Musings on autumn

2009-04-09 00:00

My last assignment for the term was to teach Ode to Autumn to two matric classes.

I told a friend about it and his response was: “Never cared much for Keats.” But I set about it, undeterred.

Initially they were interested that John Keats had been a passionate young poet, but that was two centuries back. And that he had died in exile aged 25 aroused some compassion.

They responded quite well to i thank You God for most this amazing day but then e e cummings was a modern poet whom they admired because he overturned many traditional concepts of punctuation. Anyway, I thought, I might attempt some comparisons between the poets’ positive responses to the natural world they observed around them.

I anticipated the one class would be a challenge so enlisted the aid of a smart board (standard fare in many classrooms today) with the poem typed on it. In addition, I had highlighted letters in colour so that repeated “m”s in green or “l”s in yellow would indicate alliteration. Similarly with assonance and onomatopoeia. Pleased with the finished colour product, I checked to see they had followed my handiwork.

“Aw gee Miss. You’ve just selected letters at random” offered one. “I could as easily select others.” Taken slightly aback, I conceded a point but continued to explain the effect I thought Keats had achieved by “winnowing wind” and “lambs loud bleat”.

I hastened through the three long verses and left some bemused, others grateful it was over.

I knew the other class would be more appreciative of the finer points, but wondered how close to their experience it was:

“Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.”

So I started by asking if they had noticed anything different about the season we had just entered. The autumn equinox had occurred a few days before. I volunteered that, for me, one of the pleasures of autumn is the way the sun’s rays come in through our glass front door, picking up the red glass colour and reflecting it down the passage.This doesn’t happen during any other season as the sun’s rays are at a different angle. We agreed that the difference between the seasons in our part of the world may not be as marked as, for instance, in England where Keats would have noticed dramatic differences.

So we headed into the poem and soon they had identified the abundance of the harvest described. Admittedly they may not have branches “bent with apples” but certainly, they agreed, their trees are heavy with guavas.

Since they were nearing the end of a hectic term, they warmed to the slower mood autumn introduced. Keats talks of “sitting careless”, “sound asleep” and “drowsed with the fume of poppies”. The implications of the latter were not lost on them, and chuckles ensued.

Keats’s last stanza is filled with the sounds of autumn and I recognised that there are new bird and insect sounds at this time of year, which my untrained ear has difficulty identifying. They enjoyed the imagery and poetic effects of “in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn” and “swallows twitter in the skies”.

Before leaving, the class shared some awareness of the changing lights of day, the slower, lingering, earlier evenings closing in, the often brighter sunrises or sunsets, a natural desire to adopt a slower rhythm, to linger in the light of a “maturing sun”, and a resolution to be more aware of the rest of the autumn season with its sights and sounds.

My sense of alarm in recent years has been awakened by the awareness that many children no longer have an opportunity to be in nature, where their senses can be aroused by the sights and sounds around them. Keats, of course, lived in a time when every school boy would have understood and recognised his descriptions and something of his passions. Not for them the constant preoccupation with and distractions of a mobile phone.

• Deanne Lawrance is the founder of the Brookby School, which is an alternative education centre.

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