Sunday, September 23, 2012

`Things Which Cannot Be Laugh'd At in Any Way'

In Houston the autumnal equinox arrived at 4:47 a.m. Saturday. Heedlessly sleeping, we missed it. The Latin etymology is pleasingly literal, no trickiness: aequus (“equal”) + nox (“night”) = equinox. On Friday I reread the ode, ate two apples, some strawberries and a bowl of grapes (“And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core”), fortified for the sun’s crossing of the celestial equator. The day was warm, dry and clear, summer-like to a Northerner, autumnal to Texans. Mushrooms grow in fairy rings on the lawns. Keats was in Winchester on Sept. 21, 1819, when he wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds:

“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 the stubble fields so much as now--Aye better than the chilly green of the 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. I hope you are better employed than in gaping after weather.”
What he “composed upon it” two days earlier, of course, was the great ode. After posting his letter to Reynolds that evening, Keats returned and started a letter to Richard Woodhouse. “You like Poetry better—so you shall have some I was going to give Reynolds--,” he writes, and transcribes “To Autumn” for Woodhouse to read. He breaks off, sleeps, and finishes his letter the following day, Sept. 22. Keats writes:

“O that I could [write] something agrest rural, pleasant, fountain-vo[i]c’d—not plague you with unconnected nonsense—But things won’t leave me alone …There is too much inexperience of live, and simplicity of knowledge in it—which might do very well after one’s death—but not while one is alive. There are very few would look to the reality. I intend to use more finesse with the Public. It is possible to write fine things which cannot be laugh’d at in any way.”
Seventeen months later, Keats, age twenty-five, was dead. “To Autumn” effectively marks the end of his poetic career. Laura Demanski has winningly described it as “a perfect and magical piece of writing.”

1 comment:

Bruce Floyd said...

In "John Keats: The Complete Poems," the editor John Barnard says, "To Autumn" is often regarded as the most achieved of Keats's odes." And then he quotes Bate: "The 'Ode to a Nightingale' is less 'perfect' though a greater poem."

I have never thought so, though it's daunting to disagree with the great scholar W. Jackson Bate.

"To Autumn" to me has always been the reconcilation with with the mortality and transience of the human predicament Keats talks about in the previous three great odes, vexing problems neither art nor nature can resolve. It is a poem of serene acceptance.