The Restoration

The period's voracious appetite for odes was first whetted in 1656 with Abraham Cowley's publication of his Pindarique Odes, Written in Imitation of the Stile & Manner of the Odes of Pindar. The first ode in English had appeared in 1582 in a volume of poetry by Thomas Watson, a friend of Christopher Marlowe's, but the form did not become widespread in England until the seventeenth century. Poets like Ben Jonson, Richard Fanshawe, and Andrew Marvell wrote odes after the looser ancient model of Horace, while John Milton and Richard Crashaw employed the form to religious ends. But Cowley's collection marked a new and infectious enthusiasm for the ode, most notably a turn toward Pindar as a model. Pindar (born c. 1518 bce) wrote victory odes — formally intricate sublime songs celebrating the athletic triumphs of Greek heroes. Cowley and his followers admired Pindar's passion, extravagance, abrupt transitions, frequent digressions, and bold metaphors. They applied these techniques to encomiastic odes on royal and military power.

Pindar's elaborate metrical and stanzaic patterns — including a triadic series of stanzas called the strophe, antistrophe, and epode, which reflected dance patterns that were part of the original choric performance of the Greek ode — were a more controversial matter. Cowley strongly advocated irregular imitation of Pindar's spirit and tone rather than strict translation and formal accuracy; his lines, rhymes, and stanzas did not conform to fixed patterns. In his preface to the volume he claimed that Pindar required modernization to be intelligible to a contemporary audience: "If a man should undertake to translate Pindar word for word, it would be thought that one Mad man had translated another." Instead, Cowley saw himself as introducing the "noblest and highest kind of writing in Verse" in an "English habit." His genius was to combine ancient Greek appeal with new ambitions and options for English poetry, celebrating a variety of subjects in odes bearing titles such as "To Mr. Hobs," "The Resurrection," "The Muse," "Brutus," "To the New Year," "The Plagues of Egypt," and "Life."

The extravagance of the Pindaric ode suited a nation glorying in the restoration of its monarch, Charles II, to the throne. As Pindar's victory odes had praised not simply an athletic hero but by extension that hero's family, city, and divine patrons, so too the modern Pindaric paid tribute to a wider community — most often, Britain as a nation — through its profuse praise of a figure who embodied that nation, usually a monarch or military hero. Many Pindarics of the Restoration and early eighteenth century were also panegyrics — poems of elaborate praise — of leaders and heroes. The return of Charles II in 1660 was hailed with odes, including one from Cowley himself. Charles's death in 1685 also prompted an imposing tribute: John Dryden's Threnodia Augustalis. A Funeral-Pindarique. This 517-line ode grieves protractedly, detailing the illness and death of "Our Atlas." Dryden makes abundantly clear that the fate of Britain hinges upon the fate of her kings:

For all those Joys thy Restauration brought,

For all the Miracles it wrought,

For all the healing Balm thy Mercy pour'd

Into the Nations bleeding Wound . . .

For these and more, accept our Pious Praise;

'Tis all the Subsidy

The present Age can raise,

The rest is charg'd on late Posterity.

In elegiac tone, Dryden's ode attempts the more practical purpose of assuring his nation that Charles's brother James II - who would be unseated within three years -is the proper successor. The ode compares James II to Hercules (an unlikely analogy for this weak and unpopular ruler), and it closes with a vision of his long, prosperous reign, complete with a conquering British navy: a force that would come to figure prominently in the ode in coming decades.

The loftiness and freedom of the Cowleyan Pindaric attracted many imitators less talented than Dryden. By the early decades of the eighteenth century, incompetent practitioners of the form, using it to curry favor and fortune by exaggerating the merits of undeserving recipients, had virtually discredited it. The "birthday ode," commissioned annually to honor the King, became an oft-cited marker of the panegyric ode's degeneration during the first half of the eighteenth century. Discerning the early evidence of erosion, Dryden and another influential Restoration poet, William Congreve, undertook to regularize the form. In his 1705 "Discourse on the Pindarique Ode," the preface to his "Daughters of Memory" ode (officially entitled A Pindarique Ode Humbly offer'd to the Queen On the Victorious Progress of Her Majesty's Arms, under the Conduct of the Duke of Marlborough), Congreve produced the first important critical response to Cowley and his imitators. Congreve terms this response "an Attempt towards restoring the Regularity of the ancient Lyrick Poetry, which seems to be altogether forgotten or unknown by our English writers." Cowley did capture Pindar's beauty, Congreve acknowledges, but stimulated a profusion of slipshod imitations. For Congreve, form — not freedom — is the true gratification in Pindar. He proposes an alternative basis for the English Pindaric: the "Harmony and Regularity of Pindar's Numbers." Congreve wanted to retain the ode's sublimity and force while elevating the form by its difficulty and complexity.

Congreve was mistaken in believing that English poets would heed his advice. The Pindaric ode's boldness and irregularity appealed to both poets and readers, kindling a connection between ancient Greek grandeur and modern British freedom that would flame out more fully in the early decades of the eighteenth century. Dryden was the more effective critic of Cowley and the irregular Pindaric, taking a practical rather than a theoretical approach to refining the ode's unevenness. Dryden exerted several lasting influences on the form, notably an inclusion and exaltation of humbler, more everyday subject matter within the province of the ode and a reorientation of the ode toward its musical origins. The ode had been inextricably linked with music in ancient Greece; indeed, the word ode derives from the Greek aeidein, "to sing," "to chant." Pindar's odes — like all the Greek melic or lyric poetry that influenced eighteenth-century poetry so powerfully — had been performed as song and dance, accompanied by the music of the flute or lyre. Until the seventeenth-century renewal of British interest (and beyond it, in some cases), the term ode referred not only to elevated public poems but also to lesser forms such as songs, hymns, and ballads. The elevated public ode was reunited with its musical origins in Milton, whose great "Nativity Ode" (1645) featured an exalted scene of divine music.

These changes are richly illustrated in two irregular Pindaric odes that Dryden wrote in honor of St. Cecilia's Day: "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day" (1687) and "Alexander's Feast" (1697). Dryden wrote these two St. Cecilia's Day odes ten years apart, participating in a tradition that began in 1683 and lasted until 1708. These poems were written each year by a prominent poet, set to music by a prominent composer, and performed at a festival in observance of the patron saint of music. Congreve,

Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope also wrote well-known St. Cecilia's Day odes. In "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day," Dryden imagines an aural creation:

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,

This universal frame began:

When nature underneath a heap

Of jarring atoms lay,

And could not heave her head,

The tuneful voice was heard from high,

"Arise, ye more than dead."

Dryden again proposes music as a channel between the earthly and the sacred. Music exerts its power (in the poem and, presumably, in the concert space) by moving the passions of its listeners. The alarming trumpet, the "soft complaining" flute, the "warbling" lute, and the "sharp" violins in turn make their appeals to the passions; but only Cecilia's sacred organ can induce the appearance of an angel "Mistaking earth for heaven" (l. 54). The later ode, "Alexander's Feast, or The Power of Music," features a similar series of musical supplications, this time in the context of a more elaborate narrative, which imagines various passions produced by music during a royal feast celebrating the victory of Alexander the Great in Persia. In Dryden's legacy, eighteenth-century poets continued to write sacred and heroic odes intended for musical accompaniment and dramatic performance.

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