Teaching ‘To Autumn’ by John Keats
09 Jun 2017
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun”
John Keats ‘To Autumn’
Time to be honest: the exam “season” is as far from “mellow fruitfulness” as can be imagined for everyone involved. It certainly isn’t a “close bosom-friend” of anything related to me, let alone how the poor students feel about it. Yet as Year 11 clutch their sweaty pens for a final time for their last English exam next week, the circular renewal of the teaching season will continue. Next year will follow the pattern, and the year after – the repetitive season of examinations. What a delightful thought.
What the end of the exam period does enable (to be slightly more optimistic) however, is some time and scope for some relatively “mellow” reflection. What lessons can be learned from exam groups this year? What will be different and improved for the next round of students? This term, my Year 10 group tentatively hold the poetry anthology in their hands for the first time. Having taught the anthology once, I have been thinking this week about how I can make my teaching for this cohort better. Here are some initial thoughts and targets:
- Teach context better and try to bring this to life for students. Often this has been last minute bolted on information in relation to poems, trying to feed students nuggets they can memorise and regurgitate in the exam. This time I want to embed contextual understanding throughout and ensure the students know how to use it effectively to inform their responses to poems. I also think this is important – enriching their knowledge of literature and the world.
- Teach poems in thematic links. I had a far too general and sporadic approach the first time. Now we will work through nature poems, war poems, love poems and poems related to place. This will provide clarity for them and clarity for me. It will also help with target three.
- Compare as we go through. The more students are used to making links and comparisons the easier they will find this process in the exam. I want to build this in much more to lessons.
- More learning of key quotations, writing and practise completing exam style questions.
- Find ways to connect the anthology to the unseen section of the literature exams.
So the adventure begins this term with the wonderful Keats poem ‘To Autumn’. Each thematic unit will start with student reflection on how poets may present the particular focus for that two weeks. Students arrived at their first ‘To Autumn’ lesson and were asked to compose a mind map on nature poems. What did they believe the poems related to nature might explore? They did this individually for two minutes first of all, to give me an indication of what ideas they can bring to our nature table. The first attempt was all very generic: beauty, trees, animals, etc.
Then I told them about my half term, always coupled with time for “a horrifying insight into my private life” and a groan of despair from them. I explained how my wife and I went off to the delightfully quaint and quiet village of Linton (appropriately literary name!) in the Yorkshire Dales. I told them about how I had pledged as far as possible a technology free four days: the mobile phone was left at home; the television was off and there was no computer or internet access. I think they switched off and were faintly embarrassed when I started rambling about how liberating this was, to be back to my natural rustic Highlander instincts!
So to feed the humiliation I showed them a couple of natural setting snaps, including this masterpiece (despite frequent cajoling, my wife refused to join the technology purge!)
Moving on very swiftly. While this was a bit of fun (they were more interested in how abnormally large my feet look, or how I looked “about twelve”) I also wanted them to think more about the various functions nature can have for us. They then used this information to build further on what nature poems might evaluate. Things got a little more useful with some prodding: the idea of nature as liberation; the notion of nature as utopian and idealised; escapism from city environments and the intimacy we can experience with nature.
Then I showed them an extract (Extract) from the superb book I read during the technology free serenity (I would strongly recommend a technology purge every so often!): ‘The Shephard’s Life’ by James Rebanks. This wonderfully written memoir is about the reality of working and thriving in the countryside, with more than a few surprises in the mix! The extract is about the harsh reality of working on a farm in winter, closing with this excellent triplet:
“First rule of shepherding: it’s not about you, it’s about sheep and the land.
Second rule: sometimes you can’t win
Third rule: shut up, and go do the work.”
‘The Shephard’s Life’ James Rebanks
There is a teaching analogy in there somewhere! We unpicked Rebank’s stoicism (perfect opportunity to recap on a character impressions question) and linked this back to our mind map, adding in ideas about the pragmatic reality of nature, about nature as authentic not idealistic, nature as harsh and foreboding etc. We then talked about the juxtaposing elements of our mind maps – beginning to engage with some of the thematic similarities and differences between the poems in the anthology.
Now for the poem itself. I always like to warm up with the title of the poem and the first line, to begin to explore some of the themes and ideas. Having subjected them to the torture of witnessing me in a bed of daffodils I then made them shout out the opening line in unison: “Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” for how else can you appreciate the lyrical beauty and jubilant tone of this opening line without savouring it verbally?
Not sure they quite bought this and I’m quietly confident Keats was spinning in his grave at this point. Yet from this euphoric chant and our evaluation of the title, they got the idea that the poem is a form of celebration, directly addressed to Autumn.
Having tantalised them with the opening line and title we then paused to look at some areas related to context. We talked briefly about Romanticism, something we will be unpicking in more detail at a later point. We looked at the background to the poem, how Keats penned it on the 19th September 1819 after a walk along the River Itchen near Winchester, writing to his chum:
“How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it […] I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now […] Somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”
This worked in tandem with their knowledge of the opening line and the title, “temperate sharpness” indeed. I also wanted them to gain some appreciation of the life of Keats and his passionate love for Fanny Brawne. Perfect opportunity to show the trailer to the excellent ‘Bright Star’:
Having given them some indication of the emotional intensity of this relationship I then hit them with this tear jerking clip, in which the death of Keats from tuberculosis at the tender age of twenty five is announced. I think this is important students have a grasp of this, given the darker undertones and references to endings at the close of ‘To Autumn’ and the ideas of transient beauty explored. Also to reiterate the amazing fact that Keats, while struggling with a lung-debilitating condition, wrote some of the greatest poems in English. The visual links will also help them to recall and remember this information when it comes to the exam. It is also much more powerful than me standing welling up about the lost genius and potential of Keats in front of them!
Now we have started to unpick and develop more of an understanding of the context of the poem and they are equipped with an understanding of elements of nature poem they are ready for ‘The Unseen’. A spectacularly unexciting sub-title, this will be an approach for some of the poems we study. Students will have around ten minutes to read through the poem and begin to make their own points and annotations. The ten unseen poetry key questions from this post on teaching unseen poetry will support their initial reading and ensure they focus in on specific areas:
- What are the indications of the title?
- What is your summary/overview for the poem?
- What are the five quotations you would use?
- What are the key words to explore further in the quotations?
- What is the mood/atmosphere of the poem?
- How does the poem conclude?
- How is the story of the poem told?
- What is the structure and form of the poem and the impact?
- What poetic techniques are used and why?
- What is your personal response to the poem?
This means we can then move into a dialogue about the poem which they have invested thinking time in. For this opening lesson we focussed on the opening stanza. We unpicked the intimate personified relationship between Autumn and the sun, looking at the light-hearted use of “conspiring.” We discussed how Keats immerses himself in this world, how words like “brimmed” and “clammy” create a delightful warmth and abundance. We then explored the use of enjambment and how this conveys the exuberance Keats feels about the season. We evaluated how Keats sustains this magical spell by the repetition of ‘more’: ‘to set budding more / And still more’.
With time running out now, I wanted them to do a short piece of writing on their understanding of the poem so far. We looked at an example question: Read the poem below. In it Keats explores ideas about nature. Write about the ways in which Keats presents nature in the poem. Writing only about the first stanza I asked them to link this wonderful clip on this website https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/12/leaf-and-death/ which presents a montage of Autumnal leaves in many different forms. They had to highlight how this embodied the poem and link to examples of explored textual evidence from the opening stanza.
So context is linked in slightly better and there is some engagement with the different ways poets might approaching writing about nature. Hopefully and most importantly, they might have left this lesson with some appreciation of the beauty of Keatsian language and the beginnings of an understanding of ‘To Autumn’. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” indeed. Thank you for reading.