4) How Keats first smoothed the mood of the English Ode; how I first followed my muse in pursuit of his lead (after a hiatus of exactly 200 years)

As I write, in Autumn 2019, it’s the 200th anniversary of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness that Keats immortalised in the last of his Great Odes, and, to borrow his own phrase, it’s loveliness increases.

Just as Autumn mellows the mood of the Summer, so Keats mellowed the mood of his odes. The Pindaric Ode with its turn, contrary counter-turn and conclusive stand, does have the potential to give the impression that the poet can’t make up their mind, as if they were in the middle of a turmoil of contradictions when they set pen to paper. But what Keats shows in his ode To Autumn is that the shift that occurs between first and second stanzas doesn’t have to introduce a strongly contradictory point of view nor a dramatic shift in mood; it can be a subtler change of approach.

A contrary point of view is voiced only very briefly in To Autumn:

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?

But it is given short shrift in the very next line:

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too

To be more Pindaric, Keats could have made the whole second stanza be about a yearning for Spring, before finally batting Spring away in the third stanza and concluding that Autumn has her beauty too. But he didn’t, and I think he made a good choice. Instead he continues in II to describe beautiful Autumn scenes as in I, with the only shift being that now he has gone out of the cottage garden into the wider countryside, and also now he personifies Autumn as a goddess. No turmoil, just a continuing mellow mood in keeping with the mellow season.

This subtler and more mellow approach provides, I think, a great model for the odes to go in our glorified poetical gratitude journals, unless in particular cases your muse steers you towards something more dramatic.

The series of odes that Keats wrote in 1819 – the Great Odes – all take the form of the English Ode, or variations thereon. Indeed the English Ode is alternatively known as the Keatsian Ode. The earlier odes of this series have a somewhat restless, agitated feel, and it’s more in their stanza structure than in their content that they relate to our own topic: the Gratitude Ode, simply because that structure is a good choice for a poem that combines lyric and dignified qualities to sing the praises of something in a suitably measured and respectful yet still impassioned manner.

Then he wrote his ode On Melancholy, and now found a more settled philosophy with which to move forward. To summarise, the ode advises us that when faced with the sorrow at beauty that fades, instead of drowning out that emotion, we should listen to it and act upon it by going out and absorbing the beauty of things as much as possible before they fade.

Then in is last ode, To Autumn, he not only took his own advice, but also found the missing part of the puzzle, the key realisation missing from On Melancholy. When I say he followed his ow advice, I mean he actually does what he recommends in On Melancholy, rather than just talking about it, and simply focuses on the beauty of nature, rather than letting various conflicting winds of thought distract him from it, as he does rather in the earlier odes, and without the restless agitating and excessive flights of fancy of those earlier poems. And when I say he found the missing piece of the puzzle, I mean he realised that the whole business of beauty that is doomed to fade was really a bit of a melodramatic, maudlin, Shakespearean illusion. When Spring and Summer fade, new seasons come that have beauty of their own. Bravo!

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too

So now not only does he drink beauty in deeply when he finds it, but also knows that even while beauty is fading in one form, it is appearing in another. The first handwritten version shows that for a moment he was considering starting the second verse with ‘Who hath not seen thee, for thy haunts are many?’ rather than the line he ended up choosing, perhaps for rhyming purposes: ‘ Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?’ These many haunts mirror the new found realisation that the haunts of beauty are many. No need then to sorrow excessively at the fading of its expression in one particular form. This also hints at Platonic philosophy: there are many beautiful things and they come and go, but the universal, eternal essence of beauty which they all share exists without tarnishing on a different level of existence, the Realm of Ideas. Not that this makes it OK to bugger nature up with a man-made mass extinction, of course. (Autumn season of tropical fruitfulness?)

So On Autumn, the greatest of the Great Odes, is a fine model for the Gratitude Ode: a descriptive English ode with subtle rather than dramatic shifts between the stanzas, as gratitude cannot exist very well in a mind consumed with swirling tempests of contradicting thought, but comes through better in a calmer, more mindful state.

A few thoughts about the structure and rhyme scheme of To Autumn. It’s a slight variation of the standard English/Keatsian ode. Instead of the ten line a,b,a,b,c,d,e,c,d,e, it’s eleven lines with two ds at the end before the final e: a,b,a,b,c,d,e,c,d,d,e. Or at least it is in stanzas II & III. In the first stanza there is a slight variation to the order. It’s actually, a,b,a,b,c,d,e, d,c,c,e. I don’t know why. I like to think he had his reasons, although ‘even Homer nods’. In fact in some of the other Great Odes we similarly find the odd errant verse where he was relaxed about the order of his c,d,es. As long as each c,d and e had it’s rhyming partner, he wasn’t overly bothered about the order.

He could very easily have adjusted verse I of To Autumn to make it fit with the same, more logical scheme of II and III. In fact this could be used here as an illustration of how easy it is to juggle things around to make them fit a scheme. You might be able to do better, but what I would do first of all is swap these two lines:

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

And also swap the ‘and’ and ‘to’ in their beginnings.

To fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
And bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees

But then we have ‘fruit’ in two consecutive lines, as the previous lines are:

Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

We can’t have such a clumsy repetition of ‘fruit’. Also, by swapping these two lines, we’re mentioning ‘core’ before we’ve introduced ‘apples’, which is a little arse-about-face. OK, so a couple more tweaks and these things are quite easily resolved. So, I give you: To Autumn, the 200th Anniversary Version

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
With ripeness fill all apples to the core
And with their weight bend the moss’d cottage-trees.
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Only the most ardent Keats fan would notice the difference, I think.

Anyway, just as Keats took his own advice rather than just talk about it, I felt I ought to try a mellow mood ode myself. When I wrote An English Ode I liked the shift to a contrary point of view in stanza II prior to a resolute reaffirmation of stanza I in stanza III. I guess it made me feel like a Proper Poet, but it was also an authentic replication of my thought process.

But I wouldn’t want to be constricted by that pattern; I wouldn’t want to churn out the same type of thing again and again just for the sake of it. The idea of an English Ode that was still tripartite but where the shifts between stanzas were more subtle and less dramatic became appealing. So I wrote this ode to a lovely stretch of the canal on the edge of Bath near Widcombe, and of the opportunities it affords for relaxing and picturesque lunch hours for those prepared to walk the short distance out of town.

An Ode to Bath Locks

The walk is short from bustling Bath’s South Gate
To where the towpath leads to Yesteryear
Although the walk is short, the change is great
The city’s noises fade and disappear
    There by a trickling lock I sat
    And of old verse read this and that
Of Pope and Shelley, Tennyson and Keats
    The skylark with its song sublime
    The Odyssey in coupled rhyme
The tale of what the Lotus Eater eats

The town below has treasures of its own
Those houses built in stately Georgian style
With classic forms carved into local stone
From bridge to Holbourne is a golden mile!
    There’s courtyards, cafes, shops and nooks
    And all the World, from cops to crooks
Goes in a great parade before the eye
    And varied music fills the air
    As buskers placed in every square
Compete to stir the hearts of passers by

But if I never chose to make the climb
Up here above the noisy urban bowl
There would be in such laziness a crime
Against myself, and Nature, and the Soul 
    This place removed, this place away
    Affords a lunch-time holiday
That leaves the office workday far behind
    There’s nowhere that could better feed
    The hunger of my present need
For quiet time, and calm, and peace of mind.