On John Keats’ influence of Thomas Hood’s “Ode To Autumn”
by Ann Neilson
I picked up a copy of English Romantic Poets a few years back, an anthology containing writers such as Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Beddoes—the typical English poets. In accordance of keeping up with my Fall series, I took to it and found a delightful poem I would like to share, by Thomas Hood (whom I’d never heard of, egad). However, I felt the poem needed a little more substance, rather than slapping it on the page and calling it a day. Little did I know that poet John Keats,
whose poetry I quite dislike, may have inspired Hood’s own poem. More on that now.
For convenience’s sake and due to the brief, albeit analytical nature of this discussion, here is a link to Keats’ “To Autumn.”
The two never met, according to Alvin Whitley in “Keats and Hood,” found in the Keats-Shelley Journal of Winter, 1956. They did, however, share friends, acquaintances, and professional contacts (33). After Keats’s death, Hood found himself immersed in the former’s circle and soon became close friends with John Hamilton Reynolds, who is considered to be Keats’s best friend (33-34). Not only was the connection formidable, but it was further cemented by Hood’s betrothal to Reynold’s sister, Jane (35). Although indirect, the familial and acquainted ties within the overarching group certainly interwove the connection between Hood and Keats.
Whitley states, “Though Keats and Hood never met in the flesh, they met in English poetic tradition. Lately it has been one of Hood’s major distinctions that he was the first English poet to react significantly to the stimulus of Keats. The tenor of his reaction is of some importance, for it was that of most of the nineteenth-century imitators of Keats, Hood retained, with considerable dilution, the mood, the music, the imagery, the diction, the atmosphere, the settings of Keats’s poems; he ignored…the philosophy of Keats” (39). This is significant to note as it will be the key to comparing Keats’s “To Autumn” and Hood’s own featured “Ode to Autumn.”
Of our two poems in question, Whitley continues in his article with an excellent analysis. Using the tools quoted above—mood, music, imagery, diction, atmosphere, and setting—Whitley expertly analyzes and compares the two poems, which I feel I could not do as great of justice as he. He explains,
…”Ode: Autumn” affords the best possible example. The poem opens with a personification of Autumn—as a male figure—standing shadowless and silent. The poet asks and answers a series of similar questions: where are the songs, the birds, the blooms of summer? They have fled, following the seasons. Some of the creatures of nature are pictured as rejoicing in their hoards; others have flown. Here the Autumn-Melancholy—a female figure—dwells, weeping and reckoning up the dead, while the world looks on sadly. The poem ends with an apostrophe to go and join her; there are enough withered things to make her bower, enough sadness, sorrowing, fear, and despair. Keats, of course, saw and captured the quiet beauty of mellow fruitfulness and fulfilled ripeness; behind his poem is a pagan acceptance of the natural cycle. Hood gives us a moody description; behind his poem is the vague sentiment: the end of things is always sad, alas and farewell…
The translation of imagery corresponds to the translation of mood. The essence of Keatsian imagery, I take it, lies in original preciseness and immediacy, usually grounded in sensual perceptions—”With beaded bubbles winking at the brim.” Abstractions are either personified or qualified in a strikingly new and exact way—”aching Pleasure,” “embalmed darkness.” The imagery of “To Autumn” is as precise as the scope of the subject will allow: “barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,” and even a cliché such as “rosy hue” is linked with “touch the stubble-plains” (41-42).
To continue off of Whitley’s analysis, and to conclude this post before presenting Hood’s poem—the major difference I notice between these two pieces, what brings them absolute distinction, is indeed the tone of the poems. Keats begs to know, “Where are the songs of spring? / Ay, Where are they?,” before complacently waving away this melancholic yearning and concluding, “Think not of them, thou [Autumn] hast thy music too,—” He awaits the renewal of Spring with optimism, finding idealistic pleasure in Autumn’s gloom, “Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft / The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft; / And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” Hood contrastingly bemoans the autumnal changes, giving us his “moody description”: “There is enough of sorrowing and quite / Enough of bitter fruits the earth doth bear,— / Enough of chilly droppings for her bowl; / Enough of fear and shadowy despair.” Nothing seems to redeem the forlorn atmosphere consuming Hood, whereas sprightly Keats muses acceptingly over the changes and takes them in stride. Hood is immersed and static, momentum haesit; Keats willingly moves forward with hope.
I saw old Autumn in the misty morn
Stand shadowless like Silence, listening
To silence, for no lonely bird would sing
Into his hollow ear from woods forlorn,
Nor lowly hedge nor solitary thorn;
Shaking his languid locks all dewy bright
With tangled gossamer that fell by night,
Pearling his coronet of golden corn.
Where are the songs of Summer?—With the sun,
Opening the dusky eyelids of the south,
Till shade and silence waken up as one,
And Morning sings with a warm odorous mouth.
Where are the merry birds?—Away, away,
On panting wings through the inclement skies,
Lest owls should prey
Undazzled at noon-day,
And tear with horny beak their lustrous eyes.
Where are the blooms of Summer?—In the west,
Blushing their last to the last sunny hours.
When the mild Eve by sudden Night is prest
Like tearful Proserpine, snatch’d from her flow’rs
To a most gloomy breast.
Where is the pride of Summer,—the green prime,—
The many, many leaves all twinkling?—Three
On the moss’d elm; three on the naked lime
Trembling,—and one upon the old oak tree!
Where is the Dryad’s immortality?—
Gone into mournful cypress and dark yew,
Or wearing the long gloomy Winter through
In the smooth holly’s green eternity.
The squirrel gloats on his accomplish’d hoard,
The ants have brimm’d their garners with ripe grain,
And honey been save stored
The sweets of summer in their luscious cells;
The swallows all have wing’d across the main;
But here the Autumn melancholy dwells,
And sighs her tearful spells
Amongst the sunless shadows of the plain.
Upon a mossy stone,
She sits and reckons up the dead and gone,
With the last leaves for a love-rosary;
Whilst all the wither’d world looks drearily,
Like a dim picture of the drownëd past
In the hush’d mind’s mysterious far-away,
Doubtful what ghostly thing will steal the last
Into that distance, gray upon the gray.
O go and sit with her, and be o’ershaded
Under the languid downfall of her hair;
She wears a coronal of flowers faded
Upon her forehead, and a face of care;—
There is enough of wither’d everywhere
To make her bower,—and enough of gloom;
There is enough of sadness to invite,
If only for the rose that died, whose doom
Is Beauty’s,—she that with the living bloom
Of conscious cheeks most beautifies the light:
There is enough of sorrowing, and quite
Enough of bitter fruits the earth doth bear,—
Enough of chilly droppings from her bowl;
Enough of fear and shadowy despair,
To frame her cloudy prison for the soul!
For further reading: an excellent literary analysis of Hood’s poem alone.