To Autumn, 200 Years Later

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The tombstone of John Keats in Rome. All he wanted on the stone was the phrase at the bottom, but his friends felt more needed to be said.

Here’s one metric of the honest-to-God decline of Western civilization for me:

Just four days ago, the pinnacle moment of one of the great years in the history of intellectual achievement went virtually unnoticed. I’ve been writing about it on my Facebook page all year, but even I was detained from honoring the bicentennial moment because of a onslaught of fake news directed at me as an elected official (details omitted).

When lies destroy a year-long promise to remember an intellectual achievement, that’s when you know we aren’t Greece, and we aren’t even Rome anymore. We’re going down, hard; brace for impact.

I have three classes to teach at my university tomorrow, but I’m going to write this essay tonight in order to belatedly keep a promise to my muse, the poet John Keats. No “Soothest sleep” for me; I have a debt to repay.

You see, exactly 200 years ago Keats erupted in poetic gushers in his “annus mirabilis,” or “miracle year.” And this phrase isn’t used lightly.

Intellectually speaking, if you Google “annus mirabilis” you mostly just get Isaac Newton in 1666 (invention of calculus and classical physics)and Albert Einstein in 1905 (photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, E= mc²). Wow. But Keats’s accomplishment is forgotten, even on the Wikipedia entry for the phrase.

It shouldn’t be. I’m a physical scientist who studies extreme events, and I think what Keats did in the poetic realm matches what Newton and Einstein did in my realm.

From January through September of 1819, the 23-year-old Keats created an array and level of poetry of such beauty, in such concentrated bursts, that it reads like a miracle. Here is an incomplete list:

  • January: The Eve of St. Agnes
  • February: Eve of St. Mark
  • March: “Why did I laugh tonight?” (sonnet)
  • April: La Belle Dame Sans Merci
  • Late April and May, the mother lode in rapid succession, during three weeks or so: Ode to Psyche, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy, and Ode on Indolence. Also the sonnet “To Sleep.” You try doing that. On your mark, get set, go.
  • June-July: Lamia
  • August-September: The Fall of Hyperion
  • September 19, 1819, the “perfect ode,” To Autumn. (More on that one in a minute.)

Reflect on this list for a moment. Even if you’re only casually familiar with poetry in the English language, you’ve heard of some of these. The Urn. The Nightingale. “And no birds sing.” In fact, if you are familiar with John Keats at all, these are probably the poems you know best by him. But did you realize that all these poems were written within the same nine months? In some instances, with regard to most of the “great odes,” all were written within just three WEEKS?!

Short of the miracle of human gestation in a woman’s body, it’s hard to think of anyone in Western culture who’s been more creative in such a short span of time. Newton, Einstein, Keats. If we include the Indian subcontinent, I nominate the mathematician Ramanujan. I don’t personally know of any competitors in the arts and letters. Keats was well beyond his own muses, Shakespeare and Milton, in accomplishments at the same age — that’s what my own Norton Anthology says.

Keats used to be taught widely in English courses in the U.S., but it is my impression that the British Romantics have fallen out of favor — the men, at least. They were the last into the canon, and the first out when the canon was quite rightly blown up and expanded to include the other voices from other rooms of their own. But just because Keats made the mistake of being born in the 19th century, and dying at age 25 from tuberculosis, shouldn’t land him in the also-ran, yawn-if-we-have-time remainder bin of literature. He was a bantam rooster of the non-elite classes of London, not some prissy elite we’re happy to jettison in favor of diversity. Even the posthumous drawings and paintings of him seem designed to create the sense of wan irrelevance to our era, even when he was in fact the exact opposite, trained in science and a model for self-improvement.

There are many less-and-less-read books about Keats, so I’ll not belabor the point. I will, however, point out why we need Keats’s life, letters (the most famous in English literature), and poetry now, more than ever.

I think we still live in the Romantic era. The issues that the Shelleys and Wordsworth and Coleridge grappled with, from the modern Prometheus of science to the growth of minds, are still with us. The Romantics looked inward into the soul and outward into nature, not so much up to God, and that’s where we are in 2019. But down that path lies not just self-knowledge but self-indulgence. Or, just plain Self. Look around — is that not where we are in 2019? Drowning in Self?

I don’t find that most of the Romantics can help us out of that trap of narcissism. Percy Bysshe indulged; Lord knows Byron did. Coleridge was Robert Downey Jr. a few generations early. Wordsworth iced over into a kind of self-pretension. Romanticism has as much affinity for toxic self-reference and self-reverence as hemoglobin has for carbon monoxide. And both lead to a kind of death. What Romanticism craves, also snuffs it out.

For me, John Keats, alone among the Romantics and with few peers in literature or life, resolves this paradox. And he does it with a preternatural ability to lose himself in his subject. And I mean, lose himself utterly, with a kind of “For whosoever will save his life will lose it… whosoever will lose his life… will save it” sense. When Keats wrote of the nightingale, he was the bird; even the literary critics can sense this in the words, cadence, rhyme, and my great UAB poetry professor Alan Perlis confirmed it. When Keats wrote of the urn, he became not “one with the urn,” but the urn itself. And so on.

But that sounds, ahem, academic. Keats, as we know from his letters to his friends and family, actually had this gift to a remarkable extent in real life. Like the Betazoids of the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, Keats was a born empath. This was his greatest gift, I contend, even beyond his ability to write poetry on the fly that soars past the laborious efforts of most of the “best in the business.” He lived in others, through others, and he sang their songs. He articulates this in his letters more than once. Here’s what he wrote to one of his friends in October 1818, articulating what would come out in the poetry of the miracle year:

A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no Identity — he is continually in for and filling some other body. The Sun — the Moon — the Sea, and men and women, who are creatures of impulse, are poetical, and have about them an unchangeable attribute; the poet has none, no identity — he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures.

But I think we’re all so full of ourselves — literally, full of ourselves — that we don’t hear him. (If we read the letters, that is.)

And this brings us to the belated anniversary of anniversaries for Keats, tied to nature.

As I type this, we are just two hours away from the autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. Two hundred years ago, just prior to this same equinox but in a colder climate, Keats was experiencing the fall weather that is now withheld from much of the U.S. and Europe until weeks later. He wrote his brother and sister-in-law about it, since they were far away, in Kentucky. Keats loved them and sent them money even when he didn’t have any to spare. He described for them the sights and sounds of their far-away London town. Then he wrote his friend Reynolds and recounted a specific walk he took along the same “beautifully clear” river he’d told his brother and sister-in-law about. Keats described the walk, famously:

How beautiful the season is now — How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather — Dian skies — I never liked stubble-fields so much as now — Aye better than the chilly green of the Spring. Somehow, a stubble-field 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.

And in one day, probably one afternoon or evening, perhaps even one hour, John Keats composed “the perfect ode,” the poem that even the poet’s poets call “perfect”:

To Autumn.

I’m not retyping the poem here. It’s at the link above.

If, after all this, I can’t get you to click on a link to go to Keats’s greatest poem, then the hell with it. You know you’ll click on anything else, especially those “Christie Brinkley’s daughter Sailor stuns in a tiny bikini” stories and “The worst dressed stars on the Emmys red carpet” lists. Just this once, click on a link to a poem, something that doesn’t take you to some variant of 21st-century clickbait porn.

And when you do that, and read To Autumn, what you’ll find is that Keats became autumn, in all its aspects. He lost himself completely, and gained the world’s recognition — at least for a century-plus, until we lost our way.

The poem is about senescence and death, and Keats had had premonitions, and was probably coming down with TB right around the time of the poem. But instead of blogging about his health concerns and focusing on himself, he is… words fail me here… beyond, both physically and poetically. Keats is beyond himself, beyond his fears, beyond Self, and beyond his peers.

The serenity of the poem is simultaneously the serenity of an early-fall “good football weather” day, and the peace that passeth all understanding as one enters the valley of the shadow of death. In To Autumn, Keats perfects his empathy as well as his poetry — without the twin perfections, it cannot be the “perfect ode.” It is the complete opposite of, and antidote to, the narcissism of the human condition, which we observe all around us at this moment in history, 200 years later. In 2019 we have fallen from Keats’s last autumnal image of “gathering swallows twitter in the skies,” to swallowing hard as we spy the President’s blathering Twitter full of lies.

As we revolve around the Sun and reach that day of equality and equanimity that Keats wrote of, I encourage you to learn more about this poet “whose name was writ in water,” in Keats’s sad self-assessment of his failure and anonymity. In this moment when it seems as if Self dares to ruin everything before it, even the planet itself, it is time to listen to those who have followed a different path. The poet John Keats was one of those people, and his words can inspire us as we head toward a dark winter.

Happy, Happy Autumn to the Northern Hemisphere!

A geography professor and meteorologist at UGA in Athens, GA. I write about news, sports, weather, climate, education, journalism, religion, poetry, the South.

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