Friday, September 19, 2014

`It Has No Grave Flaws and Is Charmingly Written'

“The weather on Sunday, 19 September was very settled, according to the Meteorological Journal. It came in a fortnight of consistently `Fine’ weather and was on the day in London a minimum of 57 degrees and maximum 60, to rise on the Monday to an unusually clement 70 degrees, amongst the three warmest days in September that year.” 

That is, 1819, the heart of John Keats’ “Great Year,” when he composed most of the poems and letters we remember and read. The weather report is provided by R.S. White in John Keats: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). On this date 195 years ago Keats wrote the last and greatest of his odes, “To Autumn.” That day he walked along the River Itchen near Winchester. Two days later, in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, he describes the experience: 

“How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather – Dian skies – I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now – Aye better than the chilly green of spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it.” 

That same day, Keats transcribed “To Autumn” and sent it in a letter to another friend, Richard Woodhouse. He was not yet twenty-four when he wrote the poem, and would be dead seventeen months later. In one of the best books ever devoted to a single writer, Keats and Embarrassment (1974), Christopher Ricks writes: 

“`To Autumn’ – and it is this which makes its calm poise a thing of such dignity—is a poem of parting: the parting of the day, the parting of the swallows, the parting of Autumn, the parting from life. Partings moved Keats to special sympathy, tact, and pleasure.” 

Even the arch-anti-Romantic Yvor Winters had grudgingly good things to say about “To Autumn.” Keats’ poems, he writes in Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (1967), “offers melancholy for the most part unexplained, melancholy for its own sake, combined with detail which is sensuous as regards intention but which is seldom perceived with real clarity. There is almost no intellect in or behind the poems; the poems are adolescent in every aspect.” About the final ode, however, Winters adds: 

To Autumn is the most nearly successful of Keats’s poems. It has no grave flaws and is charmingly written. But it is not very serious, and the style, although controlled, is excessively mellifluous. Of all the unintentionally comical poems in the language, the Ode on Melancholy is possibly the most amusing [he cites the final six lines of the second stanza].”

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