In the preface to his 1764 volume of odes, Richard Shepherd describes the difference between the earlier generations of Restoration and eighteenth-century odes and the midcentury revival and revision of the form:
Of the descriptive and allegorical Ode, the Writings of the Ancients afford no Example . . . This Species of Writing is in almost every Circumstance different from the Pindarick Ode, which has its foundation in Fact and Reality, that Fact worked up and heightened by a studied Pomp and Grandeur of Expression; it not only admits of, but requires bold Digressions, abrupt and hasty Transitions: while the other is built intirely upon Fancy, and Ease and Simplicity of Diction are its peculiar Characteristicks. (Chapin 1955: 40)
Shepherd notes several important qualities of the midcentury ode: that it tends to be descriptive, allegorical, reliant upon "Fancy," and less difficult than the earlier Pindaric. This combination of descriptive and allegorical aspects may seem peculiar but is essential to understanding this midcentury rendition of the ode. First, the allegorical: the midcentury ode moved away from celebrating tangible, external phenomena (like King William or Anne Killigrew or a hurricane) and instead fixed its attention on allegorical personifications of intangible, abstract qualities or phenomena (like Simplicity or Evening or Cheerfulness). More and more, the ode took the form of direct and prolonged address of a personified abstraction. For example, William Collins addresses a personified Pity in his 1746 "Ode to Pity": "O Thou, the Friend of Man assign'd, / With balmy Hands his wounds to bind, / And charm his frantic Woe" (ll. 1-3). Collins's Pity is not like the subjects celebrated in older odes. Poet and reader understand that Pity, while real as an emotion, is fictional as a being in a poem. It may seem strange, then, for a poet to describe an abstracted being. What would Pity look like? Collins provides a lovely embodiment of her: "Long, Pity, let the nations view / Thy sky-worn Robes of tend'rest Blue, / And Eyes of dewy Light!" (ll. 9-12). Poets like Collins are often as interested in the abstraction's visual characteristics as in its intangible qualities, which is what Richard Shepherd means when he says these odes are descriptive as well as allegorical.
Shepherd's characterization also includes the important observation that midcen-tury odes are "built intirely upon Fancy." If the point of midcentury odes is not to show abstract personifications like Pity engaged in heroic actions - in the way that earlier Pindarics often depicted real historical events and persons - then the interest must be located elsewhere. Indeed, these midcentury odes consciously reject the historical interests shared by earlier odes and the larger body of Augustan poetry. The Advertisement to Joseph Warton's Odes on Various Subjects (1746) has served as a kind of founding declaration for this new kind of ode:
The Public has been so much accustom'd of late to didactic Poetry alone, and Essays on moral Subjects, that any work where the imagination is much indulged, will perhaps not be relished or regarded. The author therefore of these pieces is in some pain lest certain austere critics should think them too fanciful and descriptive. But as he is convinced that the fashion of moralizing in verse has been carried too far, and as he looks upon Invention and Imagination to be the chief faculties of a Poet, so he will be happy if the following Odes may be look'd upon as an attempt to bring back Poetry into its right Channel.
Opposing his odes more broadly to Augustan satiric and moral poetry, Warton emphasizes the imagination as a "chief faculty" of the poet. These midcentury poets replace the action of an external subject with an internal act of the poet's mind:
Warton calls it "Imagination"; Shepherd calls it "Fancy." In fact, a poet is a poet by virtue of this imaginative vision that allows him to invoke personified abstractions and be transformed by the encounter. In these encounters with personifications, poetic speakers typically turn away from the busy, public, day-lit world toward a dim and solitary natural scene where they can experience an imaginative vision. Warton's own "Ode to Fancy" features such a scene:
Tell me the path, sweet wand'rer, tell, To thy unknown sequester'd cell, Where woodbines cluster round the door, Where shells and moss o'erlay the floor.
Mark Akenside describes a similarly secluded scene of vision in his ode "To the Evening-Star" (1772):
Now, Hesper, guide my feet
Down the red marle with moss o'ergrown,
Through yon wild thicket next the plain,
Whose hawthorns choke the winding lane
Which leads to her retreat.
See the Green space: on either hand
Enlarg'd it spreads around.
The sites of imaginative vision in these poems are frequently scenes of nature, which takes on a new significance in this midcentury poetry.
Three important collections of odes - Akenside's Odes on Several Subjects (1745), Collins's Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects (1746), and Warton's Odes on Various Subjects (1746) - were published within a span of two years and together introduce many of the form's new directions. Collins and Warton had in fact initially planned a joint venture (until a publisher intervened). Akenside's odes, the earliest collection, break less dramatically than Warton or Collins from Augustan poetry. His subjects include personal and autobiographical ones - for instance "To a Friend, Unsuccessful in Love" - and are widely variant in matter and mood. Among Akenside's subjects are the winter solstice, cheerfulness, leaving Holland, the muse, Sir Francis Henry Drake, lyric poetry, and the evening star. The light of day shines more brightly in Akenside's odes than in Warton's or Collins's. In the "Hymn to Cheerfulness," Akenside leaves the melancholy mood to his contemporaries: "see where yonder pensive sage . . . Retires in desart scenes to dwell, / And bids the joyless world farewell" (ll. 105, 109-10). On the subject of the imagination, however, he is as enthusiastic as any of his melancholy contemporaries. In his ambitious Pindaric ode "On Lyric Poetry," Akenside rhapsodizes about his imaginative transport:
my presaging mind, Conscious of powers she never knew, Astonish'd grasps at things beyond her view, Nor by another's fate submits to be confin'd.
Unlike Akenside's, both Warton's and Collins's odes repeatedly stage the scenario of the poet's encounter with a personified abstraction. Both poets favor moods of quiet seclusion, addresses to female personifications, and imaginative transformations to an otherworldly space at the hands of the invoked quality. Their separate odes to evening reflect these preferences and also reveal interesting differences between the two poets. Both poets personify evening as a female figure; but Warton imagines her a "meek-ey'd maiden, clad in sober grey" (l. 1), while Collins evokes a more elusive and changeable figure who is in turn a "nymph reserved" (l. 5), a "maid composed" (l. 15), and a "calm vot'ress" (l. 29). Warton's evening scene is social and cheerful, populated by the whistling "weary woodman" who is "homeward bent to kiss his prattling babes" (ll. 2—3), "stout ploughmen" who "meet to wrestle on the green" (l. 16), and the "swain" who "artless sings on yonder rock" (l. 17). Collins's is a lonelier scene, silent save where the weak-eyed bat With short shrill shriek flits by on leathern wing, Or where the beetle winds His small but sullen horn.
After describing the components of the twilight scene, Warton entreats Evening to include him in her imaginative power: "O modest Evening, oft let me appear / A wandering votary in thy pensive train" (ll. 25—6). Collins alternates between painting the evening scene and contemplating the effect of his song on Evening's "modest ear" (l. 2). His description of the scene and request to partake of it fuse:
Now teach me, maid composed,
To breathe some softened strain,
Whose numbers, stealing through thy dark'ning vale,
May not unseemly with its stillness suit,
As, musing slow, I hail
Thy genial loved return!
Both odes aspire to shades considerably gentler than the sublime. They depict fanciful, rural scenes dominated not by grand Olympian deities but by humbler, local animations of nature.
Poetic retreats to rustic bowers and encounters with abstractions may seem remote from national and political concerns. In various ways, however, midcentury odes engage with just such concerns. One way is by announcing their descent from a British poetic tradition — particularly from Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Milton — and reclaiming these poets' access to nature, the sublime, and the imagination. Some earlier poets like John Dennis and Matthew Prior had used the ode to praise and lay claim to the British poetic tradition, but the midcentury poets found new reasons to align themselves with this ancestry. Thomas Gray, in his ode "The Progress of Poesy" (1757), traces the lineage of British poetry, including a sketch of Shakespeare in the lap of Mother Nature:
The dauntless Child
Stretch'd forth his little arms and smiled.
This pencil take she said, whose colours clear
Richly paint the vernal year.
Shakespeare is seen as the poet of nature and fancy, attuned to the deepest feelings and able to animate them imaginatively. Even more compelling to these poets is Milton, whose imagination they view as wilder, more sublime, perhaps even inaccessible in their age. Gray's portrait in "The Progress of Poesy" embodies the age's enthrallment with Milton as well as its uncertainty about assuming Milton's power:
Nor second He, that rode sublime
Upon the seraph-wings of Exstasy,
The secrets of th' Abyss to spy.
He pass'd the flaming bounds of Place and Time:
The living Throne, the sapphire-blaze
Where Angels tremble, while they gaze,
He saw; but blasted with excess of light,
Closed his eyes in endless night.
Not every Miltonic echo in the mid-eighteenth century is quite so extraterrestrial. Gray's transgressive Milton is the epic Milton of Paradise Lost. Just as influential on the period, particularly as models for the ode, were two lyric poems, "L'Allegro" (1645) and "Il Penseroso" (1645). These companion poems feature two female personifications, the first mirthful and the second melancholic, addressed by a speaker who wishes to dwell with each in turn. Midcentury poets admired Milton's ability to bring these abstractions vividly and visually to life; this aspect of Milton inspired imitation rather than intimidation. By sketching and claiming the poetic legacy of poets like Milton, Shakespeare, and Spenser, the midcentury poets help to shape notions of British literary history.
Gray extended the British poetic lineage further back in his Pindaric ode "The Bard" (1757). In the wake of his unexpectedly popular Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard (1751), Gray chose to attempt a more ambitious form: the regular
Pindaric. Applying the advice of Congreve as almost no one else in the eighteenth century had, Gray published two regular Pindarics in 1757: "The Bard" and "The Progress of Poesy." These demanding poems explored the distant origins of present-day British poetry, combining a rigorous execution of the Pindaric form with the poetic concerns of Gray's era. In "The Progress of Poesy," Gray traces a history of poetry from ancient Greece to modern Britain. He asserts Britain's claim to have succeeded Greece and Rome as the seat of poetic power: "When Latium had her lofty spirit lost, / They sought, oh Albion! next thy sea-encircled coast" (ll. 81-2). This ambitious association of ancient poetic achievement and a modern British lineage gives way to an uncertain conclusion. The lyre of Fancy falls silent, as Gray ponders who might "wake" the instrument again. Such a successor occupies in this poem a curious intermediary position: "Yet shall he mount, and keep his distant way / Beyond the limits of a vulgar fate, / Beneath the Good how far - but far above the Great" (ll. 121-3). This puzzling final line has come to embody for modern readers the ambiguity and hesitation with which many midcentury poets colored the full realization of their ambitious poetic visions. Critical accounts have frequently exaggerated midcentury poets' anxieties and uncertainties about their poetic inheritance; rather, the combination of bold assertion and disrupting interference with that assertion may well be the most interesting characteristic of these poets. Gray's "The Bard," for instance, employs the modern Pindaric to memorialize the slaughter of thirteenth-century British poets by Edward I. His defiant bard prophesies the doomed fate of Edward's family, the Plantagenets, because of this transgression, but then plunges from a mountain to his death at the end of the poem. Again, this poem both asserts a bold connection to British poetic ancestry - imagining the figure of the poet as controversial and dangerous within the sphere of the nation - but then ends with that poet's suicide. Gray had been inspired to write this ode after seeing a blind harpist named John Parry perform at Cambridge. His figure of the bard embodied the mid-century ode's new claims of access to imaginative inspiration and its insistent links to a native British tradition.
The midcentury ode was self-consciously British not only in its claimed ancestry but in its subject matter. Even before Gray, Akenside, Collins, and Warton used the form to animate a distinctly British natural scene, the ode paid tribute to British military and commercial might. Edward Young published two lengthy odes, Ocean: An Ode, Occasioned by His Majesty's Royal Encouragement of the Sea Service (1728) and Imperium Pelagi. A Naval Lyric (1730), both of which celebrate emerging British imperial power. In Imperium Pelagi, Young envisions a voracious Britain appropriating goods from across the globe:
Cold Russia costly furs from far,
Hot China sends her painted jar,
France generous wines to crown it: Arab sweet
With gales of incense swells our sails;
Nor distant Ind our merchant fails,
Her richest ore the ballast of our fleet.
All these one British harvest make!
The servant Ocean for thy sake
Both sinks and swells: his arms thy bosom wrap,
And fondly give, in boundless dower
To mighty George's growing power,
The wafted world into thy loaded lap.
Suvir Kaul has made a fascinating argument that the relationship between such nationalist discourse and the ode was not accidental. Suggesting that the ode made a "topical and urgent contribution to the civic discourse of the nation" (Kaul 2000: 191), he argues that the ode's access to sublimity and poetic power suited an expansionist nation. Poets like Young assert Britain's imperial ambition through the ode's rhetorical technique of apostrophe, which then ceases to be simply a "vocative O" and instead enacts nationalist aspirations (ll. 211-12). Kaul's reading helps to emphasize the ode's increasing attention to British power (political and poetic) over the course of the eighteenth century, and it complicates the assumption that the midcentury ode seeks uncomplicated retreat from public concerns.
See also chs. 1, "Poetry, Politics, and the Rise of Party"; 2, "Poetry, Politics, and Empire"; 5, "Poetic Enthusiasm"; 19, "William Collins, 'Ode on the Poetical Character' "; 33, "The Classical Inheritance"; 34, "Augustanism and Pre-Romanticism"; 37, "The Sublime."
References and Further Reading
Carne-Ross, D. S. (1985). Pindar. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Chapin, Chester F. (1955). Personification in Eighteenth-Century English Poetry. New York: King's Crown Press, Columbia University.
Culler, Jonathan (1981). The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Reconstruction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Doody, Margaret Anne (1985). The Daring Muse: Augustan Poetry Reconsidered. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Fry, Paul H. (1980). The Poet's Calling in the English Ode. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Kaul, Suvir (2000). Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire: English Verse in the Long Eighteenth Century. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia.
Knapp, Steven (1985). Personification and the Sublime: Milton to Coleridge. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press.
MacLean, Norman (1952). "From Action to Image: Theories of the Lyric in the Eighteenth Century." In R. S. Crane (ed.), Critics and Criticism, 408—60. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Price, Martin (1969). "The Sublime Poem: Pictures and Powers." Yale Review 58, 104-213.
Shuster, George N. (1940). The English Ode from Milton to Keats. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sitter, John (1982). Literary Loneliness in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press. Weinbrot, Howard D. (1993). Britannia's Issue: The Rise of British Literature from Dryden to
Ossian. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Williams, Anne (1984). Prophetic Strain: The Greater Lyric in the Eighteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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