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Odes by Gray and Collins

Eton College

Odes by Thomas Gray and William Collins


George Soule

A talk given at the Wordsworth Winter School, Grasmere, Cumbria on February 4, 2006, prepared with the assistance of a grant from Carleton College.

You never know when you are going to encounter an ode. Although few odes have been written recently, you might run into one at any moment. My moment came last summer when my wife and I, after a visit to Grasmere, motored to London and dined with a friend at the restaurant Bibendum. I knew the name had to do with drink. Fortunately, our friend is a classicist, and he knew the full phrase “nunc est bibendum” from Horace’s 37th ode of Book 1. The phrase is translated in my Loeb edition as “now is the time to drain the flowing bowl,” which we did in Horatian moderation. In the ode, Horace asks his audience to drink deeply to celebrate the death of Cleopatra, whom he reviles. Then the ode switches its focus. Horace ends up praising Cleopatra for her spirit and bravery--“no craven woman she!”[1]


So odes are ancient and can surprise. More to our purpose, many Romantic poets wrote odes. I’ll bet that once many of you shared my boyish assumption that Romantic poems flowed out spontaneously, without any thought to old-fashioned genres, though they created new ones like the conversation poem (“This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison”). But in actuality these poets knew a great deal about conventional genres and would often choose to use one of them—perhaps not a Popeian epistle, but such forms as ballads, sonnets, and odes. (Even “Tintern Abbey, sometimes called a conversation poem, can be read as a pastoral elegy.)

The question now is, when Romantic poets decided to write an ode, what did they think they were writing? A bit of literary history. Odes were written in classical times, most notably by Pindar and Horace. A classical ode has been defined as a “long lyric poem that is serious in subject, elevated in style, and elaborate in its stanzaic structure.”[2] Ode-writing was taken up again with the revival of learning in the Fifteenth Century and arrived in England a century or so later with Jonson, Milton, Marvell, Cowley, and Dryden. In reality, a poet could call almost anything he wrote and “ode,” and they come in many shapes and sizes. But in general a Romantic poet could choose to take two types of ode as his or her starting place and then modify that type.

A Pindaric ode imitates the structure of Pindar’s poems, which are composed of sets of three stanzas each: the strophe (which has an intricate meter and irregular lines), the antistrope (which repeats this pattern), and the epode (which displays a different structure). Pindar’s strict schemes were not completely understood until early in the nineteenth century, so the Pindaric ode in English could mean one that imitated the triadic arrangement of Pindar or one that was an “irregular ode”—a poem elevated in thought and diction, but irregular in length of stanzas, length of lines, and patterns of rhymes, like Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode.

In contrast, a Horatian ode imitates those written by Horace. These were sometimes less serious, and each Horatian ode contains only one repeated stanzaic pattern.

The middle of the eighteenth century saw an eruption of odes, almost as if poets were liberated by the death of Pope. These odes were written by young poets intent on creating a new kind of poetry to challenge the sentiments and forms of the Great Augustans. Here is a count of odes in their collections: Joseph Warton 14, Mark Akenside 32, William Collins 13, and Thomas Gray 9. Romantic poets knew these poems. Wordsworth certainly was introduced to many of them by his teacher at Hawkshead, William Taylor.[3]

Today I’ll discuss some odes by Gray and Collins. Even though most of Gray’s odes were written after Collins’, I will consider Gray’s first.

Gray’s odes came in three bunches, the first two of which followed the death of a beloved person. His school friend Richard West died June 1, 1742. “Ode on the Spring” and the “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” were written shortly thereafter. “Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard,” another reaction to West’s death, was begun within a few years. In 1753, Gray’s mother died, and over the next few years he completed “The Progress of Poesy” and “The Bard.”

“Ode on Spring” is written in five stanzas with identical patterns of somewhat irregular versification, more Horatian than Pindaric. It strikes the pessimistic notes found everywhere in Gray. Although it begins by evoking the glories of the season, the poet soon reflects on the vanity of the Crowd and the indigence of the Great. Men are as different as the gaily-colored insects that fly in the air or swarm on the water—all of them will end the same way. Things get worse. Gray, much like Horace, shifts his argument. The poet imagines someone of “the sportive kind” who reproaches the poet himself: Not only will you die like everyone else, you (Gray) have no joy at present: no “glittering” females, no “hoarded sweets,” no “painted plumage. . . . On hasty wings thy youth is flown; / Thy sun is set, thy spring is gone.” In contrast, we sportive, normal types “frolick, while ‘tis May” (42-50). In short, most men frolic at least in their youth. You have not had even that.[4]

“Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” is a major effort. The poem is written in the Horatian manner, employing the same somewhat irregular stanza as is “Ode on Spring.” Its style is heightened by many figures of speech.

Ye distant spires, ye antique towers
That crown the watery glade,
Where grateful Science still adores
Her Henry’s holy shade;
And ye, that from the stately brow
Of Windsor’s heights th’ expanse below
Of grove, of lawn, of mead survey,
Whose turf, whose shade, whose flowers among
Wanders the hoary Thames along
His silver-winding way: (1-10)

Gray starts with two apostrophes to personified buildings, one to “ye distant spires” of Eton and the other to a second “ye,” presumably the towers of Windsor Castle. Almost every noun in the stanza has an epithet (distant towers, watery glade, silver-winding way). “Science” (that is knowledge and learning) is personified, as is the Thames itself, as an old, majestic river-god. The diction may not be as “high” as that of Paradise Lost (words like “turf” are not in the high style, though substituting “mead” for “meadow” may be), but it is nowhere vulgar. Likewise the general tone is lofty.

Something important is going on--something important, but what? Even though the stanza ends with a period, it is not a sentence. All that has happened grammatically is that the poet has apostrophized some towers. Of course, the most important thing is that Gray has evoked impressive old buildings and how they harmonize with the beauty of the spring meadows and the winding old river, a fitting place for happy boys to play.

In stanza two he continues his apostrophizing:
Ah, happy hills! Ah, pleasing shade!
Ah, fields belov’d in vain!
Where once my careless childhood stray’d,
A stranger yet to pain!
I feel the gales that from ye blow
A momentary bliss bestow,
As waving fresh their gladsome wing
My weary soul they seem to soothe,
And, redolent of joy and youth,
To breathe a second spring. (11-20)

The poem moves towards its central idea: although a child may be happy, a man’s lot is pain. Gray gives first hint of this theme when he addresses the “fields belov’d in vain”—loving the fields as a boy has done the poet no good. (Gray was in fact at Eton from 1725 until 1734—eight years before the poem was written.) But then comes a surprising turn. Gray signals it by writing the poem’s first sentence: “I feel the gales. . .” This new grammatical mood is accompanied by a momentary new mental mood, one in which Gray feels, not the visual sensations of the poem’s opening, but the touch of a breeze on his skin. He is thereby enabled to experience a “momentary bliss.” The gales soothe the poet’s “weary soul” into a brief “second spring” even at this late date.[5]

This happy thought initiates a series of three stanzas that are not so gloomy as the reader might have anticipated. In stanza three, Father Thames is asked if he has seen the boys at their sports on his “margent” or bank. In a consciously witty use of high poetic and even mock-heroic diction, Gray refers to the boys’ activities: some “delight to cleave / With pliant arm [the] glassy wave” (swimming), some “enthrall the captive linnet” (bird-snaring), some “chase the rolling circle’s speed” (hoop-rolling), and some “urge the flying ball” (trap-ball, my sources tell me).[6] The next stanza somewhat obscurely refers to activities other than sport. Boys study their books, mouthing the words as they read, preparing for “graver hours” when they recite for their masters. Some boys sneak outside of school (to “unknown regions”), always looking back to see if a master is chasing them, hearing “a voice in every wind.” Gray looks charitably and humorously at all these activities, though his wit and circumlocutions place them at a distance from the poet and his readers.

The next stanza (Stanza 6) is mainly about the happy mental and physical condition of the school-boys. What tears there are do not last long. Somewhat more ominously, some hoped-for things turn out to be “Less pleasing when possessed.” Such small disappointments prefigure the abrupt shift in tone and meaning in Stanza 7.

Alas! Regardless of their doom,
The little victims play;
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond today:
Yet see how all around ‘em wait
The ministers of human fate
And black Misfortune’s baleful train!
Ah, show them where in ambush stand,
To size their prey, the murderous band!
Ah, tell them they are men! (51-60)

Gray now looks at the boys as an older man who knows that their childhood Eden is doomed. Note that, in contrast to many greater works of art, Gray gives no cause for this doom (except “human fate”), nor does he offer any consolation. More personifications and epithets (Ministers of fate and “black Misfortune’s baleful train”) will teach the schoolboys that pain is the human condition. The theme is summarized by the epigraph from Menander first supplied in 1768; its translation: “I am a man, and that in itself is a sufficient reason for being unhappy.”[7]

The next three stanzas provide a catalog of human misery delivered in a high style characterized by abstraction, personification, metaphor, and a profusion of epithets. The stanzas deal with different kinds of misery in the usual order in which they occur in life. Stanza 7 describes how the Passions, like Greek Furies, will tear the man apart. Stanza 8 tells about the perils of social life. Stanza 9 deals with old age and how the body is wracked with various ailments. The most vivid image is that of a “griesly troop,” the “painful family of Death”—family in the sense of attendants—which are “More hideous” than the Queen of Death. This tableaux suggests that there are diseases and conditions that are worse than Death herself.

The poem concludes:

To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemn’d alike to groan—
The tender for another’s pain,
Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet, ah! Why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their Paradise.
No more;--where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise. (91-98)

“All are men” echoes “they are men” in Stanza 6 (and the Menander epigraph). A new and possibly personal element enters—briefly: there are some “tender” people who suffer themselves, but mainly “groan . . . for another’s pain.” Even so, why should the school-boys be told now what Gray has learned? Why should their paradise be destroyed before it inevitably must. “No more.” The poet will cease. “Where ignorance is bliss, / ‘Tis folly to be wise.”

In what tone do we read these lines? Dry and factual? Tearful? I’d say ironic, heavily though not passionately. One would think Eton would teach about life, but in actuality it does not teach the most important lessons. One would ordinarily expect any right-thinking man to prefer wisdom to ignorance. But Gray is saying, though he wishes it were not so, that is not the case.

The word “paradise” points to another aspect of the moderately high style Gray employs in this Ode. The lines of the poem are highly allusive. Scholars tell me that Virgil, Ovid, Lucretius, Spenser, Shakespeare, Davenant, Milton, Dryden, Waller, Otway, Pope, Prior, Gay, Theobald, Thomson, even Aaron Hill and Stephen Duck—all are echoed here. The most important echo is in the title: the “distant prospect” recalls Satan’s distant prospect of Eden in Book 9 of Paradise Lost. The allusion implies that Eton is an Eden to its students, but also suggests the poet’s own anguish at being debarred from paradise now.

Gray’s and Collins’ odes are full of allusions. Some modern readers can catch at first reading, many they cannot. But we can sense how first readers read these poems by making an analogy. I once heard a discussion between two jazz greats, Marian McPartland and Barry Harris (not Harry Barris). They concluded that a good jazz musician had to “know the songs”—that is, had to know the tunes and words and possibly the chords to the recognized canon of popular songs from about the 20’s until the onslaught of Elvis Presley. For “know the songs” substitute “know the poems.” Gray, Collins, other poets of the time and the audience they wrote for knew the songs, knew the poems that made up their literary heritage. Allusions came naturally to these poets, and they used them as one element in the high style necessary for writing an ode.


I must note another poem that Gray calls an ode but is really more of a satiric mock-ode: “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes.” The year was 1747. Gray’s friend Horace Walpole had two cats, one of which drowned in the manner described in the title. Gray wrote this wonderful poem on that occasion.

Domestic animals make good subjects for mock-heroic poems, for they have no sense of humor and, when looking for prey, are dreadfully serious. Our Selima, whose name is that of a tragic heroine, is demure and pensive as she gazes at the water below her. Her gaze is ominous as we recall Eve’s gaze at her reflection in Paradise Lost, Book 4. Gray evokes the cat beautifully: her fur, her expressive tail, her eyes. Selima purr’d applause at her reflection. She gazes at the fish, enhanced by Gray’s poetic skill into having a royal purple color that gives off a “golden gleam.”

At this point, Gray begins a partial metamorphosis. Selima becomes simultaneously a cat and a young woman, a “hapless Nymph.” When she stretches out her claws, Gray asks “What female heart can gold despise? / What Cat’s averse to fish?” Her predicament is magnified: “Presumptuous Maid!” cries Gray, as Pope in Essay on Man wrote “Presumptuous Man!” (I 35).

She falls in the tub, rises eight times, mews for help but gets none, and drowns. Gray draws a moral for both cats and young ladies, echoing The Merchant of Venice (ii 7):

From hence, ye Beauties, undeceiv’d,
Know, one false step is ne’er retriev’d,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize,
Nor all, that glisters, gold. (36-42)

Not perhaps a real ode, but a fine poem.


The next spate of odes followed the death of Gray’s mother in 1753. During the next few years he completed two Pindaric odes, The Progress of Poesy and The Bard. Both are divided into three sets of strophes, antistrophes, and epodes. Ostensibly, their subjects differ too, but in the end their themes are somewhat similar. The Ode: The Progress of Poesy celebrates how poetry has developed from Greece down the years to find its true home in the England of Shakespeare and Milton and subsequent lesser writers.

“The Bard” is a more remarkable and more dramatic production. When I first taught Gray at the University of Wisconsin many decades ago, one of my graduate students hesitatingly told me he had come to like the poem. I almost laughed him out of class. I was wrong. “The Bard” is impressive. It tells a story in the high style—exalted diction, convoluted but not confused syntax, big ideas. Note the painting by John Martin in the early 19th century; I think it illustrates the poem well. The Bard stands on a cliff as the armies of Edward I march through Wales, killing all the bards to break the people’s spirit. The last Bard curses the English king:

On a rock, whose haughty brow
Frowns o’er cold Conway’s foaming flood,
Robed in the sable garb of woe
With haggard eyes the Poet stood;
(Loose his beard and hoary hair
Streamed like a meteor to the troubled air)
And with a master’s hand, and prophet’s fire,
Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre. (17-22)

He then laments the murders of all the other bards and sees them appear as ghosts.

On yonder cliffs, a grisly band,
I see them sit’ they linger yet,
Avengers of their native land;
With me in dreadful harmony they join,
And weave with bloody hands the tissue of thy line.

I (now) find that line effective. The living and ghostly bards then prophesy the horrors that await Edward I’s descendants—the murder of Edward II, the deaths of Edward III, his eldest son the Black Prince, and other son, Richard II. Henrys IV and V slip by quickly, but the Bard focuses on the Wars of the Roses and Richard III.

The end of the curse comes with the accession of the Tudors and eventually Queen Elizabeth. According to the Bard, the Tudor triumph is also a triumph for Welsh blood and for bards/poets in general, for with Elizabeth comes Shakespeare and the rest of England’s great poets. The Bard’s prophetic powers then run out. He curses Edward I, proclaims his own triumph, and plunges to his death.

If these later Odes are difficult for us, it is comforting to know that Gray’s contemporaries had difficulties as well. Although Gray thought his meaning was clear, he bowed to his friends and added notes in the edition of 1769 (rather like T. S. Eliot’s annotating The Waste Land).

In later years, Gray produced a third batch of odes. These are based on original texts in Norwegian, Icelandic and Welsh and tell gory ancient stories. Gray attempts to render in English verse some of the effects of the originals.


Collins is a different sort of man and a different sort of poet. We know little about him. He went to Winchester and Oxford; he lived in London, retired to Chichester, and died aged 37. Tradition has it that he was insane in his last years, but probably he simply suffered from depression.[8]

In 1747 Collins published Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects. The odes fall in groups. The first four (odes to Pity, Fear, Simplicity, and The Poetical Character) deal with poetry and his place in the British tradition. The next four are patriotic (including odes to Mercy and Liberty). The final four (odes to Evening, Peace, The Manners, and the Passions) in the words of Eric Rothstein offer “peace in nature . . . and in society.”[9] In this volume, Collins offers several different sorts of Ode. “Fear,” “Poetical Character,” and “Liberty” are divided in the Pindaric manner, except the Collins places the epode between the strophe and antistrophe. Others odes are monostanzaic—that is more Horatian in form and more calm in their emotional content. Rothstein comments that “Ode to Evening” is “worthy of Horace in one of his moods.”[10] Today I will focus on that poem and on the “Ode to Simplicity.”

“Ode to Simplicity” is appropriately Horatian in its regular form and moderate mood. In its first four six-line stanzas Collins builds up his definition in his usual way. Collins’ odes, unlike Gray’s, do not point morals. Rather they dramatically define their subject by building up a personified and vividly pictured allegorical character and surround her with attendants who further define her various aspects--an objective correlative of the abstraction under consideration.[11] Here as elsewhere Collins addresses his subject; his readers are strictly on-lookers. In Stanza 1, he establishes Simplicity’s education: she is “by Nature taught,” and she passes on what she learned to the “Powers of Song.” These powers may indeed be her own children—or “Pleasure’s.” Stanza two continues to build the idea of Simplicity by describing her dress. She, perhaps for spiritual reasons (she has a “Hermit Heart”), eschews gaudy clothes and appears in a simple “Attic Robe” by which her natural beauty will presumably be evident. We see here that classical restraint is part of Simplicity, who is also “chaste” and “unboastful.”

Stanzas 3 and 4 employ a series of phrases beginning with the word “by.” Collins is building up an inventory of the forces which will empower his invocation in Stanza 5. By implication, these forces also add qualities to the emerging figure of Simplicity. We have the beauty and fragrance and murmurs of bees in Hybla; we have the lovely sound of the love-lorn nightingale from Sophocles; we have the beauty of the Athenian river Cephisus and its surroundings. A sour political note briefly points ahead: near Cephisus, Philip of Macedon defeated the freedom-loving Athenians. There “holy freedom died.”

Stanza five is central. Collins now asks, prays that Simplicity “infuse” her “sober Aid and native [that is, artless] Charms” into “my admiring youth.” He asks Simplicity to become part of his life and his poetry. He will become her agent, for “Tho’ Beauty cull’d the wreath” (that is, though Beauty supplies the flowers of poetry), “thy Hand” working through me is necessary “to range their order’d Hues”—to provide the order essential to a work of art.

Stanzas 6 and 7 show the decline of Simplicity and link that decline to the erosion of political and individual freedom: artists need freedom to create. Stanza 8 supplements this idea by saying that classical restraint is necessary to curb excess in art. Stanza 9 ends on a typical modest personal note: Collins “only seek[s] to find thy temperate Vale” so that he might learn about Simplicity.


We will see soon that Simplicity has a lot in common with Evening, but a survey of Collins’ odes and their possible bearing on Romanticism would not be complete without noting briefly his posthumously-published ode. “An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, Considered as the Subject of Poetry” was published in 1788. It began its life in about 1749 a hybrid ode/epistle called “Ode to a Friend on His Return &c.” Collins wrote it to John Home, who was returning to Scotland after his tragedy failed in London. Perhaps to cheer Home up, Collins’s ode focuses on the wonderful wealth of material that Scotland affords a poet.

“Popular Superstitions” is long (13 stanzas, 219 lines), so I won’t go through it in detail. But Collins gives a delightful survey of fairies that steal milk and make music by night, of old songs transmitted from father to son, of visions of “Runic bards” with “matted hair with boughs fantastic crowned,” of “wizzards” (note the wonderful double “z”) living in caves and their prophetic visions, of pigmies living in “small vaults.” Most striking is the story of the “luckless swain” led by a wily Kelpie to his death in a river, and the swain’s subsequent return as a ghost to press his widow’s “shuddering cheek” with his “moist and wat’ry hand.” My favorite lines tell of a hallowed graveyard where

The mighty kings of three fair realms are laid
. . . . frequent now, at midnight’s solemn hour,
The rifted mounds their yawning cells unfold,
And forth the monarchs stalk with sov’reign pow’r
In pageant robes, and wreathe’d with sheeny gold,
And on their twilight tombs aerial council hold.

The poem is, in the words of one critic, a “celebration of new visionary sources that have yet to be fully tapped,”[12] an idea that surely looks ahead.


I have saved “Ode to Evening” for last because I think it is the best of the mid-century odes and because it provides a good bridge to the great Romantic poets.

When I first read its opening phrase—“If aught of oaten stop”—I was put off. Here, I thought, was an extreme example of the poetic fustian that Wordsworth decried in “The Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” Again, I was wrong.

The ode is Horatian both in its mood (calm and leisurely) and in that it is monostanzaic; each of its thirteen stanzas has two ten-syllable lines followed by two six syllable lines. In general, the longer lines move at a normal pace, only to be slowed down by the shorter lines—a pace appropriate to its mood. Interestingly, it is Collins only unrhymed poem; it has wonderful musical qualities, but not those provided by the chimes of rhyme.[13] The argument of the poem is simple, for its four discernable sections have only one or two sentences each. As usual, the poet addresses an abstraction, not the reader. Collins asks Evening: If any poetry can soothe you, please teach me how to write it as soon as possible. for your procession is about to begin. Lead me on. When the weather is bad, let me sit in a mountain-side hut and watch the end of evening. Throughout all the seasons, things like fancy and friendship will somehow acknowledge your influence and praise you.

Please note this poem’s leisurely pace, created by long grammatical units, much parenthesis, many long vowels, much alliteration. Note too its allusiveness; one editor notes echoes from Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton (many, many), Dryden, Pope, Gay, Philips, Thomson, Akenside, and all the Wartons: Joseph and both the Thomases.[14]

If aught of oaten stop, or pastoral song,
May hope, chaste Eve, to soothe thy modest ear,
Like thy own solemn springs,
Thy springs and dying gales;

O nymph reserved, while now the bright-haired sun
Sits in yon western tent, whose cloudy skirts,
With brede ethereal wove,
O’erhang his wavy bed:

Now air is hush’d, 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,

As of the rises, ‘midst the twilight path
Against the pilgrim borne in heedless hum:
Now teach me, maid composed,
To breath some soften’d strain,

Whose numbers, stealing through thy darkening vale,
May not unseemly with its stillness suit,
As musing slow, I hail
The genial loved return!

For when thy folding-star arising shows
His paly circlet, at his warning lamp
The fragrant hours, and elves
Who slept in buds the day,

And many a nymph who wreathes her brow with sedge,
And sheds the freshening dew, and, lovelier still,
The pensive pleasures sweet,
Prepare thy shadowy car:

Then lead, calm votaress, where some sheety lake
Cheers the lone heath, or some time-hallow’d pile,
Or upland fallows grey
Reflect its last cool gleam.

Or if blustering winds, or driving rain,
Prevent my willing feet, be mine the hut
That from the mountain’s side
Views wilds and swelling floods,

And hamlets brown, and dim-discover’d spires,
And hears their simple bell, and marks o’er all
Thy dewy fingers draw
The gradual dusky veil.

While Spring shall pour his show’rs, as of the wont,
And bathe thy breathing tresses, meekest Eve!
While Summer loves to sport
Beneath thy lingering light;

While sallow Autumn fills thy lap with leaves,
Or Winter, yelling through the troublous air,
Affrights thy shrinking train,
And rudely rends thy robes:

So long, regardful of thy quiet rule,
Shall Fancy, Friendship, Science, rose-lipp’d Health
Thy gentlest influence owe,
And hymn thy favorite name!

This poem does not succeed because of its overt argument but because of the details that capture the essence of Evening—real transient Evening—as it gradually takes over from the sun and slowly gives way to darkness through the seasons of the year.

As in “Ode to Simplicity,” Collins slowly constructs Evening (or simply “Eve”) as an allegorical figure with many attributes, many aural and visual characteristics, and many associated figures. Collins piles up epithets; Eve is “chaste,” “reserved,” “composed,” “calm,” “meekest”; her ear is “modest.” The figure of Eve so far is only yet a sketch, but her attributes add up to the idea of an attractive, calm woman who is not restless or forcefully active. We are also told that she possesses “solemn springs” (which perhaps should be interpreted as “sacred brooks”) and “dying gales” Daytime activity gives way to calm as the wind literally often dies down in the evening. Some activity now supplements our picture of Eve. The gentle movements of water and the air ensure that her figure is not static.

Eve’s contrast with the daytime world is even more obvious when Collins compares her to the setting sun. The glaring “bright-haired sun” sits regally in his tent of clouds, the “skirts” or edges of which seem to be made of many-colored braided cloth. This ethereal (heavenly) cloth evokes a picture of a vivid sunset; the sun is descending to its “wavy bed,” behind an ocean or lake. The day is almost done, and the sun not at the height of vigor (he is in his tent), but the implication is that he rests only after an active day.

After the sunset, at “twilight,” the world is not yet attuned to Eve’s mood. The air is hushed, except for some annoying sounds: the bat’s “short shrill shrieks” and sound of the beetle’s “small but sullen horn.” The bat’s weak eyes and “leathern wing” are not pleasant, nor are the many beetles as they are borne (by the a breeze, I assume) up against the pilgrim (and it is a quasi-religious journey the poet is making); the beetles’ horns together can be characterized a making a humming noise; in any case they are heedless of the annoyance they cause. (This is my reading of these lines; they are famously ambiguous and are read differently by different readers.)[15]

Up until now, Collins has simply been addressing Evening. Even though the six lines after the “air is hushed” may feel like a sentence, the grammatical unit of the opening of the poem is not completed until Line 15: “Now teach me.” The mood of this verb is not imperative, but prayerful. In the drama of the poem, the speaker is at first unsure of himself but gradually gains confidence.[16] Evening has finally arrived: darkening, still, genial (cheering, vital), beloved. The poet prays for Eve to teach him to write a poem which praises her. This is Collins’ way. Remember how he asked Simplicity to help him write a poem with simplicity in praise of Simplicity.

Now the poem, in the word of one critic, blossoms. One last literal detail: the “folding-star” (that is the evening star which marks when to herd sheep into their fold) shows its pale light. Then Collins begins to build up, not a literal picture of Evening, but a picture of the allegorical figure of Evening composed of details which evoke more of her attributes. A “car” or processional vehicle is being prepared for Eve in which she can progress through the evening surrounded by her attendants. The picture Collins gives us of a ceremonial car would have been more familiar to his audience than to us. Jean Hagstrom suggests that Collins draws here on the famous mural “Aurora” by Guido Reni, changing (of course) the morn’s colors to Evening’s.[17] Eve’s importance is magnified by her being the chief figure in an allegorical procession. Her attendants add to her characterization. Her car is prepared by The Hours (goddesses who order the seasons and are given to adorn things), and accompanied by sprightly elves (straight from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) who sleep in flowers, river goddesses wreathed in sedge and shedding freshening dew, and pensive Pleasures. These are active and by-and-large beautiful figures, without being at all bustling or too dazzling. They all embellish the figure of Eve, delicately balancing her qualities: active yet calm, beautiful and cheerful yet chaste and reserved.[18]

Collins then asks (not prays this time) Evening to lead on as she progresses to this lovely day’s end. She moves from the lowly heath, lighted now only by a reflection of a totally calm lake. Moving upward where Evening can be seen for the last time, the lake’s light cheers an ancient building and an upland field. Note that Eve is addressed a “vot’ress”; presumably like the poet she worships the spirit of Evening.

Collins now expands on his definition. So far, his description of Evening has been calm and beautiful. Critics have praised its imperceptible movement, its gradations of light, its “delicate blending of effects.”[19] Swinburne compared it to the work of painters like Corot and Millais.[20] But Collins’ Evening is not just beautiful. She also includes “chill blustering winds” and “driving rain.” When he cannot walk about, the poet hopes to look out from a “hut” on a mountainside, rather like the place from which many Claude scenes are viewed. He will see wild scenery and flooding rivers, as well as the poem’s first traces of ordinary civilization: “hamlets brown, and dim-discovered spires.” Now night falls as Eve’s “dewy fingers draw / The gradual dusky veil.”

Collins then takes Evening through the year. As before, some of the associations are not pleasant. Spring is nicely associated with both water and the movement of air (showers and “breathing tresses”), Summer with sport and half-light. Autumn is less lovely (sallow), but is generous with leaves. Winter is nasty, “yelling through the troublous air and attacking Eve’s train (of attendants? of her dress?) and even rending her robes. Evening can be attacked and is vulnerable, but she is not defeated. Collin’s characterization leads us from the beautiful picture of the poems first 32 lines to a picture of Evening’s strength to endure through good and bad. All in all, I think Collins has accomplished what he evidently set out to do—catch lovely time of day in all its transitory aspects.

“So long”—that is, through the good and bad weather and throughout to year--“sure-found beneath the sylvan shed” (surely the earlier “hut”)—“So long / Shall Fancy, Friendship, Science, rose-lipped Health, / Thy gentlest influence own.” At this point, many readers throw up their hands. Here is a switch even more unlooked-for than Horace’s altering his attitude toward Cleopatra. What a wonderful evocation of Evening, these readers say, but what are Friendship and Science and the rest doing here? Well, either Collins is grasping for some way to end his poem, or he knows what he’s doing. It is always a good idea to assume that a poet has a better idea of what he is up to than we do. So I assume Collins means what he says.

What does he say? From the beginning Collins has asked Evening to lead him on, to infuse his heart and mind with the ability to see her and write about her. The progress in the poem has not just been the gradual unfolding of Evening, but the gradual education of the poet about what Evening is—from the early visions of shadowy beauty to the qualities that endure through bad weather. These qualities have obvious human analogues. In short, Evening becomes, not only a time of day, but a state of mind that develops in the pilgrim/poet by contemplating and experiencing and writing about the literal evening. I think the implication is clear—this is a synecdoche, not just an metonymy. Literal evening is not just associated with but actually helps cause this wonderful calm, happy, contemplative, intelligent, happy, open, creative, sympathetic state of mind, the state that feeds Fancy (as in the writing of this poem), Friendship, Science (that is knowledge and learning), and for that matter physical, and by extension mental, health. It is no surprise that these qualities sing a hymn of praise to Evening—a hymn that is a sharp contrast to the yelling of winter a few lines before.[21] And it is hard to imagine that Collins in not inviting the reader to join him in his pilgrimage.

This poem points ahead. In an earlier talk I described the state of mind that Wordsworth evokes at the end of The Prelude.[22] He is enabled by this state of mind (rendered by the description of his vision on Mt. Snowdon) to accept God’s ways—a kind of theodicy. Now Collins is not nearly so profound as Wordsworth, and the difficulties he dramatizes (the beetles, for example) are hardly comparable to those Wordsworth tells us about. “Ode to Evening” is not a theodicy. But I think the spirit of Evening looks forward to Wordsworth’s more profound state of mind, and both poets are able to articulate their visions though details of an upland landscape.[23]

[1] Horace, The Odes and Epodes, trans. C. E. Bennet (London: Heinemann, 1952, 98-101

[2] “Ode” in M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 5th Editions (Mew York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1988).

[3] Juliet Barker, Wordsworth: A Life (London: Viking, 2000), 31.

[4] Italics mine. My text for both Gray and Collins (except for “Ode to Evening”) is The Poems of Gray and Collins, ed. Austin Lane Poole (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937. The texts of some of the poems in this essay are not correctly indented because of the limitations of the web page program/

[5] Eric Rothstein, Restoration and Eighteenth Century Poetry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 142. I am indebted to Mr. Rothstein for several other reading in my discussion of this Ode.

[6] Thomas Gray website: I am also indebted to this source for some other readings.

[7] Robert L. Mack, Thomas Gray: a Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, 324.

[8] Richard Wendorf, William Collins and Eighteenth Century Poetry (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, ca. 1981), 25-26.

[9] Rothstein, 155.

[10] Rothstein, 93.

[11] Wendorf, 100. My analysis of “Ode to Simplicity” owes a great deal to Wendorf’s analysis on Pages 92-97.

[12] Wendorf, 176.

[13] Collins found this metrical structure and it lack of rhyme in Milton’s translation of and ode by Horace (I,5). See The Norton Anthology of English Literature, fourth edition, ed. M. H. Abrams, et. al., I, 2451

[14] See The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Roger Lonsdale (London: Longman, 1969), 461-467.

[15] Wendorf, 129.

[16] Wendorf, 130-132.

[17] Hagstrom, The Sister Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 278 and Plate XXIV.

[18] Merle E. Brown, “On William Collins’ ‘Ode to Evening’” in Essays in Criticism, XI, 142.

[19] Wendorf, 128

[20] Wendorf, 192

[21] Brown, 150.

[22] “The Death of John Wordsworth and the end of The Prelude,” to appear shortly in The Charles Lamb Bulletin.

[23] Paul Sherwin says much the same thing in his study of Collins, Precious Bane (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977), 3.