Ode to Autumn: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in Ode to Autumn

In stanza 2 Autumn is personified and, like the sun and Autumn in stanza 1, is actively involved in the season’s tasks (mowing, gleaning etc.). The image of Autumn as gleaner is active; the reader feels the weight and balance of her burden. The enjambement allows the sense to move from one line to another as the gleaner crosses the plank bridge. 
In stanza 3 the day, like the year, is seen as dying. However, the visual effect is beautiful. The day is ‘bloomed’ by the rosy light reflected from the clouds which also tints the bare dead stubble fields. ‘Bloom’ is a Keats coinage which unites the associations of spring, when flowers blossom, with the bloom on autumn fruits. Originally Keats wrote: ‘While a gold cloud gilds the soft-dying day…’ but the change to ‘bloom’ is immeasurably richer and more resonant.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Ode to Autumn

  • How do the images of the poem help create a contrast between movement and stillness?
  • Keats uses much personification in this ode. Find as many examples as you can and explain their effect.
  • How does Keats’ imagery suggest the rich abundance of the season?
  • What images are there which suggest death? 
    • Why does Keats use them?
  • Explain how Keats conveys complex ideas in pictorial terms.

Themes in Ode to Autumn

The cycle of life

The ode not only celebrates the beauty of autumn but also, by focusing on its passing, also contemplates the transitory nature of life. 
Keats does not attempt to impose any didactic purpose on his readers. The focus is on the senses and on nature’s fecundity. There is no explicit thought or philosophy in the poem and the voice we hear never uses the word ‘I’. All created things pass away, even the most beautiful. Keats’ imagery implies what readers all know: that life is cyclical and new life will arise out of death and decay.
The poem implies the cycle of life and the interconnectedness of maturity, death and rebirth as one season gives way to another. One image that conveys this is by describing the animals bleating as ‘full-grown lambs’.

The fecundity of the natural world

The Ode to Autumn is full of the feeling of nature’s generosity. The combination of labour, delight and natural wealth offer the impression of man happy and at peace with the world in which he lives. Man is not the dominant force in the scenes depicted. The imagery stresses the astonishing variety of nature: the profusion of crops, the flowers, the clouds, the lambs, the whistling robin, even the cloud of gnats. 

Human consciousness

Nature is abundant but unconscious: man alone can understand the significance of all this profusion; only man can lament the passing of the year at the same time as looking forward to the future rebirth and renewal. As so often in Keats, there is a fusion of joy in present beauty and also pain, as the poet serenely contemplates the transience of everything in nature.

Investigating themes in Ode to Autumn

  • Do you think this poem has any explicit message to convey? 
    • Or does Keats allow its images to speak for themselves?
  • To what extent is the poem about the transitory nature of life?
  • Does Keats present human beings as superior to nature or as existing outside it in this poem?
    • Or does he present them in some other way?
  • How does the Ode suggest the interconnectedness of life, as maturity gives way to death – which in turn leads to rebirth?
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