Analysis and Synthesis

The ode's basic narrative, then, presents three different scenes and tells something of the speaker's relation to the first and third of them. The first is in the Spenserian world of The Faerie Queene; the second in heaven, where God and Fancy collaborate; and the third within sight of Eden. The subjective relation to the first scene depends wholly on metaphorical analogy: Fancy, like the Fairy Queen, rewards the chosen few, and the speaker is a devotee of Fancy ("to me Divinest Name"), presumably hoping to be among the few. The second scene is impersonal in comparison; the speaker claims no unmediated vision of it ("as Fairy Legends say . . .") and yet presents it with the absolute assurance of revelation. The third scene is somewhere between fairyland and heaven, an Eden that seems to be both Milton's subject and the scene of his inspiration. The speaker hoped to enter its "inspiring Bow'rs," but God and Fancy, the "kindred Pow'rs" who perhaps created it, have now hidden it from mortal sight.

While it is important to understand the story of Collins's ode, the harder one looks for narrative or scenic coherence the more obvious complications and gaps become. The elaborate opening simile is not only bookish and far-fetched but incongruous: the belt is to Florimel as Fancy is to chosen poets. Collins compares these prophetic males (by the end of the poem, they are "Sons of Soul") to a woman, and not just to a being who happens to be feminine but one conspicuous for femininity through her beauty and chastity. Because Fancy is also feminine (invariably the case in the period), the analogy is poised to spill over somewhat, implying a further comparison between Fancy and Florimel. And in fact such a connection emerges through the fact that Fancy not only "assigns" the belt (as does God ultimately in Spenser) but was herself "given" it (as is Florimel). Metaphoric logic carries a step further: if Fancy and the poets are both like Florimel, then the poem seems to half say that gifted poets are not just chosen by Fancy but essentially are Fancy.

The strophe ends ambiguously. On the one hand, there is the suggestion that poetic ambition is dangerous and likely to be thwarted: only few succeed and the unsuccessful may be as "dishonour'd" as the would-be Florimels, ending up more "hopeless" than if they had not aspired to prophetic poetry. On the other hand, the speaker is a votary ofFancy who knows so well what her gift brings — the power to "gaze her Visions wild, and feel unmix'd her Flame!" — that perhaps he has already received it.

Let us now return to the question of the function of the poem's immediate difficulty. One effect is to signal at the outset what sublime odes often signal, the revelation of esoteric truths. Difficulty announces that the poem is embarking on a demanding visionary ascent unsuitable for casual readers. But Collins's parenthetical entanglements have the more specific effect of complicating and almost frustrating the poem's narrative. The once-upon-a-time sequence comes to a virtual standstill almost immediately as the speaker provides more and more detail. The narrative simile begins to seem less important in its own right than as a means of evoking a world of Spenserian romance and allegory through static pictures. Although these three views (ll. 7—8, 9—13, 14—16) necessarily occur in sequence, Collins's heavy use of parenthetical qualification and periodic syntax suggests that everything really happens at the same instant. The tension Collins creates between narrative movement and emblematic close-up captures better in a few lines the deep experience of reading The Faerie Queene than do many of the period's outright Spenserian imitations, even those by the best of his "School" (l. 3). [See ch. 35, "Recovering the Past: Shakespeare, Spenser, and British Poetic Tradition."] At a level below the strophe's logical argument, then, Collins uses Florimel's belt not merely as material for a bookish conceit but to fuse his idea of the true poetic gift with Spenser. We learn just two things about the speaker personally in the strophe, and they are presumably closely related. The first is that he is an ardent reader of Spenser; the second is that he is a votary of Fancy ("to me Divinest Name," l. 17).

If Spenser marks the beginning of modern English poetry for Collins, Milton may mark its end. But the poem's path to Milton goes by way of heaven, and the "Ecstatic Wonder" (l. 43) of the mesode should be kept vividly in mind by those who would make Collins's poem into a tragic farewell to, rather than lyric ode on, the poetical character. While there can be no mistaking the joyfulness of the creation scene described in most of the mesode (through line 50), readers have often disagreed over whether its ecstasy accompanies a bold rewriting of the creation or a fundamentally orthodox elaboration. Roger Lonsdale (whose invaluable edition of Collins should be consulted for further details) stresses the orthodoxy of this "frequently misunderstood" section. Acknowledging its difficulty, he notes that the idea "that the poet, however faintly," imitates the "divine power" of the Creator was common from the fifteenth century on. In Lonsdale's view, the passage comes down to the statement that "God created the world (ll. 23—8) by an act of Fancy (ll. 29—40) and in this way the poetic imagination was born (ll. 41—50)" (Lonsdale 1969: 430). But to many this reading seems wishful and overly tame.

Major differences in meaning will flow from a reader's decision about exactly what is being created, who is creating it, and, to a lesser extent, when he or they are doing it. The temporal ambiguity is encountered first, in lines 25—8. Does the specification of the "creating Day" as one "when He, who call'd with Thought to Birth" the sky, earth, and ocean mean that it is the same day (the fourth in Genesis) or merely that it occurs sometime after those acts of creation? According to the latter view, line 25 in effect reads, "When He, who had called with thought to birth," and points to a later time in which Fancy is part of a special creation. It was a creation God carried out in a "Diviner Mood" — a phrase Anna Barbauld understandably found shocking — than that required for the creation of the physical world. The summary by Lonsdale and the readings of many other critics lean toward the former interpretation: having Fancy present at the creation is Collins's way of saying that God created the world through an act of imaginative thought. However, Diviner is unmistakably comparative, suggesting that God's time alone with the "lov'd Enthusiast" Fancy was even more creative than the time preceding it. The claim seems a heavenly version of Dryden's urbane speculation at the beginning of Absalom and Achitophel that Absalom may be the result of an especially enthusiastic conception, that perhaps, "inspired by some diviner lust, / His father got him with a greater gust" (ll. 19—20). The sexual analogy is apropos because Collins's account of the connection between God and Fancy implies a procreative union. Fancy has long "woo'd" God and has been "lov'd" by her in return. He retires alone with her behind a "veiling Cloud," puts her on his "Saphire Throne" as angelic music is "swelling," and birth follows.

Whether one sees Fancy as a co-creator with God (a "by no means reverential fiction concerning the Divine Being") or as an allegorical representation of one of God's attributes, Collins deepens the Renaissance analogy of divine and poetic creation. In addition to the similarity between God and the poet, Collins ties creation to song. God called other things "to Birth" merely "with Thought" (l. 25), but the poetic "Band," the "Youth of Morn," and his "subject Life" are all born when Fancy "Breath'd her magic Notes aloud" (l. 38). As noted earlier, the identity of the Youth has been much debated. Some critics see him as the poet (for example, Bloom and Frye) or the "Poetical Character" (Kirk), some insist he is the sun (for example, Lonsdale and Woodhouse), and others believe that these readings fuse, given the mythological associations of Apollo with both the sun and poetry (for example, Weiskel and the present author). Some deep connection between the Youth and the poet seems essential because he is created along with the "Band" of imagination (l. 23) and his own "subject Life" (l. 40). While all life might be said to be "subject" to the sun, the phrase is unusual enough, in fact apparently unique, to suggest that this special creation brings into being the subjects of poetry.

What might it mean to create the poetry's "subject Life"? Since the phrase immediately returns the poem to the weaving of the band (ll. 41—50), it becomes necessary to reconsider the belt's function. Thomas Weiskel shrewdly observes that its Spenserian original, Florimel's girdle, serving as both the sign and the protector of chastity, "has the talismanic ambiguity common in allegorical imagery; it is at once emblem and cause" (Bloom 1971: 138). In other words, the belt both rewards or signals true poetic imagination and produces it. Applying a similar suspension of the normal laws of cause and effect to Collins's description of the belt's original weaving, we might regard those things he associates with its creation — "Wonder" "Truth," the "shad'wy Tribes of Mind" and the angelic "Pow'rs" — as also being its original creations. These things are both attendant at the birth of the poetic imagination and brought into view by it. The poetry of heaven envisions the invisible.

The next lines are sometimes taken to suggest a tragic fall into a constricted present: "Where is the Bard, whose Soul can now / Its high presuming Hopes avow?" (ll. 51—2). But that may be to misread now as referring to the moment of the ode's composition rather than to a more general modernity, a poetic era long after the Creation and some time after the age of Spenser. The second question — "Where He who thinks, with Rapture blind, / This hallowed Work for Him design'd? (ll. 53—4) — indicates that neither question is rhetorical, and that the answer to both is Milton, to whom the antistrophe turns. This section opens by echoing the word high, now transferred from "high presuming Hopes" to the reality of poetic achievement, an Eden created "High on some Cliff." (The close repetition may remind the reader that the girdle originally "hung on high" at the start of the poem.) In yet another conflation of cause and effect, high Eden is both cause and result of Milton's high inspiration (ll. 55-67).

The final turn of the antistrophe toward the immediate present (ll. 68-76) begins with a personal recognition of Milton's greatness that many interpreters regard also as a confession of inadequacy. But the opening note — "Thither oft his Glory greeting, / From Waller's Myrtle Shades retreating" — is far from gloomy; the brisk trochaic meter of the first line sounds closer to Milton's playful pledge of allegiance in "L'Allegro" (written when he too was in his twenties) than to the tragic notes of Paradise Lost. To move away from the influence of Edmund Waller is, for Collins, to turn from the polished "easiness" of Cavalier and Restoration verse (Maynard Mack has called Waller "the crooner of the couplet") to a more "aspiring Tongue" (l. 70). The effect of that aspiration does not disappear with the recognition that the speaker cannot follow Milton's steps all the way back to Eden, despite the readiness of many critics (usually alluding to Collins's later mental collapse) to read the ending as despairing. But if a reader has one eye on the biography it may be difficult to keep the poem in perspective. The final lines — asserting that Milton's achievement was unique and that Heaven and Fancy "Have now o'erturn'd th'inspiring Bow'rs, / Or curtain'd close such Scene from ev'ry future View" — do not declare the death of all varieties of inspiration. As Patricia Spacks concludes, the "poem actually says, not that Heaven and Fancy have abandoned the poet, but that they have destroyed or concealed one particular 'scene' exemplified by Eden" (Spacks 1983: 15—16).

We might go still further toward an optimistic reading of the ode by underscoring the concluding lines' now and future. The poem's seeming diffidence ("My trembling Feet . . .") is belied by its achievement. Perhaps the inspiring bowers have now — just now — been destroyed, but not before they inspired the poem in hand. Perhaps the Edenic "Scene" is closed to any future view, but Collins and his readers have just had a good look. Had Collins's health been stronger and his brilliant debut been followed by a body of great poetry, the "Ode on the Poetical Character" might well be read not as a symptom of crippling "anxiety of influence" or the poet's "burden of the past" but as a heady declaration of independence. Altogether ignoring Alexander Pope, the poet whose influence most of his generation found inescapably burdensome, Collins suggests that the modern poet who would follow Milton cannot realize his "poetical character" by returning to Milton's world any more than Milton could simply revert to Spenser's.

See also chs. 28, "The Ode"; 34, "Augustanism and Pre-Romanticism"; 35, "Recovering the Past: Shakespeare, Spenser, and British Poetic Tradition."

References and Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed. (1971). The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, rev. and enlarged edn. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (First publ. 1961.)

Carver, P. L. (1967). The Life of a Poet: A Biographical Sketch of William Collins. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

Cohen, Ralph (2001). "The Return to the Ode." In John Sitter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry, 203—24). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Collins, William (1797). The Works of Mr William Collins, ed. Anna Letitia Aiken Barbauld. London: T. Cadell & W. Davies.

Fairer, David, and Gerrard, Christine, eds. (2004). Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fry, Paul H. (1980). The Poet's Calling in the English Ode, esp. 101—13. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Frye, Northrop (1956). "Towards Defining an Age of Sensibility." ELH 23: 2, 144-52.

Haney-Peritz, Janice (1981). " ' In quest of mistaken beauties': Allegorical Indeterminacy in Collins' Poetry." ELH 48, 732-56.

Heller, Deborah (1993). "Seeing but not Believing: The Problem of Vision in Collins's Odes." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 35, 103-23.

Johnston, Arthur (1974). The Poetry of William Collins: Warton Lecture on British Poetry. London: Oxford University Press.

Kirk, Gerald A. (1984). "Collins' love poem: 'Ode on the Poetical Character.' " South Central Review: The Journal of the South Central Modern Language Association 1: 4, 32-43.

Lonsdale, Roger, ed. (1969). The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, Oliver Goldsmith. London and New York: Longman.

Sherwin, Paul S. (1977). Precious Bane: Collins and the Miltonic Legacy. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Sigworth, Oliver F. (1965). William Collins. New York: Twayne.

Sitter, John (1982). Literary Loneliness in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press.

Spacks, Patricia Ann Meyer (1967). The Poetry of Vision: Five Eighteenth-Century Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Spacks, Patricia Ann Meyer (1983). "The Eighteenth-Century Collins." Modern Language Quarterly 44: 1, 3-22.

Van de Veire, Heidi (1988). "The Ordering of Vision in Collins's 'Ode on the Poetical Character.' " Essays in Literature 15: 2, 165-75.

Wasserman, Earl R. (1967). "Collins' 'Ode on the Poetical Character.' " ELH 34, 92-115.

Weinbrot, Howard D. (1990). "William Collins and the Mid-Century Ode: Poetry, Patriotism, and the Influence of Context." In Howard D. Weinbrot and Martin Price (eds.), Context, Influence, and Mid-Eighteenth-Century Poetry, 1-39. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California Press.

Weiskel, Thomas (1976). The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence, esp. 124-35. Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wendorf, Richard (1981). William Collins and Eighteenth-Century English Poetry. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wendorf, Richard, and Ryskamp, Charles, eds. (1979). The Works of William Collins. Oxford: Clarendon.

Collins Reconsidered." In Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom (eds.), From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, 93—137. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a

At the very end of his life of Thomas Gray, Samuel Johnson writes:

In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. . . . Had Gray written often thus, it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him. (Johnson 1975: 470)

Since its publication in 1751, Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard has gone on to worldwide fame, including in translation. It is certainly one of the most anthologized poems in the English language, and has long been prescribed in both school and university syllabi. Literary historians who trace the shift in the eighteenth century from the resolutely classical conception of polite poetry to a more vernacular idiom have emphasized the importance of this poem; indeed, several phrases from it have become commonplaces of the language itself, and lexicographers routinely turn to its lines for examples of usage. Even those critics who dislike parts or all of the poem do not dispute its historical centrality to the canon of English poetry, confirmed both in informal readings and in formal study.

Given all this, Johnson's comments seem both correct and prescient. However, it is hard to think of "the common sense of readers" being the same and unchanging across two centuries and more of the Elegy's popularity, and thus the foundation of the poem's success. In contrast, this essay will argue that if the Elegy has the power to move readers separated in time and place, and differentiated by levels of education and class, it is because the knotty, internally riven, shifting concerns of the poem enact the difficulty of achieving poetic, cultural, and social consensus, even as the poem finds, in the iconography and vocabulary of death, loss, and mourning, an affective or emotional substitute for such lack of consensus. Precisely because the poem is uncertain

0 0

Post a comment