John Sitter

William Collins's "Ode on the Poetical Character" is arguably the most difficult English lyric poem written before the 1790s and one of the most difficult of any era. Confronting the nature of its difficulty directly may best help one appreciate the 25-year-old poet's high achievement. That difficulty stems in part from Collins's personal vision and in part from historical and generic conventions. Since its revival in the seventeenth century, the ode, descending generally from Pindar and Horace, was associated with loftiness and obscurity [see ch. 28, "The Ode"]. These expectations persisted into the early nineteenth century; thus, Wordsworth's ode "Intimations of Immortality" comprises grander diction, statelier syntax, more abrupt transitions, and more speculative philosophy than his lesser lyrics. But Collins seems to have regarded the ode as a medium for psychological exploration to a greater extent than had seventeenth-century predecessors such as Ben Jonson, Abraham Cowley, Andrew Marvell, or John Dryden. Many of the dozen Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects (dated 1747, actually published December 20, 1746) look inward, forgoing narrative or public events. Instead, they depict the "shad'wy Tribes of Mind' alluded to in the "Ode on the Poetical Character" (l. 47): those passions, perceptions, and mental states that seem to have interested Collins precisely because of their elusive force. In "Ode on the Poetical Character" Collins takes on the subject of such demanding modern works as W. B. Yeats's Byzantium poems or many of Wallace Stevens's meditations, namely, the source and power of poetic imagination itself.

Collins approaches the subject obliquely, beginning with an extended simile alluding to Spenser's Faerie Queene: just as the belt ("girdle") properly belonging to the chaste Florimel cannot be worn by an unworthy pretender to virtue, so poetic genius is given to only a few. But since most readers new to Collins find his syntax every bit as challenging as his allusions, it will help to work through the poem's three parts, beginning in each case with straightforward, deliberately unimaginative paraphrases.

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