Beautiful, vibrant season – yours is the time of ripening, growth and providence. It is to your whim and that of the sun that the combined fates of the harvest and its dependents are left. Never does it seem that you will expire, and thus you – and all associated with you –revel in indolence and comfortable insensibility, obliviously apathetic of what may come. Yet the lambs will, inevitably, be led passively to the slaughter; the birds will flee to warmer climes when cold winds threaten and (most allegorically) thus do all things which appear glorious and beautiful – irrespective of implied promise – invariably cease. That’s what it means.
I have interpreted the speaker as Keats himself; more specifically, it may be that he recognized the pensive aspect of his train of thought and as such when Keats speaks “to autumn” he is speaking to himself and the morose condition he is currently in. The speaker is critical of the person of ‘Autumn’; I assert that the speaker is, more specifically, the aspect of Keats which impelled him to write yet more poetry; to continue his production of bountiful pages of flourishing prose and delightful philosophy. We can thus discern that the character, Autumn, is slowly becoming the bane of the poetic heart as the sun – Autumn’s (Keats’) muse – slowly leaves him/her. It is also not unreasonable to suggest that he – like most Romanticists – had a deep fascination with nature - hence, the recurring floral and faunal imagery.
Keats’ recognition of his own condition can be interpreted as the motivation for the conferral of human characteristics upon the character ‘Autumn’ contained herein. Quite apart from the term autumn being an apt metaphor for the subsidence of life, there are a number of excerpts which, I believe, substantiate this notion. “Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find thee sitting careless on a granary floor.” In fact, it is true that Keats spent his premature twilight years (the time at which this work was written) in Rome, where he died. To be “sitting careless” is to have lost one’s passion for occupation or activity, as indeed is said of Keats as he quietly ebbed. Much of Keats’ poetry is concerned with the sorrow engendered by the realisation that one’s life is to be abbreviated and, as such, one’s talent and life’s work will be similarly wasted. In this manner, Keats may be said to have been “on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep”.
Perhaps least crucially to the basis of my interpretation – and certainly far more ambiguous – Keats would likely have used (opiate-based) painkillers near the end of the terminal illness. Explaining the other textual evidence, we may also assume that he was “Drowsed with the fume of poppies” and if not literally this (though opium was popular amongst literary circles of the time), I opine that he suggests the illness itself as the cause of his malaise. This provides greater insight into the intent of the poem; by personifying something otherwise entirely denuded of human feature, we are guided to appreciate Keats’ intention. We assume that (based on the description of physical features) Autumn is human. All one really requires to understand Keats is a rudimentary understanding of his context and (in, optionally, in other cases, a rather lascivious approach to poetry.
Personification was the first of two literary devices that I shall detail. The latter of these is juxtaposition. The feature most important in displaying the themes of entropy and transition is the fact that the poem places in direct (albeit initially subtle) contrast the two aspects of autumn; the season of reward, for hard work at the harvest, and the season which provides dire visions of the white-cloaked, barren winter to come. Furthermore, by interposing the stanza which details the apathy of Autumn between these two aspects we can recognize the manner in which viewers may be lulled into false security.
Notwithstanding that much of Keats’ more highly regarded work was produced within the span of a single year, I will articulate a distinctive link between this ode and another; namely, Ode on a Grecian Urn. In both poems immortality is beyond human reach (if such an interpretation you apply to ‘to Autumn’). Indeed, it might be said that the inscription upon the urn is a single moment – much akin to the transitory splendour of a northern hemisphere autumn – turned to a sterile eternity by its committal to physical memory.
I write and present this because it echoes my own fascination with the transitory nature of being and the dubious import of beauty; where Keats (in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”) conveys the message "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," he implies, in no uncertain terms, that beauty – and the memory of beauty – is all that is necessary for human happiness. In my esteem, there is some (very limited) truth in this. Autumn has only a conceptual eternity, though the short span it possesses is vivid and passionate.
Shelley and Keats make a good comparative study.