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Perennial Keats
 
A handwritten draft of his masterwork "To Autumn" by John Keats.

November 3, 2014—John Keats may have believed that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”—but, ironically, he regularly discarded and gave away drafts of his own poems. Most of his original, handwritten works were preserved by friends in the letters he wrote them; Harvard’s Houghton Library holds the largest collection of surviving Keats manuscripts in the world.

The last work Keats lived to see published, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, includes his ode “To Autumn,” which critics have praised as one of his most perfect works. Inspired by nature around him in September 1819, the published version reads:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
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
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
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, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

In a rare surviving early draft (pictured above), Keats’ revisions show the effort that went into the work; on the creased and worn page, entire verses are crossed out; less drastic changes and substitutions show his carefully considered word choices. (A letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse shares a later, more polished version.) Both manuscripts came to Harvard from avid collector and fellow poet Amy Lowell; the last book she published before her death was a two-volume biography of the author. Her gift became the basis for the Library’s now-extensive collection of manuscripts.

 

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