Much of the literary work that sprung out of the Romantic period centered around images of nature and the strong emotions that these evoked; the works of John Keats and of Percy Bysshe Shelley are no exception. Both written in 1819 and published in 1820, both Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and John Keats’ “To Autumn” offer elaborate and emotionally charged images of the fall through odes that center around the use of apostrophe. However, the similarities shared by these two poems are far outweighed by their differences; “Ode to the West Wind” and “To Autumn” differ vastly both in tone and in their overall message. Where Keats celebrates the coming of autumn, framing his presentation of the season with ideas of life and prosperity, Shelley laments it, viewing fall not as a beginning in itself, but as the bitter end to spring. In these poems, both of which describe autumn or aspects of it, fall is presented in two vastly different lights—in one, as a bringer of life, and in the other, as a symbol of death.
Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” which is addressed to a wind that is described in the poem’s opening line as being the “breath of Autumn’s being” (line 1), is characterized from beginning to end by a tone filled with darkness and negativity. The speaker begins the poem with a comparison between fall and death, thereby setting stage for the jarring morbidity with which the poem is infused throughout. The poem begins with a reference to the wind to which the title refers, “from whose unseen presence the leaves dead are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing” (lines 2-3). Here, the image of ghosts fleeing conveys an immediate sense of chilling darkness, accompanying the direct reference to the idea of death with which the speaker so clearly associates fall. The image of dead, ghostly leaves serves as a tangible symbol for the more abstract concept of fall as a whole, which the poem insists upon depicting through the lens of death and sadness. Even the most seemingly positive remark the speaker makes about autumn is inherently negative, where he refers to “a deep autumnal tone, sweet though in sadness” (lines 60-61), a sadness that one can assume, having read the stanzas that lead up to this, is an acutely mournful one.
“Ode to the West Wind” becomes increasingly morbid as it continues. The speaker does not simply use the image of death as a method of signifying an ending; it is a symbol which he expands into an increasingly dark one as he goes on to offer details of sickness. For example, he describes the “yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, / Pestilence-stricken multitudes” (lines 4-5). These references to pestilence and the hectic red of tuberculosis-induced fever contribute to an image of fall not only as a form of death, but as a contagious illness that is infecting the natural world until it is left “like a corpse within its grave” (line 8). It is lines such as these, as well as references to the autumn winds as a “dirge / Of the dying year” (lines 23-24), that go beyond the abstract concept of death to offer concrete details that leave the reader with an uneasy sense of darkness and morbidity. Together, these lines evoke in the reader an image of fall as a sort of funeral procession, mourning the “corpse” of the earth as it transitions into the even greater darkness of winter.
Keats’ poem, on the other hand, conveys a tone of positivity that is in stark contrast to Shelley’s portrayal of fall as a kind of disease-induced death. The poem’s three stanzas each contribute to the cheerful, pleasant tone that the speaker’s description of autumn takes. Where Shelley’s opening stanza offers an image of death, the opening stanza of Keats’ “To Autumn” is rooted in the idea of harvest. For example, the speaker declares that fall is “conspiring with [the sun] how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run” (lines 3-4), and goes on to reference a filling of “all fruit with ripeness to the core” (line 6). These lines are perhaps the antithesis of Shelley’s initial description of dead leaves fleeing like ghosts, invoking instead images of blessing and agricultural growth and abundance through the use of words such as “ripeness.” These image he offers of growing fruit are essentially depictions of fertility, implicating autumn as a source of life. The speaker furthers this emphasis on the connection between fall and harvest in the line, “while thy hook / Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers” (lines 17-18). These images of abundance and growth promote an image of autumn as a symbol of life.
Like Shelley’s, Keats’ work does make reference to spring; however, the way in which he does this differs widely from Shelley’s mourning over spring’s end. Keats’ poem almost seems to directly challenge Shelley’s notion of autumn as the death and funeral of spring in his remark, “Where are the songs of Spring? … / Think not of them, thou hast music too” (lines 23-24). Here, the speaker is challenging the need to compare the seasons and to see autumn’s beginning through the perspective of spring’s ending. This assertion that fall “hast thy music too” suggests the inherent value in autumn regardless of its relation to any other season. Here, it seems Keats is both acknowledging and opposing an evidently common notion of spring as being superior to autumn—a notion that has formed the very basis of Shelley’s work.
Despite a few similarities, Keats’ “To Autumn” and Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” offer portrayals of autumn that are in vivid contrast to one another. Shelley’s ode goes to great lengths to invoke a sense of morbidity and sickness, stressing the speaker’s view of autumn as the death of spring. Keats’ ode, meanwhile, presents autumn as a symbol of life through images of harvest and abundance. Taken together, the juxtaposition of these two images highlights the duality of the season of as a time of both positive and negative change within the natural world. Shelley’s intensely pessimistic view of Autumn as the death of spring combined with Keats’ perception of fall as the bringer of life and harvest effectively conveys the cyclical nature of the natural world, in which each new change serves as both a beginning and an end.