In the past two years of the Literary Kitchen we have avoided the cliché of writing about Keats in the autumn. But it was MacNeice who – in the satiric poem ‘Homage to Clichés’ – wrote that the ‘automatic’, the ‘reflex’ or the ‘foreseen’ is strangely comforting. So here it is – a post on Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’.
‘Ode to Autumn’ is, in my opinion, the second finest of the six odes Keats wrote in 1819 (my favourite being ‘Ode to a Nightingale’). In it, Keats celebrates the season’s bountiful harvest and the rich, colourful beauty of the natural world which can ‘fill all fruit with ripeness to the core’. The skilful use of alliteration, consonance, assonance and rhyme encapsulate the harmony of man and nature, contributing to the musicality of the measured, unrushed iambic pentameter. In order to create stanzas sufficiently spacious to contain this ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, Keats remakes the stanza form he had used in several of the other odes by increasing the number of lines from 10 to 11.
Of course, Keats’s paean to autumn is shot through with a number of other narratives and suggestions. As in another great poem – ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ – the fruit has sensual connotations:
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferred
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcan to cedar’d Lebanon.
(‘The Eve of St Agnes’)
Yet both poems contrast such plentiful harvests with the onset of winter – a pattern in Keats which many have linked with his awareness of impending death. In ‘The Eve St Agnes’ we note that the fruits are preserved rather than fresh; as is always a risk in Keats, their sweetness is on the verge of becoming cloying. Although in ‘Ode to Autumn’ the apples are preserved by being turned into cider, there is a sense that such preservation is insufficient. The poem ends with endings: birds gather to migrate, the night is coming, the fields are bare.
Many other perspectives are possible when reading this poem. When I studied this poem at school, my teacher pointed out that Keats’s representation of autumn belied the contextual situation in England. In the years leading up to 1819, England saw famine, the introduction of the Corn Laws, and the Peterloo Massacre. For many people in England, the September in which Keats wrote this great ode was a month of want and despair rather than of beauty and a bounteous harvest. Yet why didn’t Keats write about this? Was it because, for him, autumn is a symbol rather than a reality? Because he was sheltered from the upheaval around him (unlikely)? Is Keats elegising a natural order of things which is passing away even as he approaches his own death? I don’t know the answers to these questions but if anyone out there does, please get in touch!
From a modern point of view, one might engage in an eco-critical reading of the poem. In the ode, man and nature appear to exist in complete harmony. Many elements of the ecosystem which are now in considerable peril (the bees which visit the ‘later flowers’, for example) thrive within the poem. Is this a vision of nature flourishing within a healthy relationship with man which can be applied to the twenty-first century, an era in which we seem to have lost respect and wonder for nature?
I seem to have finished this blogpost with more questions than answers so I may have to visit a library sometime soon. Hopefully the recipe below will be more satisfying! Although there is no fruit crumble in ‘Ode to Autumn’, I decided that it was too good an opportunity to miss out on this simple, seasonal recipe. I don’t normally follow any kind of recipe for crumble – I just put in what we have growing in the garden or sitting in the cupboard. The fun is in seeing how it turns out differently each time. So alter the recipe depending on what you have in.
|A handful of gooseberries|
|A handful of raspberries|
|A handful of wild strawberries|
|4 sticks of rhubarb|
|4 tablespoonfuls of sugar|
|1 tablespoonful of water|
|Cinnamon/ginger/nutmeg/mixed spice to taste|
|200g plain flour|
|3 tablespoons sugar|
|A handful of oats|
|1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C.|
|2. Prepare the fruit – wash and cut and place in the bottom of a ceramic oven dish. Mix in the sugar and the spices. Add a tablespoon of water. Put in the oven.|
|3. Mix the dry ingredients for the topping and then rub in the butter.|
|4. Remove the fruit from the oven and scatter the topping mixture over it.|
|5. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the fruit is cooked and bubbling round the sides of the dish and the topping is golden brown.|
|6. Serve hot with custard, cream, or crème fraiche.|