Tuesday, September 19, 2017

`Aye Better Than the Chilly Green of Spring'

“It is picture and no more.”

What an odd thing to say about a poem, even one written by an Imagist. In fact the observation was made by an Imagist about a sturdily non-Imagistic poem, John Keats’ “To Autumn.” You’ll find it in Amy Lowell’s two-volume biography of the poet, John Keats (1925). Lowell is quite smitten by Keats, but about the ode she writes:

“Its emotion, so far as it has any, is the mere delight of sensation received through the eyes, ears, nose, and even touch, the touch of wind and sun on an eager skin. To Autumn is an almost completely impersonal poem. The poet himself is merely an exquisitely sensitive recording medium. The charm of the poem lies in just this fact, that nothing comes between us and the day Keats wished us to see. There are no echoes, no literary images, all is clear, single, and perfectly attuned.”

One seldom encounters so blindly mistaken a reading of a poem. Lowell seems to unquestioningly accept the Romantic claptrap about inspiration. That Keats was inspired, I have no doubt. That he labored at his ode and didn’t merely transcribe it from on high is also true. On this date, Sept. 19, in 1819, Keats wrote “To Autumn,” the last and greatest of his odes. That day he had 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 is, he wrote “To Autumn.” Keats was not yet twenty-four years old, and would be dead in another seventeen months. It is his last indisputably great poem, and is in no way “impersonal.” My favorite memory from my return to the university to complete my B.A. occurred in the fall of 2002. I was doing independent study in Henry James. My professor’s office was on the third floor of a building in upstate New York, on a campus thick with red and black oaks. Most of the leaves had turned dark red. We chatted about the view and she recited the opening line of the ode, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” I joined her and promptly garbled the final two words: “fruitful mellowness.” I mentioned that Nathan Zuckerman quotes the poem in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and we resumed, limping through the rest of the poem, filling in when the other blanked on the next phrase, getting only the first stanza complete.

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