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Beech Trees towards Windmill Hill (watercolour) by Bob Rudd RI

John Keats, Eco-poet Peter Abbs sheds new light on a much-loved classic

The canonisation of a work of art can act as a death sentence. Familiarity anaesthetises. Take John Keats’s To Autumn. The poem has been so exposed, so anthologised, so examined that we no longer feel it on our pulse or hear it afresh in the acoustic chambers of our mind. Yet it remains one of the great eco-poems in the English language. Indeed, in this poem the concept of biophilia finds a further and unexpected meaning.

On 21 September 1819, two days after the composition of To Autumn, the young Keats wrote to a friend: “How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it… I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now… Somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”

“How beautiful” … “How fine” – the emotion is one of a keen Apollonian joy before the beauty of the season. In his letter, Keats also mentions the poet Chatterton, linking him to the love of Nature and the power of the authentic word: “I always somehow associate Chatterton with autumn. He is the purest writer in the English language… ’Tis genuine English idiom in English words.” But this remark is also deeply revealing about Keats’s own new poem about the season. For he knows that, after a long and bewildering apprenticeship, he has at last broken the spell of Milton’s Latinate English in favour of a more direct Shakespearian form of address. He has found what he calls “the true voice of feeling”, his own distinctive idiom for conveying his vision of the how and wherefore of things.

Crucially, the poem is not about autumn; but of autumn. It is not a descriptive poem, as many critics blandly assume. Rather, it is a celebration of grounded being through the power of language. While the ‘I’ of the poem is nowhere explicit – there is not a single use of the first-person pronoun – it is implicit in every sensitive observation and as vibrant as electricity. As the poem builds architectonically, the season with all its various manifestations and qualities becomes a complex metaphor for what Keats, anticipating the philosophy of Heidegger, calls “Being in the World”. Both capitalised,

52 Resurgence & Ecologist

November/December 2019

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