John Keats' place in literary history isn't limited to his poetry: he was a prolific letter writer, too. Between 1814 until late 1820, Keats maintained correspondence with his family and friends, often discussing his views on life and his developing philosophies of poetry. It’s through these letters that Keats expressed his thoughts on “the poetical character" to Richard Woodhouse in 1818, and his idea of “negative capability” to George Keats towards the end of the same year. He frequently included lines or entire poems in his letters. In addition to doubling as historical documents and mirrors of London’s early nineteenth century society, Keats’ letters offer a remarkable insight into his work.
In September 1819, Keats enclosed "To Autumn" in a letter to Richard Woodhouse, along with a brief section of the unfinished “Hyperion” and the beginnings of a French sonnet. He reveals his frustrations with work, in spite of his poetic accomplishments of the previous months: 1819 was Keats’ “miracle year,” as he wrote many of his most famous poems like “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in quick succession. He lamented his verse to Woodhouse: “O that I could write something agrestrual, pleasant, fountain-voiced— not plague you [with] unconnected nonsense—But things won’t leave me alone.”
"The poems and the life," writes Jon Mee, "have often been understood in terms of a ripening towards a 'mellow fruitfulness.' Reading the letters—which continue for a year after the composition of 'To Autumn'—reveals the more painful spectacle of a brilliant tragi-comedian forced from the stage before his time." In November 1820, Keats wrote to Charles Armitage Brown that he felt he was “leading a posthumous existence,” with his “real life” back in London “having past.” “I always made an awkward bow,” he said, drawing out his goodbye.
“I shall no longer live upon hopes,” he’d told Woodhouse, in the same letter containing the verse of “To Autumn.” The poem’s understated mediation on the transience of life leads to the speaker’s graceful acceptance of death. In autumn’s remaining time, he comes to see fruitful possibility, rather than the bitter, inevitable futility of winter. For the moment, it’s alright to sit carelessly on the granary floor, to grow drunk and drowsy on the smell of poppies. At the same time, it is awareness of the future that makes these moments precious: by choosing to abide in the present without mourning for the past, the speaker is able to enjoy the moment, truly living in spite of impending death.