Isn’t To Autumn about – Autumn?

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First appeared in The Guardian

Tom Paulin’s minute analysis of Keats’s great poem is so suffused in his own ideology that he completely misses the poem’s very obvious subject

Some may contend that Tom Paulin’s recent Marxist reading of To Autumn in the Guardian helped them to a richer appreciation of Keats’s art. I contend that he proves nothing; and though he provides some interesting context, he uses it to distort Keats’s art.

Here’s the poem. Here’s a traditional analysis. Here’s Paulin’s. One stays with the text and cites written evidence. The other stays with the text, cites written evidence, and is pure conjecture. One is literary criticism, the other imposes social, economic, political guesswork on literature.

I’ve read the text closely, tried to put myself inside Keats’s head, and come to the conclusion that ‘To Autumn’ is about…Autumn: transition, passage of time, the inevitability of change, the cycle of life. Based on available evidence it’s difficult to justify an interpretation that goes much beyond the words on the page.

Keats’s letters refer to the beauty of the season and “stubble fields”, and combined with the poem’s references to the “maturing sun”, the “fruit with ripeness to the core”, the “missing songs of Spring” and its company of gnats, lambs and swallows produce unalloyed images, thoughts and feelings that I think favour a literal interpretation.

It’s true that Keats supported political reform, that he was quite aware of the massacre at St Peter’s Field near Manchester; and that he was in London when Henry Hunt, the Radical orator, returned there for trial. “Somewhere,” as Aileen Ward puts it in her National Book Award-winning biography, “in the clapping, cheering, handkerchief-waving crowd Keats wandered, caught up in the surge of revolutionary ardour”.

Several short pages beyond this quote, Ward introduces ‘To Autumn’ as Keats’s most “perfect and untroubled” poem. No mention of reform, Manchester, massacre or Hunt, and a contradiction of Paulin’s assertions of unsettlement, anxiety or discomfort. This, Ward says, is Keats’s most impersonal poem, he is completely lost in his images, and “the images are presented as meaning simply themselves”.

She does say that Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’ was inspired by Peterloo – a reasonable interpretation of a poem subtitled “Written on the occasion of the massacre carried out by the British Government at Peterloo, Manchester 1819”.

In the five pages he devotes to ‘To Autumn’ in his multi-award-winning biography of Keats, Walter Jackson Bate, another authoritative scholar, makes no mention of reform, or massacre, or unrest. He calls the poem “entirely concrete, and self sufficient in and through its concreteness”.

Here’s Keats:

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-eaves run; To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 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’erbrimm’d their clammy cells.

Here’s Paulin: “The susurruses in the first line begin this, and the word ‘mists’ takes us back to Milton, whom Keats read very closely: Milton speaks of the ‘mists and intricacies of state’, and characterises Satan as a mist. The word ‘conspiring’ alludes to what the Tory press called the ‘Manchester conspiracy’ – the meeting on St Peter’s Fields, where the massacre took place.”

Paulin then recruits rhyme and assonance to argue that the poem is political. Sun, blood and run bring guns to mind; oozing recalls Peterloo; inside “fill, still, and will lurks ill” and therefore anxiety and fear of death; loaded apple trees are prey to slugs, so prone to rot. The “i’s in river, sinking, wind, lives, hilly, crickets, sing, whistles, gathering, twitter” are “deliberately unattractive, unsettling”. The words “bend” and later in the poem, “laden” belong to the language of power, barred clouds and “clammy cells,” bring up a prison image, a far-off echo of a Manchester sweatshop. Poppies as Red Coats and gunpowder, hooks as swords, stubble as post mortem chin growth, proletarian gnats, protesting hedge crickets, Trojan swallows.

As Stephen Crowe puts it in his entertaining new blog, “Paulin finally proves beyond doubt that the work is “an elaborate proto-Marxist illustration of the master-slave dialectic in the context of agricultural labour, ending in a passionate call for the immediate assassination of George III…forcefully revealing John ‘Che’ Keats’s hitherto undisclosed status as the originator of the radical trade union movement.”

Paulin’s exegesis has a number of things going for it. It doesn’t use jargon. It stays close to the text. It’s well written and interesting. What it doesn’t do, however, is convince. Like the argument in favour of the existence of God, it lacks reasonable evidence. Furthermore, it fails to explain why, if Keats had intended to produce a political poem, he didn’t write more directly, as Shelley did in the ‘Mask of Anarchy’. It’s one thing to be subtle, quite another to be incomprehensible. Why bother if no one, save a Marxist scholar like Paulin, gets it?

With his accomplished hermeneutics, Tom Paulin proves former critic Dale Peck’s point about criticism’s trade secret: you can find meaning in anything if you look hard enough.

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