The first section (the strophe) and third (the antistrophe) follow identical metrical patterns; they are separated by a middle section (mesode), which in this case consists of thirty-two lines in tetrameter couplets. Here is the strophe:
As once, if not with light Regard, I read aright that gifted Bard, (Him whose School above the rest His loveliest Elfin Queen has blest.) One, only One, unrival'd Fair, Might hope the magic Girdle wear, At solemn Turney hung on high, The Wish of each love-darting Eye;
Lo! to each other Nymph in turn applied,
As if, in Air unseen, some hov'ring Hand, 10
Some chaste and Angel-Friend to Virgin-Fame, With whisper'd Spell had burst the starting Band, It left unblest her loath'd dishonour'd Side; Happier hopeless Fair, if never Her baffled Hand with vain Endeavour Had touch'd that fatal Zone to her denied! Young Fancy thus, to me Divinest Name,
To whom, prepar'd and bath'd in Heav'n, The Cest of amplest Pow'r is given:
To few the God-like Gift assigns, 20
To gird their blest prophetic Loins, And gaze her Visions wild, and feel unmix'd her Flame!
Here is the barest sense of these lines:
Just as only one of Spenser's beautiful women could hope to win the prize sash, so young Fancy (creative Imagination) gives the power of her own heavenly belt only to those few she lets share her visions and passion.
And here is an attempt to render its prose "statement" more completely:
Just as once, if I read Spenser rightly, only one peerless beauty could hope to wear the magic belt displayed at the solemn tournament (coveted by many of the young women, though if any but the deserving one tried to put it on it would fall from her body, so that she would then be more shamed than if she'd never presumed to wear it), so young Fancy, most divine to me and endowed from heaven with her own powerful belt, bestows its power only on the chosen few whom she lets share her visions and feel her passion.
Arriving at either of these paraphrases takes considerable time and energy, and neither will seem fully right to many readers. The immediate sources of difficulty and ambiguity are diction, allusion, and syntax. The first two are related, as Collins not only refers to an incident from The Faerie Queene but uses exotic diction to suggest Spenser's language. Several words in the strophe were already archaic or at least uncommon in the 1740s, just as many of Spenser's were in the 1590s. Eighteenth-century writers, for example, did not often use aright as an adverb, girdle, cest, and zone for belt and sash, or turney for tournament. While many of Collins's contemporaries would readily invert normal word order when composing poetry, thus arriving at a phrase like the magic Girdle wear for wear the magic girdle, they would not normally omit to before an infinitive verb (hope. . . wear, instead of hope to . . . wear).
When the allusions and obscure words have been sorted out, usually with the help of modern editorial footnotes, the reader still faces an unusually difficult syntactic structure. As the paraphrases indicate, the twenty-two lines of the strophe are a single sentence, despite the printed punctuation. (Eighteenth-century punctuation sometimes indicates pauses rather than grammatical distinctions, and in many cases represents decisions made by the printer rather than the author.) Long sentences are not necessarily difficult; some are really no more than a series of short sentences spliced together. Collins's sentence is highly parenthetical and "periodic": that is, its central idea is not complete until near the end, with the main subject and verb: "Fancy . . . assigns" (ll. 17—20). The underlying structure of the strophe is Just as X, so Y: just as only one woman could win, so only a few poets are favored. But that structure is nearly swamped by the amount of parenthetical information loaded on immediately. The first marked parenthesis (ll. 3—4), is actually the ode's second, for the poem interrupts itself in the first line with the parenthetical qualification "if not with light Regard, / I read aright that gifted Bard." That qualification slows one down even more in uncertainty as to whether to read read as the present or past tense of the verb: as referring to the speaker's ongoing interpretation of Spenser or to some earlier encounter with him. And that fleeting indecision has in turn the odd, retroactive effect of rendering the first two words ambiguous: does the phrase "As once" refer to episodes from The Faerie Queene (yes, eventually) or to an episodic memory of reading and interpretation?
Once past these parentheses, we get our bearings only briefly before plunging again into qualification and elaboration. The momentary clearing comes at line 6; there, briefly, at least the first half of a comparison can be grasped: just as once upon a time only one fair lady could hope to wear the magic girdle . . . but we have to work through another ten lines before getting, in line 17, to the "thus" (or "so" in modern parlance) that "just as" has led us to expect and which eventually applies the comparison to prophetic poets. In between come three stages of modification. First, the girdle is the one displayed at each tournament and coveted by all (ll. 7—8). Next, it is the belt that would fall off the waist of any but the rightful owner (ll. 9—13). Finally, it is the belt that left unworthy pretenders less happy than if they had not tried to wear it at all (ll. 14—16). Each of these modifications might be regarded as parenthetical, and the middle one (ll. 9—13) even includes a parenthesis of its own (ll. 10—12): the belt falls off "as if " some invisible hand "burst" it apart. And with each modification the point of view changes. The girdle is first the general focus of attention for all attending the tournament, where it hangs "on high." Then it is seen in a succession of close-ups, falling from the bodies of individual women. The final point of view is that of the humiliated pretenders themselves, "hopeless" as a result of their overreaching.
Our labor so far naturally raises the question of what all this difficulty is for. What is the function of syntax so demanding, assertion so qualified, and an extended simile so elusive? Before taking these questions up, let us get the whole poem in mind.
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