While Keats's early publications were frequently derided by contemporary reviewers as puerile, the ode 'To Autumn' elicited generally approving comments. Indeed, the poem raised hopes in conservative quarters that Keats had, at last, 'grown up'. According to more recent critical orthodoxy, 'To Autumn' is regarded as having achieved a supreme, unimpeachable maturity. The overwhelming majority of scholarly addresses to the poem praise its poise and steadiness as it moves, resignedly, towards finality and closure. Countering such readings, I argue that 'To Autumn' actually represents one of Keats's most sustained and piercing attacks on the logic of mature power.
Corps de l’article
It is a commonplace of Keats criticism to present the poet as struggling against both a debilitating sense of his own immaturity and the wider public perception of him as 'immature'. Keats's doleful suspicion that he was merely a 'weaver-boy' in the eyes of reviewers and other 'literary fashionables' was confirmed by Byron's caustic reference to his 'p–ss a bed' poetry (Letters and Journals, VII, 200), and by John Gibson Lockhart's conclusion that Keats was only 'a boy of pretty abilities' (522). In 1820, the Guardian ironically praised his 'juvenile industry', while the London Magazine condemned his 'boyish petulance' (2, 315). Throughout his poetic career, Keats contended with reviewers who configured him as 'effeminate' or 'callow', and who routinely exhorted him to 'grow up'. But while Keats's relationship with immaturity and 'juvenile industry' may have been fraught, it was by no means wholly disabling. Marjorie Levinson has shown with customary dexterity how Keats used his cultural marginality, stylistic vulgarity, and 'adolescent' sexuality to subvert authoritarian values extolled by 'soi disant guardians of public taste' like Lockhart and J. W. Croker. Indeed, Keats's work often teeters self-consciously on the edge of puerility, such 'teeterings' becoming the condition for contestations of various kinds. But – and this is my point – 'To Autumn' is usually seen as being differently preoccupied. For Levinson, the ode is 'probably the only one of Keats's poems where the self-consciousness – the class and personality line – gets overwritten' (30). Helen Vendler finds repeated 'mitigations, easings, and softenings' that allow us to apprehend Keats's 'less combative attitude' (278), while Michael O'Neill asserts that the ode is empty of 'gestures of protest' and 'assertions of self' (199). We detect a clear desire to redeem a poem that is possibly (on first reading at least) Keats's most powerfully and self-possessedly canonical from the unrest discernible elsewhere in his oeuvre, unrest deriving from tensions generated by an equivocal stance towards maturity. Readers have traditionally been reluctant to permit these tensions to problematize 'To Autumn'. We could, indeed, go so far as to say that there is a will to recognize the ode as a 'perfect' work of serene contemplation and unshakable maturity (the strained sense of a 'willed' recognition is deliberate).
The powerful logic of maturity that is understood to reside in the poem is either discovered within its thematic structure and narrative – Walter Jackson Bate suggests that the ode aspires to 'resolution' (584); Andrew Motion argues that any equivocation in the poem is curtailed, finally, in the fact that 'autumn is about to turn into winter' (462). Or it is identified in the artistic processes of growth and development which are assumed to have produced the poem – thus we have Keats's 'finest ode' in Helen Vendler's words (234); and the 'most perfect of [Keats's] poems and perhaps the most perfect in the English language', in Morse Peckham's view (113). New historicist readings, too, seemingly unconcerned with allegories of human growth and dissipation, appear loathe to dispense with maturity as a measuring stick of the poem's accomplishment. Nicholas Roe's analysis of the ode in John Keats and the Culture of Dissent (1997) could be said to have swapped artistic maturity for political maturity. In Roe's critique, 'To Autumn' is read as codifying a 'grown-up', covert awareness of potential insurrection, where contestation is lodged in semantic groupings like 'close bosom-friend' and 'clammy cells', phrases supposedly redolent of intrigue and its bed-fellow – 'barred' incarceration.
It is my contention that even 'To Autumn', a work we have come to regard as having achieved a supreme maturity, in fact dramatizes – possibly more urgently than anywhere else in Keats – a fundamentally ambivalent relationship with growth and maturation. Moreover, this ambivalence is intimately bound up with political opposition. To be sure, previous interpretations have registered peripheral awareness of the ode's unease with its own mature imagery. In John Keats's Dream of Truth (1969), for instance, John Jones noted that the fields of autumn call up the 'green fields' of spring (261). Keats's dual focus was detected, too, for that matter, by his contemporary readers. A critic for the Monthly Review sensed that the volume in which 'To Autumn' first appeared, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems (1820), was 'involved in ambiguity' (305). Immediately following this insight, the Monthly reprinted the ode in its entirety. But the extent to which – and the psychological reasons why – Keats contrives, systematically and purposefully, to smuggle a subversive and defiant counter-discourse of immaturity into the 'core' of ripe, mature thoughts and a mature logic, has not been delineated. Geoffrey Hartman argues that 'consciousness almost disappears in the poem'; yet it seems to me that 'To Autumn' is engaged in a profound crisis of consciousness and personality (124). The outwardly calm landscape of 'To Autumn' is a field of struggle on which Keats asserts the legitimacy of 'juvenile industry' and 'boyish' subjectivity against his critics' adult reprimands. In this chapter, I examine a series of disturbances in Keats's most famous and apparently coherent comment on 'ripeness', 'timeliness', and old age. These disturbances, I argue, ultimately call the poem's canonicity, specifically as an allegorical poem on aging and closure, into question. I want to suggest that troubled and troubling phrases in 'To Autumn' such as 'full-grown lambs', which provides this essay's title – phrases that insist on their links with youth in the midst of maturity – interrupt the poem's celebratedly seamless narrative, contesting the sovereignty of autumn and opening a perspective onto a 'boyish' or 'adolescent' aesthetic that suffuses Keats's entire work. Most exciting of all, at the same time that the season's authority is imperilled, the cultural authority of reviewers like Lockhart and Croker is unfixed by the ode's immature aesthetic. Once we begin to appreciate Keats's enduring fascination with the 'pleasant wonders' of youth (Letters, I, 281), the persistent myth of Keats's poetic career as a linear progression from the juvenile products of apprenticeship with Leigh Hunt to the ripe fruits of the mature odes can be exploded. In 'To Autumn', Keats is engaged in no less radical a process than undermining his own (once hard fought for and always disputed) authority as a mature poet. Indeed, this process could be said to characterize the poet's later work; at any rate the ode's emphasis on youth, and its iconoclastic disavowal of the mature values demanded by conservative reviewers, looks forward to the school-boy humour of The Cap and Bells; or, the Jealousies, rather than back to Keats's desperate efforts at writing poems in the 'grown-up' style of Milton.
1. Beldames and Belle Dames
That Keats harboured a vulnerability to the charge of physical immaturity is apparent throughout his correspondence. In March 1819 he wrote to Joseph Severn, acquiescing to the painter's wish that his miniature portrait of Keats should appear in the Royal Academy Exhibition. The anxieties generated for Keats by the exhibition appear transparently in the following passage:
What good can it do to any future picture – Even a large picture is lost in that canting place – what a drop of water in the ocean is a Miniature. Those who might chance to see it for the most part if they had ever heard of either of us – and know what we were and of what years would laugh at the puff of the one and the vanity of the other.Letters, II, 48
Keats is obviously unsettled at the prospect of his diminutive likeness being displayed among the exhibition's giant canvasses. His scepticism was perhaps justified: Severn's painting depicts Keats with large child-like eyes and childishly small hands. In addition, Keats fears that if his (and Severn's) young age were known, he would be the object of further ridicule. It is telling that the only noun Keats capitalizes in the above passage is 'Miniature', as if he strains to lift the word above itself. In any event, the phonetic proximity of 'miniature' to 'immature' serves to alert us to the kind of anxieties that are in operation. Severn's 'Miniature' of a young Keats is dismissed by the poet as a 'drop of water in the ocean'. Another water image, from a more famous letter to Reynolds dated 3 May 1818, elaborates his anxieties about intellectual as opposed to physical immaturity. Keats begins to expound enthusiastically to Reynolds on the importance of 'widening speculation' and developing intellect to dissolve any 'Bias' that could lead to prejudice 'when the Mind is in its infancy' (Letters, I, 277); but when Keats overhears himself discoursing on 'knowledge' in this 'grown-up' manner, he suddenly loses confidence, afraid that his ideas sound half-baked:
An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people – it takes away the heat and fever; and helps, by widening speculation, to ease the Burden of the Mystery . . . (you will forgive me for thus privately treading out [of] my depth and take it for treading as schoolboys tread the water).Letters, I, 277
Despite concerns about appearing immature, or 'smokeable', as he puts it elsewhere in his letters, Keats was fascinated by the prospect of prolonging a youthful or 'adolescent' state of intellect – something he explores in the 'Mansion of Many Apartments' letter, which compares the development of the mind to a passage through a series of rooms. The first stage he terms the 'infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think'. The second – and the most seductive for Keats – is the 'Chamber of Maiden-Thought':
[W]e no sooner get into the second Chamber . . . than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight.Letters, II, 281
Fantasies of 'delaying . . . for ever' in this adolescent realm of wonderment notwithstanding, Keats sadly notes that the grown-up world of 'Misery and Heratbreak [sic], Pain, Sickness and oppression' eventually impinges. The Chamber of Maiden-Thought 'becomes gradually darken'd' and the maturing intellect reluctantly leaves it to venture into the 'dark passages' beyond, signalling the third phase of the mind's development towards full maturity. Although Keats thought that Wordsworth had come to this point, he did not believe he had himself entered these passages yet. This particular milestone is projected into a jeopardized, conditional future: 'Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them' (Letters, I, 281).
Keats 'returns' to the Chamber of Maiden-Thought in the poem that most vocally insists on and celebrates the validity of immature love, The Eve of St Agnes (composed in early 1819). The phrase itself is tantalisingly invoked in stanza 21 by the 'maiden's chamber', where Madeline – whose name incorporates all the letters of 'maiden', reinforcing her identification with youth – sleeps and dreams. The critical consensus has always been wary of interpreting Madeline's chamber allegorically; but read with one eye open to issues of immaturity, the bedroom proves to be disclosing in more ways than are immediately obvious. To explain what I mean, I'd like to turn briefly to the figure of Porphyro. This archetypal 'young lover' enacts a youthful incursion into the petrified, grown-up world of 'Old Angela', the 'ancient Beadsman', 'old Lord Maurice', and the sexually knowing 'tiptoe cavaliers' (what is more, Porphyro gets the better of them all). With the aid of 'Angela the Old', he prepares to spy on Madeline, secreting himself, with all the onanistic overtones that properly accrue to this term, in the 'maiden's chamber' (we will see more images of adolescent effluence in the 'o'er-brim[ming] clammy cells' of 'To Autumn'):
The Eve of St Agnes, ll. 185-7
Safe at last,
Through many a dusky gallery, they gain
The maiden's chamber.
Like the 'Chamber of Maiden-Thought', Madeline's bedroom is a sensual and intoxicating locale where one can view 'pleasant wonders', represented within the terms of the poem by the spectacle of Madeline's slow strip ('by degrees', l. 229); and Keats's hero is reluctant to leave it (just as the 'Mansion of Many Apartments' letter prophesies). This poetic reification of the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, and the philosophy accompanying it in the letter, suggests that while Keats worried about being perceived as immature and inexperienced, at the same time and in major poems – moreover, poems ostensibly written with the intention of giving critics less to object to – he develops an adolescent aesthetic that celebrates youthfulness, and youthful love in particular.
This aesthetic does not always produce characters as congenial as Madeline and Porphyro. In Keats's most apprehensive moments, a morbid preoccupation with exploring the tensions between maturity and immaturity, combined with an erotic poetics within which Keats's agency is often severely limited, ultimately produces such hybrid creatures of innocence and experience as Lamia ('Not one hour old, yet of sciential brain / To unperplex bliss from its neighbour pain', Lamia, I, 191-2), and La Belle Dame, a 'fairy's child' (l. 14; my emphasis), who nevertheless bears the mark of age in her name ('beldame': an aged woman). Barbara Johnson's exhilarating analysis of 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' demonstrates how key ambiguities in the poem, centred on line 19 ('She look'd at me as she did love' – where 'as' could mean 'while' or 'as if'), provoke powerfully antagonistic readings of the Lady as polarized allegories of innocence or experience. Within Keats's equivocal psychodynamics, the Lady is either a pure and sincere lover, cruelly abandoned by an hysterical male unable to cope with the forces he has aroused, or a more traditional incarnation of the knowing seductress who deceives a naïve and psychically vulnerable knight-at-arms (a miniature knight who is never capitalized, although La Belle Dame is). While Johnson's critique is stimulating, I would suggest that these alternate readings need not be mutually negating. The rival portraits can, in fact, be (and in a sense already are) conflated into one, supremely unsettling woman embodying Keats's ambivalent attitudes towards maturity and its adolescent antitype.
It is helpful here to recall that Old Angela in The Eve of St Agnes is also identified as a 'beldame' (l. 90). As well as denoting, with depreciative sense, a 'loathsome old woman', the term was also used, the OED records, for addressing nurses in the 16th century. This beldame ministers to Porphyro's sexual longings for Madeline. Keeping this in mind and turning back to La Belle Dame (sans Merci) – it is possible to see an experienced 'beldame' side of the Lady's character pimping to a corresponding innocent and immature 'Belle Dame' side. That is to say, the beldame brings the lustful knight-at-arms to La Belle Dame's grot in a reworked version of Old Angela leading Porphyro 'in close secrecy, / Even to Madeline's chamber' (ll. 163-4). This time, age (represented by the Lady's beldame qualities), appears to win out over youth (the knight): in a near reversal of events in Madeline's bedroom, the knight-at-arms – who is as bad at being a knight as the 'pallid' Porphyro was at being a Romance hero – sleeps and dreams while the scene is observed and voyeuristically 'consumed' by his female counterpart.
The co-existence of age and experience with youth and innocence in 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' is what unsettles both the knight and Keats most severely. As a matter of fact, older people – ranging from austere poetic characters like Moneta in The Fall of Hyperion, to acquaintances such as Keats's financially astute guardian Mr Abbey, and the sexually accomplished Charles Brown – nearly always mobilize unease in Keats. When he composed 'To Autumn', however, he seems to have found a way in which this dual presence could be used to unsettle other people.
2. 'Involved in ambiguity'
'To Autumn' is traditionally regarded as Keats's paean to maturity – artistic maturity, in respect of the poet's coming to full powers, and maturity embodied in the allegorical passage from spring through to autumn, into an implied, if unnamed, winter. Anne Mellor, in common with several other commentators, considers 'To Autumn' to be 'Keats's great Ode' (21). For a number of Keats's (more enlightened, Mellor would say) contemporary reviewers, the volume in which the ode/or rather 'Ode' appeared also marked a 'gigantic stride' and signalled the poet's newly achieved 'calm power'. The ode has remained a poem of growth, resignation, and acceptance. 'Unequivocal acceptance', in Jack Stillinger's words (117). As I suggested at the beginning of this essay, even recent new historicist critiques of the poem, seemingly unconcerned with allegories of human youth and age, could be said to swap one version of maturity for another. Nicholas Roe finds in 'To Autumn' not chronological or artistic maturity, but political maturity, shrewdly fugitive (in view of the troubled times), and all but concealed in apparently innocent, yet precisely for this reason doubly mature, words and phrases suggestive of revolution and intrigue. These include such references as 'close-bosom friend of the maturing sun' (l. 2), 'clammy cells' (l. 11), and fecund locutions (for literary critics) like 'conspiring'. In these strong and undeniably exciting readings, 'To Autumn', whether through conscious subterfuge on the part of Keats, or by less directed means, is assumed to reflect and comment – maturely – on the turbulent politics of the period. Yet it is in these outwardly 'mature' and apparently proof-laden phrases where the deepest fractures appear in the poem's logic. The autumnal surfaces of the poem may shine in the warmth of the maturing sun, but this is truly a Schein or 'apparent' autumn, since through a series of semantic and grammatical disturbances, in tautologies, oxymorons and verbal ambiguities, Keats's autumn emerges as an ironic and subversive antitype of the conventionally 'mature' season. In the same way that Porphyro represents a youthful challenge to the adult world of 'Old Angela', the 'ancient Beadsman', and 'old Lord Maurice', references to 'clammy cells' and 'close bosom-friends' resist the mature rhythms and apparently inexorable cadences of autumn.
Several reviewers, as we have seen, discerned signs of 'development' in the Lamia volume (1820) where 'To Autumn' first appeared. Josiah Conder in the Eclectic Review found 'intellectual growth', and printed all three stanzas of 'To Autumn' as proof (159). In the Indicator, Leigh Hunt declared that Keats 'takes his seat with the oldest and best of our living poets' (352). But in less partial quarters a lingering doubt remained. Even the Eclectic could not avoid noticing something immature about Keats that was not contingent upon his actual age: 'Mr. Keats, it will be sufficiently evident, is a young man – whatever be his age, we must consider him as still but a young man'. The reviewer, probably Conder, worried that Keats's poetics was dangerously close to being 'childish' in places, and he found ample evidence of 'school boy taste' (169). Keats's reaction to, or rather anticipation of, such attitudes was to assure his friends, and particularly his publisher, that the new volume was designed to placate his critics. Individual works, however, rather suggest that Keats resented the fact that appeasement was necessary in the first place. For instance, in The Eve of St Agnes – one of the 1820 volume's title pieces – we could view Porphyro's cautious, but nevertheless headstrong, windings through the dark passages of the castle in which 'old Lord Maurice', 'dwarfish Hildebrand', and the 'whole blood-thirsty race' reside, as an attempt to cock a snook at, while eluding, the crusty reviewers of Blackwood's and the Quarterly in their exclusive and excluding fortresses of literary taste. As I will outline, too, the hidden engagements and youthful resistances of 'To Autumn' begin to look more and more like calculated and thorough-going acts of poetic defiance against Keats's critical foes, rather than appeasement. And not just critical foes: 'To Autumn' also works against the solidified canons of posterity, the poetic afterlife that welcomes mature work but is less open-armed, as Keats realized, to 'juvenile industry' (which is consigned to a category of its own: 'juvenilia').
A writer for the Monthly Review suspected that Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems was 'involved in ambiguity', a hunch which the first few words of 'To Autumn' would seem to confirm: 'Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness'. Mists are, after all, the very condition of ambiguity. They confuse and obfuscate; they send people the wrong way. (Keats commented to Reynolds a day or so after composing 'To Autumn': 'I am all in a mist; I scarcely know what's what', Letters, II, 167). In the same letter, Keats records having an 'unsteady & vagarish disposition'. A similar unsteadiness may be found in the ode, unbalancing the poem's famous equilibrium and constituting a contrary energy to the (at first glance) 'steady' autumn we observe crossing a brook in line 20. Indeed, we might say the poem constantly teeters, even where it appears to be most composed, since many of the images that in orthodox readings make up the ode's renowned maturity are doubly composed, harbouring reversed images of immaturity within them.
The first 'problem' that disrupts views of 'To Autumn' as a poem of and about maturity occurs in line 2. We are told that autumn is the 'close bosom-friend of the maturing sun'. The phrase is plurally arresting, containing at least two, possibly three, anomalous elements. To begin with, 'close bosom-friend' (my emphasis) is tautological, since 'bosom-friends' are by definition 'close'. The amplified sense of proximity in this double image of closeness (collating a 'close friend' and a 'bosom friend') suggests a different kind of intimacy from that indulged in by Roe's political schemers. Namely, the intimacy enjoyed by infants lying on their mother's breast (lying close to the bosom). Which is to say that Keats is detained by mother/son imagery. The next, related disturbance in the ode's supposedly seamless narrative on the theme of ripeness occurs with 'maturing sun'. Here we are faced with a decision: whether to read 'maturing' as verb or adjective, a choice that results in either a mature sun that matures crops, or an immature sun that is itself still engaged in a process of maturing and getting older. Add to this the third problem – the homophonic incorporation of 'son' in 'sun' – and we discover in the line a son who is maturing, but still preoccupied by memories of lying on the maternal breast (Keats lost his mother at the age of fourteen, a loss which was to plunge him into chronic debt, a threatened Chancery Bill, and financial dependency). Keats appears to be nostalgic for the 'close bosom' relationship he has lost; we have already seen how he writes plaintively about the prospect of leaving the second stage of intellectual maturation, at which point the 'weariness, the fever, and the fret' of the adult world break in upon one, where 'but to think is to be full of sorrow' ('Ode to a Nightingale'). Indeed, in 'Ode to a Nightingale', a poem in close dialogue with – a close bosom-friend of – 'To Autumn', the ultimate logic of maturity is presented in wholly uncompromising terms: 'youth grows pale, and spectre thin, and dies' (l. 26). Ripening is not a phenomenon Keats feels should be met with equanimity or resignation. It becomes apparent, at any rate, that the idea of growing up is more complex for Keats than inherited readings of 'To Autumn' allow.
Correspondence between Keats and his sister Fanny frames many of these predicaments. In a letter of 10 September 1817, Keats self-consciously constructs himself as a mature intellect eager to promote Fanny's own educational development. But he is clearly uncomfortable in the role thus fashioned for himself; moreover, he frequently gives his unease away. Two-thirds through the letter, in which Keats has already deprecated his writings as childish 'scribblings', attention is turned to the early inculcation of the French language in English schools:
I wish the Italian would supersede french in every School throughout the Country for that is full of real Poetry and Romance . . . Italian indeed would sound most musically from Lips which had b[e]gan to pronounce it as early as french is cramme'd down our Mouths, as if we were young Jack daws at the mercy of an overfeeding Schoolboy.Letters, II, 155
Like 'maturing sun' in 'To Autumn', 'overfeeding Schoolboy' at the end of the passage is unstable, supremely vulnerable to an inversion of sense. Keats is either the 'young Jack daw' being force-fed French (over-feeding on French), or the 'Schoolboy' who does the over-feeding (that is, a teacher who is himself still a pupil). Or both, because as with 'close bosom-friend' the key idea in each of these readings – youth – is doubly present; furthermore, both available images of immaturity are folded back onto Keats himself. As a matter of fact, the passage quoted above seems to me precisely to prefigure Keats's uncertainty with the 'maturing sun' in his ode. There, as we have just seen, the sun aspires to the role of 'mature' maturer of young plants and crops; but the possibility that the sun, too, is still maturing (is not yet fully grown) always threatens to undercut its authority, and that of Keats's mature rhetoric. Similarly, while that other maturing son, Keats, begins his letter to Fanny with a desire to help his sister ripen intellectually, he finishes it by confirming his own shaky mandate in this respect.
In the ode, Keats reveals himself as a 'maturing s[o]n', uneasy that the 'pleasant wonders' of the second stage of intellectual development are coming to an end; unsettled at the onset of maturity with its pains and new responsibilities. This might explain why the sun has to 'conspire' sinisterly with autumn to 'bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees', 'swell the gourd', and 'fill all fruit with ripeness to the core'. Keats's profound discomfort at the notion of 'ripeness' is palpable: 'to the core' usually collocates backwards with 'rotten', where 'rottenness' is the disgusting corollary of 'ripeness'. It is as though Keats expresses dismay at the inevitability of growing up. Even in the very process of ripening he looks forward to a second youth where the sun that will 'swell the gourd' (a clear image of pregnancy) will also 'set budding more, / And still more, later flowers for the bees' (ll. 8-9). This desire is expressed prosaically in a letter to Rice of February 1820: 'The simple flowers of our sp[r]ing are what I want to see again' (Letters, II, 260; my emphasis). It is, then, not only the bees that hope 'warm days will never cease' (l. 10). Keats, too, is reluctant to bid adieu to the spring and summer, contriving a second period of immature growth – a second spring – in his ode, complete with budding flowers, in the midst of autumn and autumnal imagery.
At the end of stanza 1, Keats imagines the bees' 'clammy cells' as 'o'er-brimmed' (l. 11). At face value, this image simply acknowledges autumn's fruitfulness. It has also been seen as a knowing reference to the damp prison cells in which many liberals and radicals – including Leigh Hunt, who was to become Keats's own close friend and mentor – were imprisoned, especially during the suspension of Habeas Corpus. But it is equally comprehensible read as a reference to youthful 'fruitfulness', and links to other instances where Keats celebrates adolescent effusiveness. Two of these occur in The Eve of St Agnes, at the point at which Porphyro secretes himself in the 'maiden's chamber' (a youthful secretion anticipating the o'er-brimming 'clammy cells' and 'last oozings' of autumn), and with the 'solution sweet' that literally stains stanza 36. Marjorie Levinson is not the first commentator to recognize Keats's onanistic preoccupations: Byron, for example, asserted that Keats was always 'f–gg–g his Imagination', denouncing him as a 'miserable Self-polluter of the human Mind' to the publisher John Murray (Letters and Journals, VII, 225, 217). In the Eclectic Review, Josiah Conder was less direct but equally meaningful when he warned the poet not to indulge in 'wasteful efflorescence' in his works (158); while Keats's one-time friend, the European Magazine reviewer George Felton Mathew, smuttily referred to Keats as a 'proud egotist of diseased feelings and perverted principles' who was given to 'pouring forth his splendours' in verse (435). All these commentators make a valid point. The sticky cells, 'later flowers', and hopeful bees of stanza 1 invite us to scrutinize Keats's purported willingness to embrace the seasonal maturity and allegorical finality signalled by the approach of autumn.
Keats's efforts to derail autumn's progress appear even more explicitly in stanza 2, which is constructed around a series of images that seem to have been selected with the express purpose of undercutting the season's authority and prolonging a period of immature wonder. Autumn is pictured 'sitting careless on a granary floor' (l. 14), hair 'soft-lifted' (l. 15) by the wind in one of those jejune 'Cockney' constructions that reviewers like Croker and Lockhart rejected as emblematic of Keats's offensively immature 'jargon'. (The expediency of halting Autumn's labours in the granary is clear: granary floors are unsettling loci, strewn with what Keats would regard, appalled with Geoffrey Hill, as 'the husks of what was rich seed', 'Merlin', line 2). Or Autumn lies 'drows'd with the fume of poppies' on a 'half-reap'd' furrow (ll. 16-17), the reaper's hook sparing the 'next swath and all its twined flowers' (l. 18). Alternatively, Autumn watches on with 'patient look' as the 'last oozings' of summer are squeezed out of the cider-press (l. 22). One would have to be patient indeed, since while it is possible to watch a last 'oozing', 'oozings', with its deferring plural, implies that there will always be another drop to issue from the press. 'Lastness' in Keats's poem begins to appear as a progressive, unended condition. Think again of the cider-press – intimately associated with intoxication, it recalls, together with the narcotic 'fume of poppies', the letter of 3 May 1818 where Keats describes to Reynolds the second stage of the mind's development: 'We become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight'. As in the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, then, the climate in the second stanza of 'To Autumn' is one of delay, postponement, and arrested development.
By the third stanza, the 'songs of spring' have given way to the music of autumn with its 'wailful choir' of small gnats (l. 27). So far I have endeavoured to show that the spots in 'To Autumn' where Keats's ambivalence towards maturity is most pronounced are marked by episodes of semantic disjuncture. It is no different in the final stanza. 'Small gnats' is oddly observed and virtually tautological, just like 'close bosom-friend'. Gnats are small. Talking about 'small gnats' is akin to referring to 'tall skyscrapers'. The qualifier is troublesomely superfluous; it seems present only for the purpose of drawing attention to itself and indicating how the poem is to be read (the text can be said to illuminate its own reading at this point). Looked at from another angle, 'small gnats' also registers Keats's desire to store images of smallness and youth against the ruinous approach of maturity in the guise of autumn and winter, an approach that the choir of gnats bewails. Youth's transforming presence in the stanza is confirmed by Christopher Ricks, who with characteristic inventiveness discovers 'Keats's greatest blush' in the lines 'barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, / And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue' (ll. 25-6). Blushes, of course, are intimately associated with adolescence (209). The idea that Keats's verse blushes at this point is singular; but the choice of 'bloom', a term that in a non-transferred sense is conventionally linked to flowering plants (which have usually wilted and died by autumn), also allows an additional flicker of unseasonal subversion to discompose autumn's authority. Even (or especially) here, where the day is slipping away and 'soft-dying', Keats clings to the outward forms of spring and summer rather than take solace in those of autumn. In this respect, Keats's poem has more in common with Dylan Thomas's 'Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night', which exhorts an aged father to 'rage, rage against the dying of the light' – that is, to resist closure – than with canonical poems of dignified acceptance such as, say, Tennyson's 'Crossing the Bar'.
These adolescent 'survivals', this assortment of immature representations, is further buttressed by the 'full-grown lambs' that 'loud bleat from hilly bourn' (l. 30). This is at best a curious, and at worst a scandalously contradictory, image to find in a 'perfect' poem, since as Helen Vendler herself notes, a full-grown lamb is no longer a lamb, but a sheep (254). The phrase is a 'fleecy oxymoron' in Andrew Motion's playful (not to mention Keatsian) description (461). The 'jolt' in signification caused by the 'full-grown lambs' can perhaps be ascribed to the fact that Keats relishes an unseasonal association with lambs and the time of year when they are usually born (on 'hilly bourns'). In other words, although the presence of sheep should be proof-positive that spring has departed, the mature image is 'sabotaged' through the invocation of lambs and the lambing season. The multitude of unstable signs in 'To Autumn' leads us incrementally, but cumulatively, to the conclusion that it is Keats himself who aspires to be a 'full-grown lamb'. The aptness of the phrase seems to have been noticed by one of Keats's contemporary reviewers: admonishing Keats for a showy 'parade' of his fascination with all things classical in Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems, Josiah Conder concluded that such tastelessness' indicated the author had a long way to go before he became a 'full-grown scholar' (169). The nearness of 'full-grown scholar' to 'full-grown lambs' suggests that Conder was both exercised by the image in the ode, and able to recognize its appositeness applied to Keats himself.
Perversely for a poem that ostensibly sets out to celebrate autumn, 'To Autumn' participates, or aspires to participate, in the jouissance of spring, in the sexy 'pleasant wonders' of youth. Keats's autumn is thoroughly ambivalent; it is involved in ambiguity at every level. Was Keats disturbed by the thought that in his bid to write a canonical poem about autumnal closure, a poem that would place him 'among the English Poets after [his] death' (Letters, I, 394), he had actually composed a poem on the joys of spring and new beginnings? Was he perturbed that he had announced, however obliquely, his preference for being a lamb rather than a sheep? Keats undoubtedly realized that the notion of 'lamb-likeness' was double-edged, particularly as far as the public's perception of him was concerned. In 'Ode on Indolence', composed in late May or early June of that year, he declared he did not want public praise if the price was to be regarded as 'A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce' (l. 54), appreciating that by playing the 'full-grown lamb' in his life and works, he risked being perceived by 'literary fashionables' and personal acquaintances alike as ridiculously immature. But these anxieties notwithstanding, the 'full-grown lambs' in 'To Autumn' mark the troubled intersection of rival seasonal (and allegorical) energies, and indicate the nature of Keats's ambivalent engagement with his text. Keats looks 'to' autumn, but it never quite seems to arrive – at least not unambiguously. It is perhaps not without significance that the ode takes the form of an address 'to' autumn, rather than a contemplation 'on' it. Just as the ode to a nightingale directly confronts and refuses the bird's offer of closure in the form of aseasonal, 'full-throated' ease – doubly attractive to Keats, whose own sore throats announced the beginning of the end – the ode to autumn challenges and defers (even if it cannot refuse) the 'natural' mature closure of the season.
To conclude this section, two days after composing his ode, Keats told Reynolds: 'I always somehow associate Chatterton with autumn' (Letters, II, 167). This is an odd connection to make. Autumn is traditionally identified with age and maturity whereas in popular cultural fictions, Chatterton, the 'marvellous boy', stood for a potent myth of precocious, doomed youth, a myth that was proclaimed everywhere from 'tribute' poems to commemorative tea-towels. In Keats's configuration, 'Chatterton' is an oddly motivated sign where youthful naivety and age intersect. Keats justifies his Chatterton/autumn link by explaining that Chatterton was 'the purest writer in the English Language'. 'Purest' relates in an obvious sense to Keats's remark on the 'chaste' autumn weather of 1819 (Letters, II, 167); but in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law, he elaborated on why he liked Chatterton's diction so much: 'The Language had existed long enough to be entirely uncorrupted of Chaucer's gallicisms and still the old words are used . . . I prefer the native music of [Chatterton's language] to Milton's cut by feet' (Letters, II, 212). The chronology here is curious: within contemporary discourses of linguistic primitivism – from Adam Smith's essay on 'The Origin of Language' to Wordsworth's 1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads – it is earlier, not later stages of language that are supposed to be 'pure' and 'uncorrupted'. The best languages are precisely those that have not existed long enough. However, although Chatterton's language has 'existed long enough' to lose its 'gallicisms', it still uses 'the old words' – by which Keats means the young words, words that were spoken in the language's infancy. It is as though for Keats the 'music' of Chatterton's language represents, simultaneously, the songs of autumn and spring, youth and maturity. Bob Dylan's contradictory, but perfectly comprehensible, line from a 1964 song, 'My Back Pages', sheds light on this conundrum: 'Ah, but I was so much older then, / I'm younger than that now'. This repeated refrain asserts the efficacy of a second youth; it advocates growing wise by growing younger, like King Lear, joyously reversing the superannuations of age. Chatterton's idiom is similarly Lear- or Merlin-like for Keats: it lives backwards, getting younger as it gets older, encapsulating the energies in 'To Autumn' I have been describing.
3. Apple Pies
Retrieving an 'immature' counter-discourse from 'To Autumn' requires reading several lines, phrases, and even single words, 'against' themselves. It might seem to be asking a great deal of individual terms to bear the weight of a whole critique; one can always object that words mean just what they say. But words never just mean that: delimitations of this kind are the form-destroyers of all criticism. 'To Autumn' is one of Keats's most tricksical, elusive poems. After all, it has managed to install itself into the most central, most enduring canon of English literature (where male authors ponder the mysteries of age and death); and it does so chiefly by portraying itself as the mature work of a matured poet writing about maturity.
Certainly, with the greatly anthologized 'To Autumn', Keats's conviction that he would be 'among the English Poets after [his] death' has turned out to be prescient. The ode has even been used in a national television advertising campaign (for apple pies), something that has so far eluded even Milton, the über grown-up literary precursor against whom Keats habitually and nervously measured himself. As a matter of fact, the well-known advertisement for Mr Kipling's pies that appeared in the 1980s, featuring a voice-over of 'To Autumn', constitutes one of the best commentaries on Keats's ode. It penetrates, almost certainly without realizing it is doing so, the poem's veiled comments on Keats's allegorical life, comments that are themselves obscured by the season's 'mists', and thus missed. Shot in a laden orchard and bathed in golden light, the advertisement evokes the hazy mellow fruitfulness of stanza 1 of 'To Autumn'. The focus quickly moves, however, to a pair of children who are about to be given apple pies (manufactured for childish palettes), and the meticulously constructed autumnal iconography shifts into the background. A benevolent old man in the autumn of his years – the personification of autumn, that is – carries the pies over on a plate; but he is simply the means of delivering the pies to the children. The camera is interested only in the image of smiling youth, youth that is about to gorge itself on the immature pleasures of sugary pies. Just as the (now) archetypal 'autumnness' of Keats's poem is up-staged in the advertisement by the presence of 'happy, happy' youth – who will remain 'for ever young' in a celluloid version of the immortality attained by the lovers on the Grecian urn's relief – Keats, too, smuggles a counter-discourse of abiding immaturity into the midst of his ode's mature thoughts and mature ethos. In a poem supposedly about death and completion, Keats succeeds in writing verses that are, in more ways than one, 'fit to live' (published Preface to Endymion) – verses that are precisely about living, and hardly at all about death.
'To Autumn' is a poem that strives for canonicity, a poem that insists it is of 'such completion' to warrant 'passing the press', even as the 'youngster' Endymion was not (published Preface). But in the canons of English literature, 'To Autumn' is a Trojan horse. It quietly subverts the mature values it ostensibly buys into and appears to eulogize. Placed alongside a more unproblematically conceived and executed poem on maturity and finality such as Tennyson's 'Crossing the Bar', a poem whose only link with youth is the lamb-like meekness that accompanies Tennyson into the abyss, 'To Autumn' now looks distinctly shifty in its professions of resignation and completion. The Monthly Review's critic was right to suspect equivocation on Keats's part. Historically, readers have responded to – have willingly been subsumed in – the ode's steady autumnal music, to the extent that critical discourse on 'To Autumn' frequently adopts the calm tone, register, and balanced cadences thought to characterize the poem itself (witness the 'rhythm of a steady rising and setting' in Vendler's own finely, and finally, balanced prose, 294). But it is the 'songs of spring' we should be listening to – and this despite the poem's mischievous and thoroughly disingenuous injunction to 'Think not of them' (l. 24). The songs of youth have not departed. To the question 'Ay, where are they?', the answer is, in odd and difficult-to-reconcile phrases like 'maturing sun', 'close bosom-friend', 'small gnats', and 'full-grown lambs' – in lines and terms that produce ripples in the poem's famous coherency. It is Keats's joyous commitment to the 'pleasant wonders' of youth and immaturity, moreover in the face of reviewing censure and private qualms, not his supposed resignation to age and dissolution, that makes 'To Autumn' his most accomplished poem.
4. Creeping birds and industrious bees
Boyishness for Keats could be an intensely and calculatedly political standpoint. But it also presented itself as an appealing realm of retreat, the allure of which at times threatened – paradoxically enough – to imperil the project of boyish subterfuge I have been outlining. This essential duality can be apprehended in a supremely ambiguous phrase like 'close bosom-friend', which is capable of signalling both conspiratorial poetics and a retreat to the maternal breast; 'mature' political consciousness in the new historicist sense, and a desire to step back from adult responsibilities. In this final section, I'd like to propose that in addition to its various other preoccupations, 'To Autumn' nervously debates the merits of grown-up political engagement versus childish withdrawal from political life. To put it another way, I believe that in the ode Keats can be observed trying to determine whether he has written a 'grown-up' poem, or not (or both).
To explore this idea further, I want to draw into focus a neglected sonnet by one of Keats's acquaintances and poetic rivals, Barry Cornwall (pseudonym of Bryan Waller Procter). The poem in question, 'Spring', is little-known today but was familiar enough in 1820. It first appeared as part of a sequence entitled 'The Seasons' in Leigh Hunt's Literary Pocket-Book for 1820 (published at the end of 1819). It was reprinted in A Sicilian Story; with Diego Montilla, and Other Poems (1820), one of two volumes which Cornwall sent as a homage to Keats (who received them by 27 February 1820; see Letters, II, 267-8); and it appeared again in the second edition of A Sicilian Story, also in 1820:
It is not that sweet herbs and flowers alone
Start up, like spirits that have lain asleep
In their great mother's iced bosom deep
For months; or that the birds, more joyous grown,
Catch once again their silver summer tone,
And they who late from bough to bough did creep,
Now trim their plumes upon some sunny steep,
And seem to sing of Winter overthrown.
No – with an equal march the immortal mind,
As tho' it never could be left behind,
Keeps pace with every movement of the year;
And (for high truths are born in happiness)
As the warm heart expands, the eye grows clear,
And sees beyond the slave's or bigot's guess.
Cornwall's sonnet, stylistically reminiscent of Keats (especially in line 12), strongly associates spring with the mother/child relationship. In the first three lines, the 'children' of spring (the sweet herbs and flowers) have lain asleep in their mother's bosom. Both Cornwall, who Hunt, in the Examiner, said reminded him of 'the young poet Keats' (333), and Keats appear to understand a code that links bosom friends with immaturity and spring. Just as the relationship between Keats's autumn and the 'maturing sun'/son is figured around the protective bond of mother and infant (in line 2, autumn is the 'close bosom-friend' of the maturing son), Cornwall's spring herbs and flowers lie asleep safe 'in their great mother's iced bosom deep' (l. 3). Like Keats's autumn, Cornwall's winter does not signify death, but is rather the precondition for the continuance of youth. But despite the presence of the maternal breast in both works, there are significant differences in the manner in which the theme of immaturity is developed in each. Where Keats is always seduced by the comforts of the breast, Cornwall seems resolved to leave its pillowy refuge.
Keats composed 'To Autumn' some time around 19 September 1819. It is possible he knew Cornwall's sonnet 'Spring' before that date, although he claims not to have read anything by his rival until late February 1820. When Keats does mention Cornwall's volumes in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, he is not particularly complimentary:
I confess they tease me – they are composed of Amiability the Seasons, the Leaves, the Moon &c. upon which he rings (according to Hunt's expression) triple bob majors. However that is nothing – I think he likes poetry for its own sake, not his.Letters, II, 268
Immediately after making these barbed comments, Keats, recovering from a setback in his health, informed Reynolds of his plans to continue with the Cap and Bells; or, the Jealousies. In doing so, he made a curious error of spelling: 'I shall soon bee [sic] well enough to proceed with my fairies'. I do not think I am entering the realm of make-believe myself by proposing that Cornwall's sonnets on 'The Seasons' – notably 'Spring', which Keats had just been reading in the copy of A Sicilian Story sent to him by Cornwall – called to mind the ode 'To Autumn', with its ambiguous bees (boyishly over-effusive, yet intimately linked with political incarceration), producing a parapractic 'slip' in Keats's letter. At some level of consciousness, Keats recognized a shared project in his and Cornwall's poems, which went beyond the authors' mutual preoccupation with maternal fantasies to extend into political realms. Irrespective of the issue of chronological precedence (which I have explored elsewhere), Keats's 'To Autumn', I would suggest, can be heard communing with Cornwall's 'Spring', whose spiky and mature political energies complicate the famous ode.
For Keats, just as for Cornwall, thinking about politics in any concerted sense involved entering a 'grown-up' world where the wrong affiliations, the wrong kind of close bosom-friends, could lead to incarceration – or worse. Whether one adopts Jerome McGann's or Nicholas Roe's line on 'To Autumn' (as either a poem that displaces/eludes history, or one that subtly but subversively acknowledges it), the ode, composed in a post-Peterloo atmosphere of watchful caution, is to some degree equivocal about its standing to political activism. But while 'Spring' also exhibits some coyness about the exact nature of its ideological polemic, Cornwall is less guarded, less undecided than Keats. The sonnet's 'conceit' is that just as flowers do not die in winter, but lie waiting to 'start up' again in spring (l. 2), so, too, is the human mind with its radical consciousness 'immortal' and able to keep pace with 'every movement of the year' (ll. 9-11). References to 'starting up' and the 'immortal mind' prompt one to suspect that Cornwall's winter (l. 8) is a political season (tellingly 'overthrown'). It possibly alludes specifically to the grim winter of 1817, during which Habeas Corpus had been suspended. The spring of 1819, on the other hand, was a period of watchful optimism, marked by radical consciousness-raising and popular marches for electoral reform. This contextual frame allows us to see additional significance in Cornwall's sonnet. Consider lines 9-11:
...with an equal march the immortal mind,
As though it never could be left behind,
Keeps pace with every movement of the year.
'Equal march' hints at the marches and rallies held in industrial towns across the north of England between 1816 and 1819. We can also detect political hue in statements like 'high truths are born in happiness' (l. 12), and in references to eyes growing clear and seeing 'beyond the slave's or bigot's guess' (ll. 13-14). Even lines 5-7, describing birds that 'late from bough to bough did creep', begin to resonate suggestively. It is tempting to view Cornwall's 'birds' as political activists, who by creeping about were able to defy the Seditious Meetings Act (in force from the beginning of 1817 until 24 July 1818). The birds also 'seem to sing of Winter overthrown' (l. 8), the reference to 'overthrowing' transforming the line from a seasonal cliché to an audaciously blatant allusion to the toppling of an unpopular political regime. We could go further, interpreting the plumes trimmed by the birds literally – and literarily – as the trimmed quills of pens, conjuring up the untiring efforts of radical editors and essayists to assail Lord Liverpool's despised regime from oppositional pamphlets and the pages of publications like the Black Dwarf, the Cap of Liberty, and the Political Register.
If Keats's 'To Autumn' – either eliding, or cautiously alluding to, the massacre of workers and reformers on Manchester's St Peter's Field in August 1819 – is ambivalent about maturely embracing or immaturely retreating from political involvement, Cornwall's 'Spring' is more self-assured when it comes to urging 'grown-up' action. Then again, as I have already intimated, Cornwall's sonnet depicts a pre-Peterloo political landscape and almost certainly refers to the altogether more hopeful spring of 1819, when a series of best-selling radical tracts, tours by celebrated orators like Henry Hunt, popular marches, and the memory of recent successful defences against charges of sedition and libel (cases that made celebrities of T. J. Wooler, W. Hone, and R. Carlile), raised expectations of reform. Composed from a far darker, post-Peterloo perspective, it is hardly surprising that 'To Autumn' ruminates on the relative prudence of political steadfastness/retreat in full consciousness of the brutal response that activism could elicit, and had already elicited in Manchester.
As well as conversing with each other, 'Spring' and 'To Autumn' engage dialectically with an earlier work of notable ambiguity, Andrew Marvell's 'The Garden' (together with Milton, Marvell was Cromwell's Latin secretary). Marvell's poem struggles to contain tensions between overt and covert themes that bear striking resemblances to those energizing Keats's and Cornwall's work. Just like Marvell's 'Upon Appleton House', 'The Garden' debates the personal ethics of withdrawing from public affairs to seek refuge in an Edenic pastoral space. The dilemma addressed in 'The Garden' anticipates that pondered by Keats and Cornwall – whether to face up, maturely, to political responsibilities, or to evade one's duty as a liberal through indulgent retirement. The allure of retreat is stated (and immediately complicated) in stanza 5 of Marvell's poem, which evokes the first stanza of 'To Autumn', as well as conjuring images from 'Ode to a Nightingale':
'The Garden', ll. 33-40
What wondrous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine,
The nectarene, and curious peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
Here, the timeless comfort of pastoral is disrupted by melons that cause one to stumble, and flowers that ensnare. The very notion of disconnecting oneself from the world of political tangibilities is illusory, Marvell concedes, since even in the calm of an autumn garden, ripe fruit can trip people up and flowers can 'ensnare' (a word loaded with clear political connotations of intrigue and entrapment).
Keats and Cornwall respond to the dilemma set by Marvell in different ways. For Keats, the maternal breast – representing the ultimate retreat – is always, finally, seductive, even if political realities threaten to invade the boy's immature fantasies. Compare the reference to 'barred clouds' blooming the stubble-plains in stanza 3 of 'To Autumn' – which superimposes an image of incarceration over apparently open ground – to the ensnaring flowers in Marvell's pastoral idyll. Cornwall's emphasis, conversely, shifts towards 'start[ing] up' and leaving the 'great mother's iced bosom', on renewed action and decisiveness. Little wonder, then, that Hunt was pleased to include 'Spring', an otherwise indifferent poem, in his Literary Pocket-Book for 1820, printing it alongside passages from his own politically charged 'Calendar of Nature'.
Cornwall's dialogue with Marvell is especially close (and close-bosomed). Where the older poet offers a tempting image of refuge in which 'the mind, from pleasures less, / Withdraws into its happiness' (ll. 41-2), Cornwall responds: 'No – with an equal march the immortal mind / . . . keeps pace with every movement of the year' (ll. 9-11), insisting on the necessity of keeping a firm hold on political realities. The bird that sits in the 'boughs' in stanza 7 of 'The Garden', 'comb[ing] its silver wings' and 'wav[ing] in its plumes the various light', 'till prepared for longer flight', is given more purpose in 'Spring', where the birds, as we have already observed, 'trim their plumes . . . / And seem to sing of Winter overthrown' ('overthrown' invests 'trim' with connotations not only of preparing to write, but also perhaps of preparing a weapon for firing). Cornwall is clearly anxious that his poem's political message should be recognized in the right quarters: the first line of 'Spring' – 'It is not that sweet herbs and flowers alone' – unmistakably echoes the last line of Marvell's poem:
'The Garden', ll. 69-72
. . . the industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers!
The equivocal 'but' in the concluding line of 'The Garden', carrying with it the sense of 'only' and 'except', is addressed and clarified by Cornwall, who replies: 'It is not . . . sweet herbs and flowers alone' (my emphasis). The significance of this final word for Cornwall is that it is not only flora which is, or should be, awakened by spring, but also the visionary consciousness of the radical mind.
'The Garden' stands as an emblematically ambiguous poem for Keats and Cornwall, from which 'To Autumn' and 'Spring' both draw, and against which they measure, their own strategies of equivocation. The principal divergence, however, is that while Cornwall is ready to shut down the ambiguity of Marvell's final line with a call to political activity – while Cornwall is ready to grow up, so to speak – Keats absorbs 'The Garden's thoughts on retirement and disengagement into his immature aesthetic. This can be most clearly apprehended in the distinctly immature versions of Marvell's 'industrious bee' (l. 69) that reappear in lines 9-11 of 'To Autumn': the adolescent bees who 'o'er-brim' their 'clammy cells' in joyous, onanistic, 'juvenile industry'. We might say that where Cornwall's response to the dilemma posed by 'The Garden' is to decide in favour of 'grown-up' action, Keats is always attracted to the idea of remaining in Marvell's pastoral realms of wonder and superabundance.
A slightly longer version of this essay appears in my forthcoming book, Keats’s Boyish Imagination (London: Routledge, 2004)
The ironic reference to Lockhart and Croker is Charles Cowden Clarke’s, Keats’s friend (18).
By his own confession in the published Preface to Endymion, Keats inhabited an unhealthy and uncertain ‘space of life’ found between the ‘imagination of a boy’ and the ‘mature imagination of a man’.
All references to Keats’s letters are to Rollins’s edition.
‘Puffing’ – Keats calling a spade a spade – was one of the strategies with which Leigh Hunt’s Cockney community of dilettantes, writers, editors, and painters assisted each other in the London literary and artistic scene; see Jeffrey N. Cox, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt, and their Circle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). A portrait of Keats – however small – in a prestigious Royal Academy exhibition would very likely have lent some degree of publicity (or notoriety) to its subject. Its appearance would have represented a major coup for Severn, however. Keats’s extreme sensitivity to the charge of boyishness may be gauged from the fact that he even contemplated obstructing his friend’s career by suggesting that he withdraw the painting.
All references to Keats’s poetry are to Stillinger’s edition.
As Nicholas Roe establishes, Keats’s reviewers attempted to undermine the poet’s cultural, poetical, and political aspirations through repeated allusions to his disqualifying ‘childishness’ (203-29).
Keats read what was long thought to be, but in fact isn’t, Chaucer’s translation of Alain Chartier’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Mercy’ (1424) in Bell’s The Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1782), vol. 10. In the 1782 edition, Chartier’s title is spelled ‘La bel Dame sans Mercy’, exactly incorporating ‘beldame’. Possibly the pimping connection between Old Angela and (La) Beldame was strengthened in Keats’s mind by the 1782 title.
Arguably, the ambiguity arises due to constraints of ballad metre – four stressed syllables to the line – which Keats places on himself (the poem’s subtitle announces his intentions to write a ‘genuine’ ballad). Keats quite literally runs out of the syllables he needs to clarify the issue of culpability. If he had written: ‘She looked at me as if she did love’, we would know for certain the Lady was an enchantress, out to deceive the knight from the beginning – but the line would not sound very ballad-like. Johnson does not consider metre as one of the factors affecting the poem’s coherency.
The Lady thus pimps to herself.
Keats felt that because of Brown’s flirtation with Fanny Brawne he was being ‘done to death by inches’. Insofar as Browne was not only older than Keats, but taller, his diagnosis was accurate in more senses than one.
See Indicator, 9 August 1820, 345-52, at 352; and the New Monthly Magazine, 14 (1820), 245, 248.
This loss was to keep him, in legal terms, suspended in status between childhood and adulthood. It also meant that he had to rely on his guardian and older friends for sustenance and rent. ‘To Autumn’ was composed in the summer of 1820, just as Keats’s financial problems were becoming most acute.
Compare the account Keats gives almost two years later in a letter to Mary-Ann Jeffrey, dated 9 June 1819, of Brown ‘force-feeding’ him extracts from his life of David: ‘My friend Mr Brown is sitting opposite me . . . He reads me passages as he writes them stuffing my infidel mouth as though I were a young rook’ (Letters, II, 116). Keats was drawn to images of young birds as a means of alluding to his sense of his own immaturity: to Fanny Brawne on 15 (?) July 1819, he referred to his poetry as the product of a ‘half-fledged brain’ (Letters, II, 130).
The OED defines ‘clammy’ as ‘soft, moist, and sticky; viscous, tenacious, adhesive’. A ‘clammy cell’, then, to all extents and purposes, is the same as a ‘sticky chamber’.
For the objections of conservative reviewers to Keats’s diction, see my ‘“Handy Squirrels” and Chapman’s Homer: Hunt, Keats, and Romantic Philology’, Romanticism, 4.i (1998), 104-19.
Possibly, Keats and Fanny Brawne – real-life ‘young lovers’ – maintain a shadowy presence in lines 16-17. On 1 July 1819, two months or so before ‘To Autumn’ was composed, Keats, working on the Isle of Wight, entreated Fanny to send him a letter ‘immediately’: ‘make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me’ (Letters, II, 123). Keats is clearly thinking of the ‘pleasant wonders’ of young love here; moreover, he records that he is writing from his ‘pleasant Cottage window’ that looks out onto a ‘beautiful hilly country’; perhaps these hilly bourns contained ‘full-grown lambs’.
It is far from certain how Keats would have felt had he known of Woodhouse’s (well-meant) remark to Taylor that the poet’s strong convictions had made ‘half a Milton of him’ (my emphasis), Keats Circle, I, 82.
We could, indeed, point to ways in which new historicist critiques of ‘To Autumn’ and my reading of the poem to this juncture – which asserts that the ode is childish, but politically so – might be (already) reconciled. At the very least, the two hermeneutics complicate each other in interesting ways. After all, the dilemma contained in ‘close bosom-friend’ (whether it is to be understood as a ‘mature’ or ‘immature’ comment) – always granting that for Keats immaturity could also be a political position – actually makes the phrase more, rather than less, ‘Keatsian’.
The text reprinted here is the version that appeared in Hunt’s Literary Pocket-Book for 1820 (published at the end of 1819).
I discuss this claim in ‘John Keats, Barry Cornwall and Leigh Hunt’s Literary Pocket-Book’, Romanticism, 7.ii (2002), 163-76.
It had been suspended on 4 March 1817, and was restored on 28 January 1818.
I am grateful to Damian Walford Davies for pointing out the relevance of Marvell’s poem to my argument.
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