A Sense of an Ending: Persuasion and Keats’s “Ode to Autumn”

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On this first day of autumn, it’s my pleasure to introduce a guest post on Jane Austen and John Keats by William Hutchings, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, UK, where he was previously Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Director of the Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-Based Learning. He has published mainly in the areas of eighteenth-century poetry (William Collins, William Cowper, Thomas Gray, James Thomson) and pedagogy (problem-based and enquiry-based learning). His most recent books are Living Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and Living Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). He is joint editor of The Cowper and Newton Journal and is a UK National Teaching Fellow.

Here’s a photo of him standing on the Cobb at Lyme:

William Hutchings

This guest post is a preview of the blog series I’m hosting in honour of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The series will launch in December, with guest posts on Fridays in 2018. I hope you’ll join the celebration by reading and discussing the novels with us!

Thank you for sending me suggestions for a title for the series. There are sixty-five possibilities so far (not counting my own uninspired “Northanger Abbey and Persuasion at 200”)—it’s been a delight to read them all and it’s going to be very hard to choose one. Please see last month’s blog post for the invitation to suggest titles. The deadline is the end of September. If I choose the title you suggest, I’ll send you a set of cards featuring photos I’ve taken of Austen-related sites in my hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Here’s one of those sites: Admiralty House, where Francis Austen lived when he was Commander-in-Chief of the North American and West Indies Station.

Admiralty House, Halifax, Nova Scotia

And here’s today’s wonderful guest post on Austen and Keats, by William Hutchings:

Two climactic moments in the penultimate chapter mark the reunion of Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth. The first is his powerful letter, silently penned while Anne and Captain Harville debate the strength and durability of men’s and women’s feelings. The second is their intimate conversation on the gravel walk, one of the quietest places in Bath, between the Royal Crescent and Queen’s Parade Place, passing behind Gay Street and The Circus. The two events could not be more differently presented: one an explosive outburst in the first person, the other a contemplative piece of narrative report. Wentworth’s letter makes an obvious dramatic impact, but Jane Austen’s account of their conversation is no less emotionally charged. The scene is introduced by the strong assertion that the “present hour” offers “a blessing indeed,” endowed with “immortality” as a source of “the happiest recollections” their future lives will afford. However, there is no direct speech here. Their words are too intimate and profound for the novel either to intrude or to replicate. The novelist exercises restraint, maintaining a discreet and respectful distance from her characters. Instead, she irradiates the moment, suffusing it with a gentle lyricism, and shaping her narrative into a distinct but fluid expression of gathering achievement.

Living Fiction, by William Hutchings

The first three of the passage’s four sentences are of regularly increasing length—31, 45 and 57 words—as the description dwells on and extends the exquisite moment. The last is shorter—22 words—and brings the whole to its resolution. This four-part structure resembles a relaxed version of a Shakespearian sonnet, with the final sentence in two syntactic sections, each of eleven words, like the two lines of a couplet. The three preceding sections act as the quatrains of a sonnet, each self-contained yet linguistically connected, but with the expanding length readily available to prose, or, indeed, to those forms of irregular sonnet that stretch the fixed structure of the formal sonnet. The three “quatrains” are linked by anaphora: “There they exchanged again,” “There they returned again,” “And there.” The first is in two parts, separated by a comma and conjunction (“but”), placing the present moment of reconciliation against the divisions of the past:

There they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure every thing, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement.

The bi-partite structure of the sentence is gently sustained by balancing phrases (“feelings and promises,” “division and estrangement”) and grammatical repetition (“which had,” “which had”). Verbal repetition then transfers the emotional weight to the sentence’s second half through the regretful sighing of “so many, many years.”

The second sentence continues the present/past comparison, but now decisively shifts the weight towards the present as their reunion exceeds in happiness their first union:

There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their re-union, than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.

Jane Austen carefully fuses depth of feeling and rational consideration. After a delicately placed “perhaps,” a modest qualification appropriate for two people who have learnt from experience that confidence in present joy can prove all too premature, the first “more” is expanded into a sequence tempering rhapsody with reflection: “more tender, more tried, more fixed.” Where “more tender” delicately sustains the emotional level of “exquisitely happy,” “more tried” hints at an increase in maturity that is confirmed in the longer, emphatic and precise phrasing of “more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment.” This trio of “more’s” is matched by three abstract nouns: “character,” “truth,” “attachment,” so that the entire lengthy phrase manifests the poise of a mature relationship. The concluding terser summary of what maturity has brought (“more equal to act, more justified in acting”) admits ethical language (“justified”) into a further assertion of balance, between readiness to proceed and actual performance. Being equal to the task is conveyed in an exact grammatical equivalence of phrase: “more” plus adjective and verbal form. Ripeness encompasses all, emotion, thought and action.

The third and longest sentence is the climax of the whole:

And there, as they slowly paced the gradual ascent, heedless of every group around them, seeing neither sauntering politicians, bustling house-keepers, flirting girls, nor nursery-maids and children, they could indulge in those retrospections and acknowledgments, and especially in those explanations of what had directly preceded the present moment, which were so poignant and so ceaseless in interest.

The first adverb (“slowly”) stretches time to fill the event with breath, life and experience, and so with rich material for later memories. Its complete clause (“as they slowly paced the gradual ascent”) links time to place and quietly encompasses the familiar metaphor of life as a journey, “gradual ascent” implying that their future, like any future, will not always be easy, will not always tread “equal” ground, but that it will also enable them to look back just as the present allows them now to reflect on the past (“retrospections”). The quality of the present moment lies fittingly at the heart of this climactic sentence, their experience of lovers’ self-absorption rendered in the most discreet of fashions, by listing the kinds of fellow-strollers whose lives pass by unnoticed. These others are described in generalised plural nouns and generic, and mildly humorous, participial adjectives: “sauntering politicians.” The present participles also imply fleeting superficiality, the lives of those for whom this moment on the gravel walk is of no real consequence. Politicians have nothing meaningful to do and girls flirt, while for Anne and Wentworth this is an occasion of the highest significance and the utmost seriousness. The relative precision with which their feelings and thoughts are conveyed is set in relief against the vagueness of the generalised plurals: these are the kinds of people and activities that are commonly found on the walk—habitual details—whereas for one couple the event is unique and unforgettable.

The final sentence defines the moment in exact time, as inscribing it in a mental diary to be re-read and fixing it in a wider context:

All the little variations of the last week were gone through; and of yesterday and to-day there could scarcely be an end.

“Variations” of the past week, its changes and uncertainties, are the events narrated in preceding chapters: their chance meeting in Molland’s confectioners shop, the concert in the Assembly Rooms. The second clause concentrates on the key particulars of “yesterday” and “to-day,” when time has attained its climax. Yesterday includes the scene in the White Hart Inn where Anne obliquely conveys her real feelings by declaring her preference for attending the theatre rather than a social gathering where William Elliot will be present. Today, of course, means the build-up to Wentworth’s letter. But these are more than events to be recorded in a diary. They occupy a space that endows them with endless significance for the couple. This present moment is the fulfilment, the achievement of their lives. So it is that Anne and Wentworth stand outside the daily trivia of commonplace activities. The transformation of Anne from the excluded, marginalised figure within her family is complete.

Living Poetry, by William Hutchings

That evening, in the commonplace setting of a card party in Camden Place, Anne is “glowing and lovely in sensibility and happiness.” She has been touched with rosy hue. That last phrase is Keats’s, from the final stanza of his “Ode to Autumn”:

While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.

Keats got the idea from a walk he had taken on a temperate September day in 1819 through river meadows between his lodgings in Winchester and the church of St Cross, a mile or so south. Two days later, in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds dated 21 September, he wrote an account of his walk and how he came to compose the ode:

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.

Keats’s lines in the poem magically transform the declining day and year into a temporary glow reflecting both at their zenith. His phrasing is elliptical, compressing the whole sky and earth into a single moment of outstanding natural beauty. Clouds in a barred formation absorb and reflect the setting sun’s light, which colours with a soft, warm glow (“bloom”) the stubble-plains. Autumn is suffused with the tints of rosy summer. As in Housman’s wonderful phrase “aftermaths of soft September” (in “Tell me not here,” Last Poems 40), the warmth of the moment revives life and youth, as an aftermath is a second blooming of a once-reaped field.

Anne’s decline into pallid autumn is reversed by the rosy hue of renewed love, of rediscovered summer. When all hope had seemed to have gone, a series of events, (beginning, perhaps, when the sea-air of Lyme restored colour to her complexion and attracted to her the notice of William Elliot as their paths crossed) raised the possibility of a second blooming of a seemingly lost love. Keats’s lines are hauntingly precise yet fragile in their beauty. The stubble-plains, evidence of a lost summer, are, as with a delicate kiss (“touch”), warmed for a brief moment in the waning day. In only a few lines the poem will end with the famous “gathering swallows” that “twitter in the skies,” presaging departure. For Anne Elliot, Jane Austen writes in the novel’s final paragraph, “dread of a future war was all that could dim her sunshine.” Place conjoins the two authors, but time separates them. Keats’s walk on the nineteenth of September 1819 took him past the west front of Winchester cathedral and down College Street, where, two years earlier, Jane Austen had departed life. Neither knew of the other’s existence. However, both touched their final great work—Jane Austen’s last completed and most poetic novel, Keats’s last written poem for his 1820 volume, published less than a year before his death in Rome—with the glorious poignancy of autumn.

Quotations are from the Chapman edition of The Novels of Jane Austen, vol. 5, 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933); The Poems of John Keats, ed. Miriam Allott (London: Longman, 1970); The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, vol. 2 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1958).

Autumn in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia

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