1760
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Two Odes. To Obscurity.

Two Odes. I. To Obscurity. II. To Oblivion.

George Colman


A delicious burlesque of mid-century Pindaric attempts at sublimity by William Mason and Thomas Gray. In the first ode George Colman the Elder and Robert Lloyd (whether Colman wrote the first and Lloyd the second, or whether both were collaborations is difficult to tell) compare the athletic exploits celebrated in Pindar's odes to Mason's attempts to gain attention and preferment, and Gray's assault attempts at reviving the spirit of Celtic poetry. The poem is illustrated with a headpiece of an ancient poet playing the harp and a tailpiece representing a modern poet losing his wig as he tumbles from the back of Pegasus — ridiculing the conclusion of Gray's The Bard.

Critical Review: "Every candid reader must regret that so much wit and poetry are employed in throwing ridicule on two gentlemen deservedly placed among the first poets of the age. But however we may condemn the judgment of our bard, we cannot deny our applause to the beauty of his verse, the strength of his humour, and poignancy of his satire. Several lines in imitation of the tuneful swans of Cam are equally natural and ludicrous: in them we admire the happy genius of the poet, while we lament the want of candour in the man" 9 (December 1760) 496.

James Kirkpatrick: "The first of these Odes, then, which has no address or subject prefixed, seems more particularly levelled at two of Mr. Gray's, the first of which is also without any title. This last mentioned Gentleman having chose for his motto, which he might extend to both his Odes, these two words from Pindar [Greek characters], i.e. 'intelligible to the learned,' or Connoisseurs; (by which he may be concluded to acknowledge, that only Readers of learning and taste would fully comprehend and relish them; and that, like Horace, he was only solicitous to please the few;) our present Author has added to the same Greek words those immediately following in Pindar, [Greek characters] — which signifies, that the many, 'the multitude will need interpreters,' to explain their meaning. And this our Author either applies to the obscurity he blames in this Gentleman's Odes, or alludes by it to the difficulties which common Readers may encounter in his own, from not having read or remembered the others to which he so often alludes: or possibly he intended it to extend to both these meanings" Monthly Review 23 (1760) 58.

Thomas Gray to Thomas Warton: "I believe his Odes sell no more than mine did, for I saw a heap of them lie in a bookseller's window, who recommended them to me as a very pretty thing" July 1760; in Works, ed. Gosse (1895) 3:52-53.

James Grainger to Thomas Percy: "I have read the Odes with uncommon satisfaction, and hope they will produce a proper change in the future compositions of Mason and Gray. I ever thought those gentlemen, especially in their lyric performances, too obscure; indeed, I have read some of their stanzas which were so poetical as scarcely to be sense. Pindar, in my opinion, is a bad model" 15 January 1761; in Nichols, Illustrations (1817-1758) 7:275.

Oliver Goldsmith: "These misguided innovators have not been content with restoring antiquated words and phrases, but have indulged themselves in the most licentious transpositions and the harshest constructions; vainly imagining that, the more their writings are unlike prose, the more they resemble poetry. They have adopted a language of their own, and call upon mankind for admiration. All those who do not understand them are silent; and those who make out their meaning are willing to praise, to show they understand" Life of Parnell (1770), quoted in Beers, English Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century (1899) 210-11.

Samuel Johnson: "The Odes to Obscurity and Oblivion, in ridicule of 'cool Mason and warm Gray,' being mentioned, Johnson said, 'They are Colman's best things'" 1775; in Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. HIll (1891) 2:382-83.

Adam Smith: "Gray (who joins to the sublimity of Milton the elegance and harmony of Pope, and to whom nothing is wanting to render him, perhaps, the finest poet in the English language, but to have written a little more) is said to have been so much hurt, by a foolish and impertinent parody of two of his finest odes, that he never afterwards attempted any considerable work" Theory of Moral Sentiments (1790) ed. Raphael and Macfie (1976) 122-23.

Anna Seward to Francis Noel Clarke Mundy: "Recollect that the two noblest lyric odes the world has produced, Gray's Bard, and his Eolian Lyre, were abused, on their first appearance, by all the hireling periodical critics of that period, as turgid and obscure; that the elegant Lloyd and nervous Churchill, were employed in writing burlesque parodies of upon them, which were read, enjoyed, and admired by the multitude, just as the witty Loves of the Triangles are at present" 6 May 1789; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 5:222-23.

Robert Southey: "At those meetings [of the Nonsense Club] there can be little doubt that the two odes to Obscurity and Oblivion originated, joint compositions of Lloyd and Colman, in ridicule of Gray and Mason. They were published in a quarto pamphlet, with a vignette, in the title-page, of an ancient poet safely seated and playing on his harp; and at the end a tail-piece representing a modern poet in huge boots, flung from a mountain by Pegasus, into the sea, and losing his tie-wig in the fall" Life and Works of Cowper (1835-37) 1:50.

In the burlesque vain, one might compare Thomas Gray's own "Hymn to Ignorance. A Fragment" posthumously published by William Mason in 1775. The odes by Lloyd and Colman were themselves several times imitated.



I. 1.
Daughter of Chaos and old Night,
Cimmerian Muse, all hail!
That wrapt in never-twinkling gloom canst write,
And shadowest meaning with thy dusky veil!
What Poet sings, and strikes the strings?
It was the mighty Theban spoke.
He from the ever-living Lyre
With magick hand elicits fire.
Heard ye the din of Modern Rhimers bray?
It was cool M—n: or warm G—y
Involv'd in tenfold smoke.

I. 2.
The shallow Fop in antick vest,
Tir'd of the beaten road,
Proud to be singularly drest,
Changes, with every changing moon, the mode.
Say, shall not then the heav'n-born Muses too
Variety pursue?
Shall not applauding Criticks hail the vogue?
Whether the Muse the stile of Cambria's sons,
Or the rude gabble of the Huns,
Or the broader dialect
Of Caledonia she affect,
Or take, Hibernia, thy still ranker brogue?

I. 3.
On this terrestial ball
The tyrant Fashion, governs all.
She, fickle Goddess, whom, in days of yore,
The Ideot Moria, on the banks of Seine,
Unto an antick fool, hight Andrew, bore.
Long she paid him with disdain,
And long his pangs in silence he conceal'd:
At length, in happy hour, his love-sick pain
On thy blest Calends, April, he reveal'd.
From their embraces sprung,
Ever changing, ever ranging,
Fashion, Goddess ever young.

II. 1.
Perch'd on the dubious height, She loves to ride
Upon a weather-cock, astride.
Each blast that blows, around she goes,
While nodding o'er her crest,
Emblem of her magick pow'r,
The light Cameleon stands confest,
Changing it's hues a thousand Times an hour.
And in a vest is she array'd,
Of many a dancing moon-beam made,
Nor zoneless is her waist:
But fair and beautiful, I ween,
As the cestos-cinctur'd Queen,
Is with the Rainbow's shadowy girdle brac'd.

II. 2.
She bids pursue the fav'rite road
Of lofty cloud-capt Ode.
Meantime each Bard with eager speed,
Vaults on the Pegasean Steed:
Yet not that Pegasus, of yore
Which th' illustrious Pindar bore,
But one of nobler breed.
High blood and youth his lusty veins inspire.
From Tottipontimoy He came,
Who knows not, Tottipontimoy, thy name?
The Bloody-shoulder'd Arab was his Sire.
His White-nose. He on fam'd Doncastria's plains
Resign'd his fated breath:
In vain for life the struggling courser strains.
Ah! who can run the race with death?
The tyrant's speed, or man or steed,
Strives all in vain to fly.
He leads the chace, he wins the race,
We stumble, fall, and die.

II. 3.
Third from Whitenose springs
Pegasus with eagle wings:
Light o'er the plain, as dancing cork,
With many a bound he beats the ground,
While all the Turf with acclamation rings.
He won Northampton, Lincoln, Oxford, York:
He too Newmarket won.
There Granta's Son
Seiz'd on the Steed;
And thence him led, (so fate decreed)
To where old Cam, renown'd in poet's song,
With his dark and inky waves,
Either bank in silence laves,
Winding slow his sluggish streams along.


III. 1.
What stripling neat, of visage sweet,
In trimmest guise array'd,
First the neighing steed assay'd?
His hand a taper switch adorns, his heel
Sparkles refulgent with elastick steel:
The whiles he wins his whiffling way,
Prancing, ambling, round and round,
By hill, and dale, and mead, and greenswerd gay:
Till sated with the pleasing ride,
From the lofty Steed dismounting,
He lies along, enwrapt in conscious pride,
By gurgling rill or crystal fountain.

III. 2.
Lo! next, a Bard, secure of praise,
His self-complacent countenance displays.
His broad Mustachios, ting'd with golden die,
Flame, like a meteor, to the troubled air:
Proud his demeanor, and his eagle eye,
O'er-hung with lavish lid, yet shone with glorious glare.
The grizzle grace
Of bushy Peruke shadow'd o'er his face.
In large wide Boots, whose ponderous weight
Would sink each wight of modern date,
He rides well pleas'd. So large a pair
Not Garagantua's self might wear:
Not He, of nature fierce and cruel,
Who, if we trust to antient Ballad,
Devour'd Three Pilgrims in a Sallad;
Nor He of fame germane, hight Pantagruel.

III. 3.
Accoutred thus, th' adventrous Youth
Seeks not the level lawn, or velvet mead,
Fast by whose side clear streams meandring creep;
But urges on amain the fiery Steed
Up Snowdon's shaggy side, or Cambrian rock uncouth:
Where the venerable herd
Of Goats with long and sapient beard,
And wanton Kidlings their blithe revels keep.
Now up the mountain see him strain!
Now down the vale he's tost,
Now flashes on the sight again,
Now in the Palpable Obscure quite lost.

IV. 1.
Man's feeble race eternal dangers wait,
With high or low, all, all, is woe,
Disease, mischance, pale fear, and dubious fate.
But, o'er every peril bounding,
Ambition views not all the hills surrounding,
And, tiptoe on the mountain's steep,
Reflects not on the yawning deep.

IV. 2.
See, see, he soars! With mighty wings outspread,
And long resounding mane,
The Courser quits the plain.
Aloft in air, see, see him bear
The Bard, who shrouds
His Lyrick Glory in the Clouds,
Too fond to strike the stars with lofty head!
He topples headlong from the giddy height,
Deep in the Cambrian Gulph immerg'd in endless night.

IV. 3.
O Steed Divine! what daring spirit
Rides thee now? tho' he inherit
Nor the pride, nor self-opinion,
Which elate the mighty Pair,
Each of Taste the fav'rite minion,
Prancing thro' the desert air;
By help mechanick of Equestrian Block,
Yet shall he mount, with classick housings grac'd,
And, all unheedful of the Critick Mock,
Drive his light Courser o'er the bounds of Taste.

[pp. 5-15]