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.
That’s the final stanza of John Keats’s “To Autumn,” a poem that many deem the best poem ever written in English. Its perfection aside, I love it because I love autumn best of all the seasons, and I love words best of all the artistic media. I admire Keats because his images resonate with me deeply and I love the suggestiveness of the line, “And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.”
A Love for the John Keats Poem
The whole poem teems with suggestion, with activity, with life. Hedge-crickets sing. I have no idea what a hedge-cricket is, but I can imagine their song. To quote another line from Keats, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter still.”
I mourn with the wailful choir of small gnats, and I all but bleat with the full-grown lambs, and whistle with the red-breast from a garden-croft.
Such images, such words, such beauty. This is the same man who wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Those words, which on their face seem absurdly reductionistic, stir me deeply and persuade me Keats was right.
Finding the True Beauty in Life This Autumn
What useful truth do we have but the truth that we feel, and what do we feel most deeply but that which is conveyed by beauty? The poet-physician, William Carlos Williams, put it like this: “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”
It is in the images, in the beauty, that we find the truest expressions of what it means to be human, the fears and hopes and loves that infuse the images with all that we want to say, try to say, but can’t.
While we still have life to live and breaths to take, let us savor the beauty that we find and the beauty we create. Let us not settle for the surface meaning, but honor our one chance on this earth by going as deeply as we can, trying as persistently as we are able to apprehend, appreciate, and even love what lies beneath, behind, and beyond.
Let us always listen for the gathering swallows as they twitter in the skies.