Scott, George Walton. Robert Herrick. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.
"ODE TO EVENING" William Collins (1746)
William Collins published a collection titled Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects (1746), of which "Ode to Evening" was one. His lyric poem demonstrates the characteristic traits of an ode, including its focus on a particular occasion or event and its formal tone and form. Collins selects a traditional topic, as salutes to both the evening and the morning, the latter termed an aubade, were plentiful. At the same time he takes a unique approach by writing 52 lines with no rhyme. That may have been a characteristic that caused Samuel Johnson to write of Collins's poetry that it often received commendation, gathering "praise when it gives little pleasure." Collins uses figurative language to personify the evening as a female named Eve. The association of that name with the first woman, according to biblical tradition, and her garden serves Collins well in his many references to nature. He opens with the hope that "chaste Eve" will welcome his "pastoral song," that his words might "soothe thy modest ear, / Like thy own solemn springs, / Thy springs and dying gales." Reference to the gales and the solemnity of the spring represents the poet's recognition of the power of natural forces, and of man's arbitrary limits of time. He also personifies "the bright-haired sun," which "sits in yon western tent," beneath "cloudy skirts" in deference to evening's arrival.
The speaker's reference to a creature, a bat, and his use of alliteration exemplifies Johnson's criticism that the poet's "cluster of consonants" often "impeded" the movement of his verse: "Now air is hushed, save where the weak-ey'd bat / With short shrill shriek flits by on leathern wing." While Johnson may have reacted negatively in an Augustan age accustomed to the application of reason over fancy, later readers would appreciate Collins's more original approach. The poem's persona compares his own song to that of the bat, or of a beetle that "winds / His small but sullen horn," often ignored by a wandering "pilgrim" as a "heedless hum." The speaker wants "To breathe some softened strain," as Collins perhaps suggests the topic of inspiration, which means literally "to breathe into." Many poets were inspired by nature, and so the speaker hopes to offer music "Whose numbers," or rhythm, stealing through thy darkening vale
May not unseemly with its stillness suit;
As musing slow, I hail
Thy genial loved return!
Collins lives up to his reputation, as assessed by Johnson, using both consonance and assonance in his lines. Although Johnson found Collins's slow-moving lines annoying, the poet admits that he purposely engages in "musing slow," finding it appropriate to his topic.
The speaker next references the evening star, whose "warning lamp" arouses elves and nymphs, bearing
"The Pensive Pleasures sweet" to "Prepare thy shadowy car." Again Collins references slow thought by adopting the term pensive. His imagery supports the quiet tone as he describes "some sheety lake" that "Cheers the lone heath, or some time-hallowed pile, / Or upland fallows grey." However, he makes clear that Eve may also bear "chill blustering winds or driving rain" that confines the speaker to a hut where "from the mountain's side" he "views wilds and swelling floods." He also notes how evening differs according to the season: Spring "pour[s] his showers" and "bathe[s] thy breathing tresses," while Summer "loves to sport / Beneath thy lingering light," and "sallow Autumn fills thy lap with leaves," but winter yells "through the troublous air, / Affrights thy shrinking train," and "rudely rends thy robes." His personification of the seasons equates each one's effect on evening with its effect on man, with preference given to the three seasons that are not winter, as they all entail longer, more enjoyable evenings. This establishes sympathy between man and evening. He concludes by assuring evening that "Fancy, Friendship, Science, rose-lipped Health" own her "gentlest influence" and sing hymns to her name.
This ode shows why some critics feel that, had he lived a sane life and reached creative maturity, Collins might have joined the top tier of poets, Johnson's criticism notwithstanding.
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