By Phin Upham
Paul Valery’s aphorism “’man thinks, therefor I am’ said the universe” epitomizes the idea expressed by Keats’ in “Autumn.” The act of observing does more than recognize, for Keats, it creates. The concept of length, for example, is not measured but created with the invention of the ruler. In ”Autumn,” Keats revolutionizes the usual understanding of autumn by allowing the act of observation to play a role in its creation. For Keats, the bees do not hum, and the grain overflow because it is autumn, instead, because the bees hum and the grain overflows, therefor it is autumn. This unlikely juxtaposition of cause and effect shows itself most clearly in the second to last stanza. Man’s role in autumn is strangely passive. Autumn seems defined by those aspects that man can observe – touch, taste, feel, see, smell. Man observes and names, but seems distinct from the process that so affects the rest of nature.
“Where are the songs of spring?” asks the third stanza. “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.” Autumn’s songs, the poem continues, lie in the humming of knats, the bleating of sheep, the chirping of crickets, and the singing of birds. All these sounds create a symphony of sound that is organized, not by the musicians, but by Man. It is the observer that reads order and purpose into the cacophony, and thus creates music. Each part of the song plays its part without an understanding of its role in the whole. Only man observes, and therefor creates a totality. The fruit ripens on the vines, the poppies scent the air. All of these aspects of nature happen not in the service of a greater plan, but instead each for its own reason, in its own time. It is man, Keats shows us, who conceives order in this chaos.
Rationality is thus more than an organ of perception, it is an organ of creation. A man observing autumn is much like a poet working with words. A certain conjunction of words become something more. Separate parts are joined into one. Rationality and imagination are joined. Somewhat disturbing is man’s passive role in his creation of autumn. He seems removed from nature in a way that Elliot’s man in The Waste Land is not (with the resurrection of old loves). Man seems a constant – unaffected by, simply observing, and thus creating, autumn. Does rationality ultimately separate us from nature, or are we joined to nature through our ability to create? “Autumn” never explicitly answers this question. But the choice of autumn over spring seems a momentous choice. Keats wrote his great poetry while dying of tuberculosis, in the full face of death. Thus a poems about the bountiful ending of summer seems especially poignant. And perhaps this provides us with the answer to our question. By writing this poem and including his own life into it, Keats’ poem becomes a bounty of his own personal autumn. Thus man and nature are unified in imaginative creation.
About the Author
Phin Upham is a frequent contributor and featured author on the Academic Ledger. His writing focuses on current trends in technology and investing, as well as philosophy. To find out more, visit his website at PhinUpham.com.