Keats' Poems and Letters

Keats' Poems and Letters Summary and Analysis of "To Autumn", "On the Sonnet", and "Bright Star"

Summary of "To Autumn":

This is an ode that extolls the beauty and fullness of autumn. The first stanza describes how autumn, a "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" (1), conspires with the sun to fill up vines and trees with fruit and to help produce various crops. In the second stanza, Keats likens various people working at the end-of-autumn harvest to the season itself: a granary-worker, a reaper in the field asleep, a "gleaner" (one who gathers grain after it has been reaped), and a worker at a cider-press. In the third stanza, Keats rhetorically asks, "Where are the songs of Spring?" (23), but tells the reader not to think of these melodies. Autumn itself possesses the beautiful songs of "the soft-dying day" (25), the mourning song of the gnats, the bleating of lambs, the singing of crickets, and the songs of "the redbreast" and swallows.

Analysis of "To Autumn":

As opposed to Keats' "Ode on Melancholy", for example, this poem does not describe a quest or a challenge; rather, "To Autumn" is composed of quiet, staid musings on a beautiful season. Structurally, this poem is written in three eleven-line stanzas of rhyming iambic pentameter. In the beginning of each stanza, Keats declares a theme, and over the ensuing lines presents varying examples of that theme. The first stanza is primarily one of activity. Autumn and the sun conspire to “load and bless with fruit” (3-4) the vines, “bend with apples” (5) the trees, “swell the gourd” and “plump the hazel shells" (7). This is a picture of abundance and of the fruits of hard work.

In stanza II, Keats uses personification to describe autumn (thought, by some critics, to be represented as a goddess) in the forms of humans at various tasks. The softness of autumn is echoed in a grainer's hair "soft-lifted by the winnowing wind" (15). The next example, of a reaper asleep at the task "while thy hook/ Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers" (17-18), makes reference to living creatures being "spared" death. (This theme is also represented in this poem by the coming winter.) The passage of time, always at the forefront of Keats' mind, is referred to as the worker at a cider-press watches "the last oozings, hours by hours" (21-22). This image could be seen as evoking the last moments before winter, or even death, arrives.

By asking the rhetorical questions “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?” (23) in the opening of stanza III, Keats leads the reader to briefly think of the arguably fairer season. But he ultimately argues that “thou [autumn] hast thy music too” (24). The "music" he describes is not always straightforwardly happy. Gnats "mourn" in "a wailful choir" (27) and their numbers sink or float depending on whether "the light wind lives or dies" (29). (Again, Keats' imagery echoes both the death of the season and physical mortality.) Keats assures us, however, that winter has not come yet, and that the world is still very much vital as "gathering swallows twitter in the skies" (33) in anticipation of their migration. He seems here to favor equanimity in the face of mortality, encouraging the readers to savor rich autumn for as long as they can.

Summary of "On the Sonnet":

The narrator decries the fact that the sonnet (and other formal poetry) "constrains" (4) English with "dull rhymes" (1). He likens "fetter'd" (3) English here to Andromeda, an ancient Greek mythological figure who was chained to a rock as a sacrificial offering to the sea god Poseidon. The narrator suggests that, "if we must be constrain'd" (4), we can at least find a form of poetry which suitably fits "the naked foot of Poesy"(6). He suggests that we should use the Lyre as a musical example and that, as in music, we should "weigh the stress/ Of every chord" (7-8) to make sure poetry is pleasing to the ear. He also suggests that we be careful with "sound and syllable" (10) -- as careful as the parsimonious King Midas with his gold -- to ensure that no sound is wasted. Finally, in finding a more fitting poetic form, we can make sure that the Muse (poetry) will "be bound with garlands of her own" (14).

Analysis of "On the Sonnet":

Although this poem is ostensibly critical of the sonnet, it generally adheres to a sonnet structure, using fourteen lines of rhyming iambic pentameter. The poem starts out with an AB rhyme scheme, suggesting that it will be either a Shakespearean or a Petrarchan sonnet. However, the third line is a C, a rhyme not in concord with the initial two. Keats repeats this surprising pattern in the next three lines: ABD. He subtly subverts the traditional sonnet structure in this way.

By mentioning the Lyre, Keats invites the reader to dwell on the aural qualities of poetry, much as a musician weighs each chord. In lines 7-9, Keats uses enjambment (the continuation of a thought across two or more lines before reaching an end-stop) to hold the reader in suspense. By suggesting that we "be/ Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown" (11-12), he compares modern poetry to older verse; his suggestion is that we may not be able to surpass past poetic achievements. Keats concludes that there is no way to write poetry without some formal constraint. The final four lines of the poem, with their traditional DE DE rhyme structure, represent this shift in opinion. He is, ultimately and despite his earlier protests, establishing himself as part of the sonnet-writing tradition.

Summary of "Bright Star":

The narrator wishes that he were as "stedfast" -- as unchanging -- as a star. A star is "hung aloft" (2) in the sky, watching the natural processes of the earth with "eternal lids apart" (3). The narrator describes what a star's view of the world would be: the "moving waters" (5) of oceans and rivers, snow-capped mountaintops, and valleys also covered in snow. However, rather than be a distant spectator of the world, the narrator would be pleased to stay, unchanged, in the arms of his love. He would rather have his head "pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast" (10), and observe "its soft swell and fall" (11) as his lover breathes, than find himself anywhere else.

Analysis of "Bright Star":

Keats may well have written this poem with Fanny Brawne in mind; in an 1819 letter to her, Keats had written the following: "I will pray, pray, pray to your star like a Hethen." The poem addresses the competing themes of remoteness and coldness versus closeness and warmth, the unchangeable versus objects in flux, and the lived world versus the imagined world.

The "star" that Keats describes is most likely Polaris, the North Star, the only one that remains unmoving in the sky. It is described in "lone splendor" and its task -- watching the natural processes of the earth as they continue -- itself sounds cold and lonely. Keats employs religious language at several points: the waters of the earth are engaged in a "priestlike task" (5) of ablution, and the "new soft-fallen mask/ Of snow upon the mountains and the moors" (8-9) replaces the earth's soiledness with whiteness (purity). These natural processes are described with some sense of detachment. The star itself is personified as "nature's...Eremite" (4), a religious hermit.

In opposition to this rather sterile world, the narrator describes the mortal world as being constantly in flux: his love's breast is "ripening" (10), which signals a constantly changing state. Further, as he listens to her breathing, he is in a state of "sweet unrest" (12), a typical Keatsian paradox. While the star has no choice in keeping its "eternal lids apart" (3) -- since everything about the star is metaphorically frozen in place -- the narrator, a mortal, is legitimately "awake" (12) to his love.