We think of autumn as a time of relaxation and celebration: the year winds down, the air grows cooler, and summer's greenery fades to a vibrant display of rust and gold. We speak of the season's beauty, and often mourn its passing. But we may not think as much of the imminent decay this beauty foreshadows. Winter approaches as the leaves begin to change, bringing darker, shorter days and grey, dreary weather.
John Keats' "To Autumn," one of the most celebrated poems in English Literature, allows the dark side of the season to exist alongside its joy. The knowledge that autumn will soon fade does not detract from the season's happiness or from the enjoyment and leisure one experiences during its few weeks. In its beauty, Keats sees the promise of death, but all is not lost. Although the natural world will darken and decay, spring will come again. Autumn will load each vine and branch with the heavy, plentiful fruits of a year's worth of labor, the granary will be filled to its brim, the cider press will squeeze the last drops from every fruit it touches.
"To Autumn" is the last of the poet's famous Odes, coming on the heels of "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in 1819. In the following year, Keats' health steeply declined. Due to the severity of his tuberculosis, Keats was advised by his doctors to spend the winter in a drier climate. Joseph Severn, a friend of Keats, accompanied the young poet to Italy, where Keats would die on February 24, 1821.
Although we should always be cautious when reading a poet's biography into his work, "To Autumn" resonates more powerfully when considered in the context of Keats' final months. Those beautiful summer days were among the last he'd see. At the same time, Keats had found happiness through his love for Fanny Brawne, even though they were unable to marry. Ultimately, the poem is not just an ode to autumn: it demonstrates Keats' coming to terms with the knowledge of his own eventual death, and his decision to enjoy the time he has left instead of mourning his future.