1746
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ode to Pity.

Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegorical Subjects.

William Collins


Williams Collins's odes To Pity and To Fear form a diptych, expoloring lyric applications of the two tragic passions. Both adopt the "and live with thee" formula derived from Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso.

One seldom encounters dramatic breaks in literary history, but William Collins's odes are one such occasion. While readers of Pindar and his imitators were accustomed to difficulty in the ode, Collins is complex (and simple) in ways that contemporary readers, even Thomas Gray, were not prepared to accept. His peculiar assimilations of Greek and Elizabethan poetry grafted on to a structure derived from MIlton's companion poems would prove irresistable to late-century readers. Collins draws the connection between Greece and England in the Ode to Pity and repeats it in several later poems in the cycle.

While the Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegorical Subjects did not sell well (Collins burned the unsold portion of the impression in disgust), three of the odes were collected in Dodsley's Collection of Poems and the whole was reprinted in the 1763 Poetical Calendar. The enormous interest in Spenser in the 1750s and 1760s must have made Collins more approachable than he had been in the 1740s. After his poems were collected and annotated by John Langhorne in 1765, editions began to appear regularly, until by the end of the century, Collins rivaled Thomas Gray as the most popular lyric poet in the language. Collins was imitated more frequently than Gray (the Elegy always excepted), particularly by the Della Cruscan poets and their scores of imitators in British and American periodicals.

Monthly Review: "The measure of this ode is happily chosen: for the repetition of melody is calculated to express that tenderness and pathos which must be inseparable from an ode to Pity.... An ordinary painter would have been contented to represent the eyes of Pity as languishing and mild — the 'dewy light' was a stroke which the happiest imagination alone could execute. In writing an ode on a subject of tenderness, the poet could not possibly omit to mention his countryman Otway, who was indeed the Priest of Pity; like Collins ingenious, and like him unhappy" in Scots Magazine 26 (August 1764) 439.

Thomas Warton: "In the Ode to Pity, the idea of a Temple of Pity, of its situation, construction, and groupes of painting with which its walls were decorated, was borrowed from a poem, now lost, entitled the Temple of Pity, written by my brother, while he and Collins were school-fellows at Winchester College" 1783; in The Gleaner (1811) 4:478.

Henry Francis Carey: "He has not, like Gray or Chiabrera, taken entire pieces out of the ancients, and stuck them among his own workmanship. He does not 'Talk in a high sounding strain of the stars, | Of the eagle of Jove, and the chariot of Mars;' but he fills himself with the divinity, which breathes from their labours, and then goes home and works in the spirit that he has caught. It is for this reason, I suppose, that we have no editions of Collins, favourite as he is amongst us, stuffed with parallel passages from the bottom of the page, that sometimes rise so high as scarcely to leave room for the text to float on over their surface. We easily discover to what land he has traveled, as the pilgrims in the middle ages showed they had visited the Holy Sepulchre by the palm that was wreathed round their staff; but he brings home with him no relics to make a display of, no nails drawn out of the crosses of martyrs, no dry bones pilfered from tombs of Apostles and Saints" London Magazine 4 (July 1821) 15.

Edmund Gosse: "Collins came to London with 'many projects in his head.' In 1747 (December 1746) he printed his famous Odes, a thin pamphlet of three and a half sheets. The book failed to sell, and Collins destroyed the remainder of the edition. The young poet now formed the friendship of the genial and affectionate Thomson, on whose death, in 1748, he wrote the exquisite elegy (or 'ode'), beginning, 'In yonder grove a Druid lies'" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 232-33.

George Saintsbury: "The first — that to 'Pity,' in the romance-six of which we have said so much — is the queerest jumble conceivable of tags of Monmouth Street expression — 'scene,' 'turtles,' 'British shell' (which does not in the least mean a larger edition of what the British grenadier carried in his pouch), and so forth. But there is something in its cadences, which is not as the Yaldens or even as the Akensides. 'Fear,' with its Epode stuck in the middle, is even a wilder jumble, with the pent-up music still struggling to get free; while 'Simplicity' seems to drug itself with a quasi-Miltonic regularity" History of English Prosody (1906-10) 2:515.

John Langhorne's observations:

"'By Pella's Bard, a magic name, | By all the griefs his thoughts could frame, | Receive my humble rite: | Long, Pity, let the nations view | Thy sky-worn robes of tenderest blue, | And eyes of dewy light!' The propriety of invoking Pity through the mediation of Euripides is obvious. — That admirable poet had the keys of all the tender passions and therefore could not but stand in the highest esteem with a writer of Mr. Collins's sensibility. — He did, indeed, admire him as much as Milton professedly did, and probably for the same reasons; but we do not find that he has copied him so closely as the last mentioned poet has sometimes done, and particularly in the opening of Samson Agonistes, which is an evident imitation of the following passage in the Phoenissae [Greek characters]. The 'eyes of dewy light' is one of the happiest strokes of imagination, and may be ranked among those expressions which —'give us back the image of the mind.' 'Wild Arun too has heard thy strains, | And Echo, 'midst my native plains, | Been soothed by Pity's lute. | There first the wren thy myrtles shed | On gentlest Otway's infant head.' Sussex, in which county the Arun is a small river, had the honour of giving birth to Otway as well as to Collins: both these poets, unhappily, became the objects of that pity by which their writings are distinguished. There was a similitude in their genius and in their sufferings. There was a resemblance in the misfortunes and in the dissipation of their lives; and the circumstances of their death cannot be remembered without pain.

"The thought of painting in the temple of Pity the history of human misfortunes, and of drawing the scenes from the tragic muse, is very happy, and in every respect worthy the imagination of Collins" Poetical Works of Mr. William Collins (1765) 147-59.



I.
O Thou, the Friend of Man assign'd,
With balmy Hands his Wounds to bind,
And charm his frantic Woe:
When first Distress with Dagger keen
Broke forth to waste his destin'd Scene,
His wild unsated foe!

II.
By Pella's Bard, a magic Name,
By all the Griefs his Thought could frame,
Receive my humble Rite:
Long, Pity, let the Nations view
Thy sky-worn Robes of tend'rest Blue,
And Eyes of dewy Light!

III.
But wherefore need I wander wide
To old Ilissus' distant Side,
Deserted Stream, and mute?
Wild Arun too has heard thy Strains,
And Echo, 'midst my native Plains,
Been soothed by Pity's Lute.

IV.
There first the Wren thy Myrtles shed
On gentlest Otway's infant Head,
To Him thy Cell was shown;
And while he sung the Female Heart,
With Youth's soft notes unspoiled by Art,
Thy Turtles mix'd their own.

V.
Come, Pity, come, by Fancy's aid,
Even now my Thoughts, relenting Maid,
Thy Temple's Pride design:
Its Southern Site, its Truth compleat
Shall raise a wild Enthusiast Heat,
In all who view the Shrine.

VI.
There Picture's Toils shall well relate
How Chance, or hard involving Fate,
O'er mortal Bliss prevail:
The Buskin'd Muse shall near her stand,
And sighing prompt her tender Hand
With each disastrous Tale.

VII.
There let me oft, retir'd by Day,
In Dreams of Passion melt away,
Allow'd with Thee to dwell:
There waste the mournful Lamp of Night,
Till, Virgin, thou again delight
To hear a British Shell!

[pp. 1-4]