The poem is in the form of an ode – highlighting and praising the particular time of year. It is the last of what has come to be known as Keats’ six great odes, all written in the same year (1819). In some of his other, equally famous odes, Keats uses ten lines in each stanza but here he uses one extra line. At the same time as giving the poem more interest, it echoes the idea in the content of there being an excess of everything.
The first four lines of each stanza follow the regular rhyme scheme abab, but the other seven show more variation, with lines 9 and 10 having rhyming couplets, echoing back to a rhyme earlier in each stanza. This relatively complex rhyme scheme allows the poet to introduce the focus of each stanza, then explore the ideas in a more leisurely and considered way.
The three stanzas also trace a pattern through autumn itself, focusing on a different aspect of a day and highlighting a key sense:
|Stanza||Topic||The season||The day||Key sense|
|1||Ripeness and fruitfulness||Early autumn/end of summer||Morning||Touch|
|2||A time for labour and for rest||Mid-autumn||Afternoon||Sight|
|3||Decline into winter||Late autumn/turning to winter||Twilight||Hearing|
The basic rhythm of the poem is iambic pentameter, though Keats introduces a number of variations to ensure the poem never becomes mechanical and repetitive.
The vocabulary Keats has chosen is rich and sensuous. The opening line (one of the most famous in poetry) is warm and inviting with its combinations of ‘m’ and ‘s’ sounds – try saying it out loud, slowly, to get the full effect.
Although never explicitly stated, Keats seems to visualise the season of autumn as a woman. In the first stanza she is described as a ‘Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun’. The male summer and the female autumn form a union to produce abundant crops which characterise the season. In the second stanza she is shown at rest ‘sitting careless on a granary floor' or 'on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep’. Although sometimes hard at work the season is also one for rest and relaxation. In the final stanza the personified figure of autumn faces the end of its life as winter starts to approach. Autumn thinks back wistfully to spring and there is a sense of regret as life passes.