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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

27 September 2019

Malcolm Guite recalls Keats’s ode ‘To Autumn’, written 200 years ago

I WRITE this on a fine September evening, conscious that it is 200 years to the very day that Keats spent a golden afternoon composing his “To Autumn”, the last of the great odes, which he completed in that annus mirabilis of 1819. He mentions this astonishing achievement laconically, in an almost offhand manner, in a letter to his friend Reynolds:

How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it . . . chaste weather — Dian skies — I never liked stubble fields so much as now — Aye better than the chilly green of Spring. Somehow, the stubble-plain looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm — this struck me so much on my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.

And what a composition! Never can an idle Sunday afternoon have proved so fruitful, and there is indeed a “mellow fruitfulness” about the whole poem, loaded and blessed as it is with images of ripe fruit: “the vines that round the thatch eves run”, “the moss’d cottage trees” bending with their load of apples, the swelling gourds, the plumped hazel shells, and the bees so busy amid the late flowers that that the honey in their “clammy cells” is “o’er brimmed” with the last of the summer.

For many years, I read this ode as a straightforward hymn of praise to peace and plenty, relishing the figure of Autumn herself “sitting careless on a granary floor”, her hair “soft-lifted by the winnowing wind”, “Or by a cyder-press, with patient look”, watching “the last oozings hours by hours”.

But, more recently, I have begun to read the poem in another context. Nicholas Roe’s recent work on Keats reminds us that 1819 was the year of the Peterloo Massacre: a year of great unrest in the countryside, of bread riots, and a wide sense of division and injustice in England. Roe shows that Keats was well aware of this, and that the essay on the month of September by his friend the political campaigner Leigh Hunt, contained not only many of the peaceful and bucolic images that Keats drew on in his ode, but also a “lesson on justice”, a reminder that the other image of the season is the figure of Libra with her weighing scales, meting out just measure to each in their need.

Indeed, Hunt quotes Spenser’s verse on September, where the personified month holds

A paire of weights with which he did assoyle
Both more and lesse, where it in doubt did stand,
And equal gave to each as justice duly scanned.

Reflecting on Keats’s lines “And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep Steady thy laden head across the brook,” Roe writes: “a furrow is abandoned ‘half-reaped’; the gleaner — an archetype of poverty and exclusion — becomes a figure of steady purpose.”

Perhaps Keats’s gleaner is still the figure of Ruth, whom he had imagined in his “Nightingale” ode, standing “in tears amidst the alien corn”.

If Keats could come back to this other golden September, 200 years after his ode, and scan his own country as he scanned his poem, he might find as much beauty and fruitfulness as he did then, but also, more urgently than ever, the need for balanced scales, the need to deal justice equally, the crying need to notice and have compassion on those who have no barns to fill, but only glean what is left for them on the margins.

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