal to the sense of:
    • Touch
    • Hearing
    • Sight
    • Smell?
  • Keats’ language has a highly pictorial and sensuous nature. Select a couple of examples where he uses it to make even the most abstract thoughts seem tangible.
  • How does Keats use the sounds of words to convey a sense of abundance and fruitfulness? 
    • What patterns of sounds can you detect?
  • What differences can you find between the tone of the three stanzas?
    • How is this reflected in Keats’ diction?
  • What other poetic techniques does Keats use to convey the qualities of autumn?

Structure and versification of Ode to Autumn

Keats To Autumn unrestored manuscriptThe poem’s structure is marked by symmetry and balance as Keats’ focus shifts from the beginning of the season to its end. This progress is balanced by a shift in imagery from one human sense to another.
The poem’s three stanzas move from pre-harvest ripeness to the harvest itself and finally to post-harvest emptiness prior to winter. It also moves in a sensory fashion, from touch to sight to sound, as it focuses on the vegetable world in stanza 1, human activity in stanza 2 and then on the world of animals, birds and insects in stanza 3. 
Keats uses a stanza structure similar to the other odes but extends it to eleven lines and includes a rhyming couplet (first stanza: a b a d c d e d c c e; the other two: a b a b c d e c d d e). The effect of the final three lines has been likened to the crest of a wave (the couplet) suddenly subsiding (the final line). It has also been suggested that one effect of stretching the stanza length from ten to eleven lines is to suggest further nature’s abundance – as if the season has to be elongated in order to cram in all the goodness of life.

Investigating structure and versification of Ode to Autumn

  • How does the structure of the poem suggest the movement from early autumn (ripening) to high autumn (harvesting) to late autumn (the barrenness of ‘stubble plains’)? 
    • What is the effect of this progression?
  • How does the structure allow a sensory movement – from the tactile to the visual and to the auditory? 
    • Why does the poem progressively emphasise these senses?
  • How does the structure of the poem present the relationship between human beings and the natural world?
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