Mesode Fancy and the Creation

One of Collins's early editors and admirers, the poet Anna Barbauld, called the audacious mesode a "strange and by no means reverential fiction concerning the Divine Being" (Collins 1797: xxiv). It comprises a series of sixteen tetrameter couplets, somewhat breathless and insistent in their rhythms:

The Band, as Fairy Legends say, Was wove on that creating Day,

When He, who call'd with Thought to Birth 25

Yon tented Sky, this laughing Earth,

And drest with Springs, and Forests tall,

And pour'd the Main engirting all,

Long by the lov'd Enthusiast woo'd,

Himself in some Diviner Mood, 30

Retiring, sate with her alone,

And plac'd her on his Saphire Throne,

The whiles, the vaulted Shrine around,

Seraphic Wires were heard to sound,

Now sublimest Triumph swelling, 35

Now on Love and Mercy dwelling;

And she, from out the veiling Cloud,

Breath'd her magic Notes aloud:

And Thou, Thou rich-hair'd Youth of Morn,

And all thy subject Life was born! 40

The dang'rous Passions kept aloof,

Far from the sainted growing Woof:

But near it sate Ecstatic Wonder,

List'ning the deep applauding Thunder:

And Truth, in sunny Vest array'd, 45

By whose the Tarsel's Eyes were made; All the shad'wy Tribes of Mind, In braided Dance their Murmurs join'd,

And all the bright uncounted Pow'rs,

Who feed on Heav'n's ambrosial Flow'rs. 50

Where is the Bard, whose Soul can now

Its high presuming Hopes avow?

Where He who thinks, with Rapture blind,

This hallow'd Work for Him design'd?

Here is its underlying sense:

Legends say the band was woven when God the Creator, long loved by Fancy, retired with her alone and put her on his throne; then Fancy sang and the youth of morn and his subject life were born. The dangerous passions took no part in weaving the belt, but Wonder, Truth, the shadowy tribes of mind, and the benign powers all did. Where is the poet who can avow his own ambition and imagine this hallowed work meant for him?

An attempt to render Collins more closely might result in the following:

According to fairy legends, the band was woven on the day God, who created the sky, earth, and sea and who had long been loved by Fancy, retired alone with her in an even more divine mood than usual, putting her on his sapphire throne while angelic harps played, sublimely and tenderly, and Fancy sang from within a cloud, and you, the rich-haired youth of morn, and all your subject life were born. The dangerous passions kept away from the holy weaving, but Wonder, Truth, all the shadowy tribes of mind, and all the bright powers who feed on the flowers of heaven joined their murmurs in a braided dance. Where now is the poet whose soul can avow its own ambition and who, in blind rapture, imagines this hallowed work designed for him?

As both paraphrases indicate, the thirty-two lines contain only three sentences. The fuller version better reflects the length and complexity of the first of these (ll. 23—40). In this long sentence, most of what follows the first two lines modifies "that creating Day," specifying increasingly just what made it that day and just how profoundly creative it was. (I will explore the ambiguous status of lines 25—8 below.) Once we understand this underlying grammar, the sentence is less difficult than the poem's opening sentence. It contains as many subordinate clauses as the first sentence, but of less complexity (technically, adverbial and adjectival rather than absolute constructions), and it breaks more readily into a series of shorter phrases and clauses linked by and. This near run-on quality — common in children's speech — also contributes to the excited breathlessness of the sentence. The section as a whole follows the same contrastive structure as the strophe and antistrophe: a long visionary excursion to Back Then or Up There is followed by a short conclusion returning to Here and Now (ll. 51-4; cf. ll. 17-22 and 72-6).

The mesode's difficulty is less syntactic than thematic. Collins's mixture of "fairy" legend and Genesis leads to a surprising creation story, one that seems to be revealing what happened some time after or during the biblical creation. Interpreters differ over just how heterodox this narrative is, a question considered below. Both paraphrases avoid "translating" the poem's most contested ambiguity, the "rich-hair'd Youth of Morn" (l. 39). Many critics understand this phrase to refer to the sun; another group, probably smaller but influential, take it to mean the poet. We will be better able to consider this crux and other difficulties in the section in light of the whole poem.

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