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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Keats’s Bees in the Ode ‘To Autumn’ – Written On This Day in 1819

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton

In this series, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Today, on 19th September 2019, we celebrate the bicentenary of Keats’s ode ‘To Autumn’ with an article by Ellen Nicholls discussing the depiction of bees in the poem.

The 19th September 2019 marks the 200-year anniversary of Keats’s composition of the ode ‘To Autumn’. As this date approaches, I am struck by how the ode continues to capture the imaginations of modern readers, transcending its sociohistorical boundaries to resonate with the attitudes and concerns of the present day. In particular, I am drawn to the presence of bees in the ode’s opening stanza. Buzzing with insect and animal life, Keats’s ode is often celebrated for the ease with which it balances the sensuous plenitude of seasonal growth against the anticipation of natural loss and decay. Bees are essential figures in this balancing act. Keats positions bees as vital pollinators who conspire with nature ‘how to load and bless’ (‘To Autumn’, 3) flowers and fruit ‘with a sweet kernel’ (8), as well as creatures that participate in the ‘wailful choir’ (27) of the ode’s ‘soft-dying’ (25) music, implicitly capturing current anxieties around the decline in bee populations across the earth. While bee pollination is responsible for 70% of the earth’s food production, in recent years, bees have undergone a drastic population decline of 90% due to factors such as colony collapse disorder, pesticides, deforestation, parasites, viruses, and a lack of biodiversity. Such a catastrophic threat to bee populations has most recently animated protests across the UK from groups such as Extinction Rebellion who, amongst other things, have staged a ‘Critical Swarm “Die-In”’ outside of the Tate Modern gallery and a protest at the gates of Buckingham Palace to advocate for bee rehabilitation. As with the ode ‘To Autumn’, bees are located in the public imagination as figures of growth and loss; creatures who are under serious threat of extinction despite their crucial ability ‘to set budding more, / And still more’ (9-10).

In ‘To Autumn’, the image of the ‘o’er-brimmed […] clammy cells’ (11) of the beehive creates an ambivalence that weighs the pleasure of fecundity against the anxiety of waste. Amidst the ode’s luxurious growth, the presence of the bee gestures towards a fullness that might lead to loss. Images of loading, swelling, and plumping dominate the opening of the poem. Like the ‘clammy cells’ (11) of the beehive, this stanza is heavy and overflowing with nature’s bounty. Keats’s use of the noun ‘cell’ is itself packed with multiple associations. Amongst other definitions, ‘cell’ is at once evoked as: an entomologically specific term for the ‘hexagonal wax compartments in a honeycomb’; a small room; the suffocatingly enclosed space of the prison cell; a ‘storeroom’; and, the ‘cavities […] of the brain’.[1] More importantly still, the word ‘cell’ contains a crucial metapoetic echo with the etymological roots of the Italian word ‘stanza’, which translates as ‘stopping place’ and ‘dwelling room’.[2] The ‘clammy cells’ of the hive become closely associated with the ‘teeming brain’ (‘When I have Fears that I May Cease to Be’, 2) of the poet, whose creative imagination is so full that it overflows its confines, spilling out into the rich produce of the stanza:

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-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed 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’er-brimmed their clammy cells
(‘To Autumn’, 1-11).

Illustration for “To Autumn” by William James Neatby, from A Day with Keats, 1899

The Apollonian sun is evoked here as a subtle presence that not only ‘load[s] and bless[es]’ (3) the natural world with fruit, but also nurtures both the poet and reader towards ‘a ripeness of intellect’ (Letters: John Keats I, 231).[3] Keats describes the bounty of nature in rich sensual imagery, pushing the poetic language to breaking point to demonstrate the plenitude of the poet’s creative imagination and the potential meanings to be garnered by the reader. The stanza is formed as one long poetic sentence, containing enjambed lines and false stopping points that make the reader believe they have arrived at a concluding thought, before continuing with a related idea. We see this most clearly in lines 7, 8, and 9: ‘To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells / With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, / And still more’ (7-9). Keats’s use of enjambment here dramatizes the expanding of the engorged hazel shells by making the syntax of lines 7 and 8 explode outside of the parameters of the rhyme scheme. The semi-colon in line 8 seems to offer a brief pause for breath, ostensibly marking the end-point of nature’s swelling and the ceasing of its ‘fruitfulness’ (1). And yet ‘to set budding’ (8) continues the forward momentum of the poetic line, reinforced by Keats’s undermining of the punctuation point at the close of line 8 through the added clause ‘And still more’ (9). Keats appears to subvert any sense that growth has ceased, pushing the stanza towards the image of the bee filling the ‘clammy cells’ (11) of the hive until its stores have ‘o’er-brimmed’ (11) with honey. Helen Vendler characterises the bee’s summer activities in ‘To Autumn’ as an ‘Edenic harvest’.[4] The bee does not pluck and destroy the flower, but delicately extracts its nectar to store in the granaries of the hive. But Keats does not straightforwardly present bees as the ideal harvesters of creative fruit in this stanza in the way Vendler proposes. By rhyming the word ‘trees’ (5) with ‘bees’ (9) and ‘cease’ (10), Keats shadows Autumn’s fecundity with the prospect of death, decay, and the potential for loss. Just as Autumn is pictured watching the ‘last oozings’ (22) of the apple spill from the cider-press in the second stanza, the reader is made aware that we may never taste the ‘o’er-brimm[ing]’ (11) plenitude of the poet’s imaginings, instead allowing the possible meanings of the poem to be laid to waste. Bees become shifting figures in ‘To Autumn’ that weigh the pleasure of endless poetic possibility against the fear of failure and loss.

‘To Autumn’ Manuscript

And yet, ‘To Autumn’ demands that the reader is at ease with our inability to capture and digest the totality of the poem’s available meanings. Instead, Keats encourages the reader to remain content with our fear of missing out on luxuriating in the poem’s rich imaginings, encouraging us to be receptive to the experience of loss itself. If the words ‘bees’, ‘trees’, and ‘cease’ chime together in ‘To Autumn’ to portend a winter in which creativity and the budding of flowers will be no more, then the prospect of such waste paradoxically becomes a source of poetic inspiration, wherein Keats’s rhymes draw attention to the music created by loss, decay, and death. Amidst the songs of Autumn — the ‘wailful choir [of] the small gnats’ (27) and the ‘full grown lambs[’] loud bleat’ (30) — bees take on an ambivalence in which the defiant celebration of life is held in equipoise with the grief of imminent decay and departure. Bees help to situate Autumn in its rightful place between the generative force of ‘o’er-brimm[ing]’ (11) summer and the apparent lifelessness of winter’s ‘crystal fretting’ (‘In Drear-Nighted December’, 14). The bees of ‘To Autumn’ reveal how abundance transmutes into loss, and in turn how loss becomes the source of creative possibility.

Works Cited:

[1] ‘Cell n. 1’ in Oxford English Dictionary <https://www-oed-com.sheffield.idm.oclc.org/view/Entry/29468?rskey=mAlJB9&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid> [accessed 05/07/2019].

[2] See Etymology of ‘Stanza, n.’ in Oxford English Dictionary <https://www-oed-com.sheffield.idm.oclc.org/view/Entry/189041?rskey=zQQdOf&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid> [accessed 05/07/2019].

[3] John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1818, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958).

[4] Vendler, ‘Peaceful Sway Above Man’s Harvesting’ in The Odes of John Keats (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 227-288 , p. 247.

 

Ellen Nicholls completed her doctoral research on the experience of ‘aching Pleasure’ (‘Ode on Melancholy’, 23) in the works of John Keats at the University of Sheffield in 2019. Her research focused on how Keats explores the interdependency between pleasure and pain. She has recently assumed a new post in higher education at Derby College and will be pursuing research into Romantic conceptualisations of numbness.