John Keats' to Autumn And Percy Shelley's to The West Wind: The Role Of Seasons

Categories: Season

The beauty of nature is a common subject in poetic verse. In both “To Autumn” and “Ode to the West Wind”, the former by John Keats and the latter by Percy Shelley, the beauty of the seasons is used to convey and represent feeling and topics that were important to each of the authors. While similarities exist in the two pieces, they are also very different. Shelley uses the concept of the power of wind to express his love of aesthetic expression.

He also praises and deifies the wind. Keats personifies autumn and pulls on vivid imagery of its different stages. His slow language suspends readers in different scenes of the poem, while Shelley’s ABA BCB rhyme scheme draws readers towards the next stanza and keeps them going forward. Shelley builds on suppressed energy until finally recapitulating the first three stanzas at the start of the fourth.

Shelley’s ode consists of five sections each containing four stanzas and one couplet.

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In his first section, Shelley speaks of the wind in terms of the falling leaves of autumn: “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being / Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead / Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,” (ll. 1-3). In the first line of his poem, Shelley establishes the wind as an extension of autumn and simultaneously personifies autumn (a tactic the Keats uses throughout his own poem). By doing this early in the ode, readers are given a connection of the wind to autumn that provides context throughout the piece.

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When Shelley references this wind, he is not only speaking about the wind: he is also speaking of autumn itself. Once the connection is established, he goes on to talk about how the wind manipulates and affects the fallen, dead leaves. His description of the wind in terms of the leaves is effective because he references seasonal themes that many readers can relate to. He talks of how the wind spreads the seeds of plants and trees to a “grave” (ll. 8) for the winter until autumn’s “sister of the Spring shall blow” (ll. 9) and bring to life all of the dormant seeds. He finishes the first section by calling upon the wind to hear him, to listen to him.

Shelley’s first section sets an outline for sections two and three. In the second section, he describes the wind in terms of the clouds it blows and the tumultuous weather it brings. He finishes the second section with another request of the wind to hear him. The third section is once again a description of the wind but now in terms of the waves that it blows across the ocean. At the end of the third section, he also calls upon the wind to hear him. His first three sections maintain a sense of flattery and praise for the mighty wind, as well as build upon each other for a building sense of suppressed energy. As he moves into the fourth section, Shelley’s intent becomes clear. He makes a request of the wind:

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;

A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free

Than thou, O Uncontrollable! (ll. 43-47)

Shelley wants the wind to empower him. He wants the wind to bear him and carry him in life in the same way that it manipulates the leaves, clouds, and waves. He cleverly recapitulates and ties back in the subjects of the first three sections (leaves, clouds, waves) as a way of making his presentation more effective. Shelley’s complaint is that his hours on the earth have bent him and tied him down; he hopes the wind will free him. He calls upon the wind to “Make me thy lyre,” (ll. 65), and asks that the wind scatter his writings and works to mankind. Shelley compares himself to a lyre, or more specifically in this instance, an Aeolian harp which is an instrument played by the wind. He wants the wind to create beauty in his writing the same way it creates beauty on the instrument. The pent-up energy that is gathered in the first three sections is released in the fourth and fifth. By returning to the three topics of the first three sections, Shelley gives readers a sense of closure and satisfaction.

While Shelley’s poetic request of autumn draws readers forward, Keat’s poem suspends them in the present. His poem is broken into three stanzas. Within them, he breaks autumn into three sections: the summer of autumn, the autumn of autumn, and the spring of autumn. His presentation is effective in that it captures daily observation and appreciation. In the first stanza, where autumn is in its summer phase, Keats describes autumn conspiring with the sun to produce fruitfulness and abundance: “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,” (ll. 5-7). His writing creates a richness and fullness that isn’t present in Shelley’s work. The west wind is swift and cold, while the sun is slow and warm.

As Keats shifts from summer to autumn, his word choice and imagery slows readers down even more. He personifies autumn, but unlike Shelley he does not praise and flatter it. He merely observes it and describes it: “Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, / Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind; / Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, / Drows’d with the fume of poppies” (ll. 14-17). Using words such as asleep and drowsed, Keats quite literally leads readers into a sleepy and drowsy state. His technique is very different from Shelley, who keeps readers flying forward with the wind. Keats suspends readers in the scene and allows them to grasp the beauty and richness of the season. By not rushing, the speaker is able to fully enjoy and appreciate the different places that he finds the personified autumn.

In his third stanza Keats’s speaker contemplates the coming Spring: “Where are the songs of Spring?” (ll. 23). He chooses not to dwell on what is to come (“the song of Spring”) and chooses to focus on the present. He knows autumn has its own songs as well. His word choice takes a more somber tone. He uses words such as dying, stubble, mourn, sinking, and dies to represent the closing of the season. But he still leaves hope for the coming of spring, specifically in his reference to lambs: “full-grown lambs bleat from hill bourn;” (ll. 30). Although full-grown signifies the fact that it is no longer spring and that the animals have lived through summer and autumn, by using the word lamb instead of sheep, Keats shows that the coming of spring is not too far off. His presentation in the final stanza is effective because even though the season is coming to a close, he offers hope for the coming spring.

Both poets use their rhyme schemes to help create different feelings for readers. Shelley’s rhyme scheme elicits a quick, brisk pace while Keats’s rhyme scheme creates slow movement. Keats alternately rhymes every other line for the first half of each stanza while the last half of each stanza has more lines between each rhyme. This creates a slower pace for the last half of each stanza, and the poem in general. Shelley connects each of his short stanzas with rhymes instead of containing the rhymes within the stanza. By doing this, readers are drawn to the next stanza to complete the rhyme.

Both Keats and Shelley have very effective presentations in their poems on autumn. Shelley respects and praises the power of nature while Keats uses colorful language to describe specific scenes within nature. Shelley uses a rhyme scheme that draws readers towards the next stanza in each section and his diction builds a frantic suppressed energy that is resolved in the end of the poem. Keats on the other hand uses rich and slow language to create a sense of timelessness. His speaker often sees autumn in the flesh among different scenes that one typically associates with the harvest time of autumn: milling in a granary, harvesting a field with a scythe, and pressing apples in a cider press. His autumn is slow, “careless” (ll. 14), and “mellow” (ll. 1); Shelley’s autumn is fast, “[A] Destroyer and Preserver” (ll. 15), and “Uncontrollable” (ll. 47). While the poets employ different tactics for their works and capture a different sense of the same season, both poems are effective and brilliantly written.

Updated: Feb 15, 2024
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John Keats' to Autumn And Percy Shelley's to The West Wind: The Role Of Seasons. (2024, Feb 15). Retrieved from

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