An Ode to Helen Vendler: Goddess of Keats’ ‘Autumn’

The brilliant critic Christopher Ricks, the Oxbridge-bred interpreter of both T.S. Eliot and Bob Dylan, is perhaps best known for his earlier work on John Keats, the one with the peculiar title Keats and Embarrassment . A work inspired in part by the profusion of blushing in Keats’ poetry. And embarrassment, I blush to say, has certainly been a key component of my own Keatsian obsession.

He’s one of those poets, after all, for whom professing a passion can seem-to some, anyway, to those who can’t get deeper than the encrustation of conventional reverence-an embarrassingly obvious preference, close to cliché. Keats conjures up febrile, neurasthenic undergraduates trying to seduce Radcliffe girls by reading aloud the “Ode on Melancholy” with special sensuous attention to the embarrassing, sexually suggestive lines about the “globed peonies” and bursting “Joy’s grape against his palate fine.”

This stereotyped view of Keats neglects, of course, his authorship of one of the most piercingly stringent, unsentimental and skeptical observations about the way the mind works in trying to give coherence to an incoherent reality: the concept-which every self-aware journalist and historian takes to heart-of “negative capability.” A kind of Occam’s Razor, with its caution against the “irritable reachings” after unfounded certainty in the presence of ambiguity.

Still, embarrassment dominates my personal Keatsian past. There is, for instance, a fond but embarrassing memory of leaving Swinging London to drive south in a rented Austin Mini to Winchester, to locate the very ridge in the Kentish countryside, to gaze out, on the very same hour of the very same day (sunset, Sept. 19), to take in from the same vantage point as Keats the painfully beautiful vista that he describes in perhaps his greatest ode, “To Autumn.” The better to see through his eyes the way the “barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,/ And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.”

I wanted to see that light, that “soft-dying” reddening glow reflected on the stubble field of felled stalks. Hoping that the experience might throw some light on the mysteriously seductive power the poem has held over me ever since I first read it. Pretty embarrassing! But I don’t care. It helped. Nothing had changed in a century and a half, and I’ll never forget that thrilling autumnal light.

So let’s talk about the ode “To Autumn.” It is autumn, come to think of it (a peg at last!). And it’s one of those poems I’ve returned to repeatedly regardless of season, always feeling it more deeply, always feeling, also, that something about its appeal has eluded me or eluded articulation. For a long time it appealed to me because of its implicit darkness, the way the apparently placid scenes of post-harvest ease-an almost post-coital drowse of rural beauty-concealed dark lacunae, suggesting, evoking finality, closure and death.

I recall defending, at a graduate seminar at Yale, Harold Bloom’s already unfashionable conjecture about the bleating of the lambs “from hilly bourn” in the final stanza of the ode. Mr. Bloom argued that the bleating was a foreshadowing of the death cry of the lambs when they had their throats slit at approaching slaughter. A slaughter slyly, subtly, almost unnoticeably signaled by the description of them as ” full-grown ” lambs.

You can find such autumnal intimations of coming wintry death lurking beneath the surface throughout the poem without looking too hard. It’s a kind of blissfully sublimated meditation on melancholy and death, on the urgency mortality lends to life, that one can find in more florid dramatic form in Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy.”

But recently I’ve had a renewed experience of wild surmise with the ode to Autumn. That breathtaking phrase “wild surmise” needless to say comes from the close of Keats’ great sonnet, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” Wherein Keats compares his first reading of George Chapman’s Elizabethan translations of Homer to Cortez’s first vision of the shocking immensity of the Pacific Ocean, a vision Cortez experienced “upon a peak in Darien” (that’s not a line from The Ice Storm but a place in Panama).

Actually-and this is important-it’s not Cortez staring at the Pacific with “wild surmise” as I’ve inaccurately recalled it on occasion (I blush to say). As I see the poem, Cortez (in fact historically it was Balboa) reaches the summit, sees the Pacific first, turns back to his men who have yet to get a glimpse; it’s they who stare with wild surmise at Cortez’s face as he registers the disturbing immensity of the Pacific vista. The wild surmise line then depicts the discovery of the Pacific as an act of reading: They’re reading his face. In fact, it’s a metaphor of breathtaking precision because the wild surmise is more than the act of reading; it’s specifically an act of translation (like Chapman’s). Cortez’s men are translating what they read on Cortez’s face-the look in his eyes-into a surmise about what he’s seen of the Pacific. All great poetry is translation from one realm of vision to another.

Where was I? Oh yes, my own recent parallel experience of wild surmise. One that conjures up the opening lines of “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” in which Keats tells us that “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold”-but never has he, in previous voyages into Homer’s work, been able to “breathe its pure serene/ Till I heard Chapman…/ Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken.”

Well, in a similar sense, much have I traveled in the realms of lit crit, having-since I fled grad school-maintained a horrified fascination with the bombastic jargon that has possessed so many of its practitioners. Much have I traveled, but not till I read Helen Vendler’s 60-page essay on the ode “To Autumn” have I felt the poem swim into my ken like a new planet once again.

It’s embarrassing to admit that this is the first time I’d read her essay, which first appeared in 1983 in her book on The Odes of John Keats . It has a reputation among the cognoscenti, but in some ways I guess I feared reading it, not that it would disappoint, but that it would be too good, that it would take possession of my experience of the poem. That it would be too rich, in the sense so much of Keats is almost unbearably rich. For years, for instance, I found it impossible to get all the way through “The Eve of St. Agnes” because it was too exquisite, the force-fed foie gras of Keatsian genius.

But hey, life is short. And so at last I plunged into Professor Vendler’s essay on “Autumn.” It was, if you’ll forgive me for harping on a theme, an embarrassment of riches. Particularly embarrassing to me on the very first page. On one of the most basic issues of reading the poem, it looked as if I’d been off by a full 180. God, this is a difficult confession to make, one I utter only because I’m not 100 percent certain I’m wrong. So let me just come out and say, blushingly, for a million years or so I’ve always thought the figure of Autumn was a guy!

I mean not an ordinary guy, but a male figure, some drowsy rural Bacchus type watching “the last oozings” of a “cyder-press,” intoxicated by the prospect of the wine of apples. But in the second sentence of her wonderful essay, Helen Vendler tells us, “Once again Keats must find a female divinity to worship, and we ask whether it will be a classical goddess like Psyche …” In other words, she’s certain Autumn is a babe!

I’m sure she must be right, but ever alert to what one of the later New Critics called “conspicuous irrelevance,” it does seem a bit odd to me that the figure in Keats’ “Autumn” could be read as either gender. There are no primary, secondary or even tertiary sexual characteristics explicitly alluded to unless you count the long hair “soft-lifted by the winnowing wind.” But then again, the hair is not explicitly characterized as a woman’s hair or even long hair. I’d always imagined the tangled locks of a lazing satyr.

The sexuality of Autumn is not embodied in the gender of the figure of Autumn so much as it is in the generalized sexuality of the harvest season all around it. In the way autumn will “swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells/ With a sweet kernel.” But each of these two images could be read either as feminine fertility or male tumescence. It would almost seem as if some effort has been made to exclude gender definition from the figure of Autumn, but I could be wrong.

Setting aside that initial embarrassing (to me) difficulty, I found in the rest of Professor Vendler’s essay on “Autumn” a Chapman-like oceanic power that swelled every sentence that followed. I found myself thinking of Helen Vendler herself as something like the figure of Autumn in the ode, who conspires with the sun “to load and bless/ With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run.” In the sense that Professor Vendler loads and blesses not the vines but the lines of the ode, that round the stanzas run, blesses them with a harvest of resonant insights.

She “set[s] budding more,/ And still more” allusions and inclusions till, like the honeycombs of the harvesting bees in the poem, she’s “o’er-brimmed” it with the distillations she’s extracted from Keats’ efflorescence. But she does something more in this amazing essay than bring the ode to fruition. She cracks open-finds within its shell-a “sweet kernel” of signification, a brilliant “wild surmise” about its true subject, one I curse myself for not having seen before: the sense that in “Autumn” Keats is contemplating not merely the harvest in the stubble fields of Winchester, but the harvesting of his own field of consciousness, of his ripening genius, his own poetic fruits. A harvest in two senses: the process of harvesting the fructifying conceptions of his own brain, of giving to his inchoate thoughts and visions a local habitation and a name, incarnating, making the insubstantial word flesh-or at least ink-in the lines of his verse. There’s that harvest, yes, but then there’s another, darker harvest in prospect she suggests, the shadow of the Reaper whose scythe Keats could already sense (he would soon die of tuberculosis), the final autumnal harvest of his own being.

I find it an utterly persuasive surmise that, as she says, “‘Autumn’ is Keats’ most reflective view of creativity and art.” I would only add (my embarrassingly humble contribution to this conjecture) that confirmation of it can be found in the image of the figure of Autumn, a lazy reaper, mesmerized by a “cyder-press” watching the “last oozings” of apple juice trickle from it. Isn’t there, in that figure of a watcher mesmerized by what issues from a press , a partially submerged image of a reader-reaper transfixed by the spell of the poetry that issues from a printing press?

Let’s dwell for a moment on that reaper who’s too “Drows’d with the fume of poppies” to cut down the next swath. Because Professor Vendler’s footnote to that phrase raised once again the one matter on which I depart from her reading-the gender of the Autumn figure. In tracing the origin of the “fume of poppies” phrase, she cites John Dryden’s Virgilian Pastorals . “In the sixth of these,” she tells us,” two satyrs find Silenus [a Pan-like pastoral figure] lying on the ground ‘Dos’d with the fume of poppies.’ Keats, who had been reading Dryden … first wrote in the draft of ‘To Autumn’ that autumn was ‘Dos’d with red poppies’; he must have heard the echo of Dryden’s intoxication.”

It also seems likely to me that Keats’ Autumn figure was inspired by Dryden’s lazy male satyr. Professor Vendler, apparently to counter this natural supposition, cites as the model for Autumn John Lemprière’s figure of the harvest goddess Ceres holding up the poppy sacred to her. But Keats’ second-stanza Autumn figure sounds more like a lazy guy than a productive female goddess. He’s too tired and/or intoxicated to continue the harvest; he’s a slacker . It could be we’re both reading into the Autumn figure images of ourselves: I see a lazy guy who’d rather dream and drowse; she sees a productive, redemptive goddess. Of course, she’s far too modest to think of herself as a goddess, but after reading her stunning essay on “Autumn,” I do.

An Ode to Helen Vendler: Goddess of Keats’ ‘Autumn’