A Dissertation on the Modern Ode.

St. James's Magazine 2 (April 1763) 119-25. [Robert Lloyd, ed.]

William Cowper

Writing as "W. C.," William Cowper sends up the fashion for Spenserian-Miltonic odes by offering a recipe for their production. The amusing result is as clear an account of the leading features of the kind as one might wish: "Take MILTON, read his shorter poems, and particularly LYCIDAS, COMUS, AND SAMPSON; wherever you meet with an epithet, more especially, if it be a compound one, put it in your note-book; for as MILTON copied the antients, the more you steal from MILTON, of consequence the nearer you come to the antients." At the end of the essay we are promised a "perfect ode" that later appeared in the November issue, apparently composed by Cowper's friend Richard Lloyd, no friend of the Miltonic manner in modern poetry.

Robert Southey attributed this ode, signed "L.," to Cowper: "One communication to the St. James's Magazine may be ascribed to Cowper; it is a Dissertation on the Modern Ode, signed with his initials. 'A Perfect Ode,' composed upon the ironical directions therein given, is promised by the writer; and such an ode appeared in a subsequent number, evidently by the same person, though signed with a different initial. No earlier communication of his can be traced there; and there is none later, because when the ode appeared the crisis of his fate was at hand" Life and Works of William Cowper (1835-37) 1:95-96.

An Ode, says the critic, is a very difficult species of writing. It requires a strength of fancy, sublimity of sentiment, curious elegance of diction, and though it seems perpetually flying off from its subject, an artful connection of parts, so as to make together one beautiful whole. These indeed might have been proper notions in their day, but at present found only as the language of pedantry. For my part, I am not only convinced that it is no difficult species of writing, but will undertake to prove, that it is the easiest to attain, as being dependent upon certain rules, which, if duly observed, are an infallible guide to excellence.

I cannot but congratulate the present age upon the multitude of odes, single and in sets, which have generously been offer'd to our perusal; "generously," I may say with strict propriety, and for "our" entertainment, since the authors seem to have had no interested views towards Posterity. The advantages, indeed, peculiar to this composition, are so many, and so obvious, that it is no wonder, every young muse should here first try her strength, where the honour is great, and the danger trifling.

But of the many advantages this species of writing is possessed of, I shall consider only three, and those by no means contemptible.

The variety of subjects it admits of,
The powers of description which it so eminently calls forth, and becomes so easily master of. And
The great convenience of its irregular measure.

The first advantage proposed is too evident to be contested. Let but the poet sit down and "The world is all before him where to chuse" both animal and intellectual. Though I would advise him by all means, in the infancy of his muse, to stick to the last, and try his hand upon the four CARDINAL VIRTUES; which, besides that they will give him an opportunity of consulting the Head and Tail-pieces of books for rich sentiment, will also help him to good store of imagery, as they have been reduced into emblems, and engraved in elegant designs by the greatest masters in those arts. Poetry and Painting we know are sisters, and as the painter oftentimes borrows his subjects from the strong imagination of the poet; the poet, in return, may draw his descriptions from the exact pencilling of the painter: Thus it is, those ingenious gentlemen excel, who versify at the bottom of a political print, and stand forth as the writing Raree-show men of wonderful Caricatures. In short, there is nothing in the creation that will not afford matter for an ode. It comes forth with equal propriety on the death of a king or a tom-tit, on a great minister, or a common whore, on the ruin of a nation, or the fall of a tobacco-box: And it has this superiority over all other kinds of poetry, that, whereas in them you must weigh the subject maturely, and turn it over and over to find out its strength, culling and rejecting, disposing and arranging it in proper methods, here we are happily delivered from all this trouble. Every object, in or out of nature, is matter enough for a modern to work upon, without fretting his imagination, or hazarding his judgment.

As for the DESCRIPTIVE, which we know is the first beauty in poetry, as it has often so eminently "held the place of sense," mark how easily it follows; as thus — Whether the poet addresses himself to Wisdom or Folly, Mirth or Melancholy, he breaks out in a fine enthusiasm, with an "Oh, or Hail," or some such pathetic expression, which naturally leads him to a description in at least fourteen lines, of the person and dwelling of no matter whom, which, with some observations upon her equipage and attendance, no matter what, make two stanzas, struck out from one word as it were; and all these beauties, according to the laws of the exactest critics, arise very naturally from the subject.

But the greatest advantage is the variety of measure. It is no doubt very difficult to write correct rhime, and to include a sentiment in a couplet, is a barbarous confinement, and by no means sufferable amongst us, who have, it must be confess'd, so few to spare. This is again happily remedied in the modern ode, for there the poet may flow in the easy familiar, or rise into the epic, for half a dozen lines together; he may, in one verse, slide into a Lilliputian, and in the next struggle along in an Alexandrine, pairing them together like a dwarf walking by the side of a giant. He is not under the restraint of couplets, nor even rhiming alternately; if he finds it inconsistent with his sentiment to close the jingle at one line, he may leave it there for the present, as he is sure to catch it again at the turning of the next corner.

Such are evidently the advantages of Ode-writing. For which composition, I have with great pains drawn up certain infallible rules, whereby a student may learn to build the lofty Ode, with as much regularity, and as true mechanical principles, as a mason or a bricklayer erects a wall: And as the laws of Epic Poetry have been extracted from the works of Homer, the laws relative to this species of writing, are drawn up from the performances of the modern professors of the art, and the most approved practice of Ode-mongers.

The first grand rule is the rule of Pathos.

In order to write pathetical (a most necessary ingredient in these compositions) never trouble yourself to express the warm emotions of the feeling heart, but get together a large quantity of Oh's and Ah's! and introduce them as — thus — Ah Me! Oh Thou! by which means, as I have said before, you will slip more immediately into your subject, and shew your knowledge of the Greek [Greek characters].

And here I cannot help digressing a little, to take notice of the superiority which the Greek models (for we moderns now all write professedly on their plan) have over us in their pathetical exclamations, which they vary with the greatest elegance and propriety, adapting them to the soft manners of the female sex in the tender expletives of [Greek characters] and to the hardy roughness of the male in the emphatical [Greek characters]. AESCHYL. Sounds infinitely superior to the Oh's and Ah's, Alack's and Alas's, of our days, which have no distinction of sexes.

I have mentioned the Greek poets as being the models of our present writers endeavour to work after, but I desire not to carve out so much labour and modern-antient poetry, as the necessity of reading those authors would subject them to. It is sufficient if they put at the head of the several parts of their odes (if they are introduced in the supplemental manner of chorusses to tragedies) STROPHE, EPODE, ANTISTROPHE, together with certain hard names of peculiar feet, such as Trochaic's, Pyrric's, Iambics, Anapests, Creties, or any other appellations of measure to be found in the second leaf of every schoolboy's Gradus. These will satisfy the learned reader with the abundance of the writer's erudition; and the unlearned one will be agreeably surprised to find his own common conversation, or (if he has a tendency towards rhime) his common versification made up of numbers he never knew the names of, instead of discovering with astonishment, like MONSR. JOURDAIN, that he talks Prose, will be happy to find he has been in the capacity of verse all his life long, without knowing it. Yet however these gentlemen may have worn the garb of the antients, I am far from charging them with any internal resemblance. They have indeed got their model in clay, but have stolen no beam of light to inform it. But as it is necessary, that we should profess working after the pattern of these celebrated masters, I shall give the student an infallible rule to proceed by in this case, without having recourse to their ware-houses.

And this is my second great rule of Classicality.

Take MILTON, read his shorter poems, and particularly LYCIDAS, COMUS, AND SAMPSON; wherever you meet with an epithet, more especially, if it be a compound one, put it in your note-book; for as MILTON copied the antients, the more you steal from MILTON, of consequence the nearer you come to the antients.

This precept, in regard to epithets, deserves very particular attention, as upon a due observance in the choice of them depends the whole beauty of modern Poetry. There is besides an art of variation in the use of them, very necessary to be learnt, and which is proper to be explained in this place. The instances indeed, for the better illustration, are extremely familiar. The words Fountain and Stream have in all ages had attendant epithets to wait upon them, which were no more than "murmuring," "querulous," &c. but we, who love, not only to make persons of inanimate objects, but also to give them the powers of real life, are not content with a Rill (for that is now the fashionable expression) that runs along "weeping" and "tinkling," unless it also "babbles" and "prattles." A stone must be mouldring, or perhaps bound in "Ivy-chains," and a Tower will make a very insignificant appearance that is not "moss-grown" as well as "cloud-capt."

The FIGURES which may easiest be introduced, are the ECPHOMENA or EXCLAMATION, which, I believe, joined with the ANTITHESIS or SEE-SAW will be sufficient for the author to labour at, and the rest will fall in occasionally. As the HYPERBOLE is the greatest fault in composition, I need not caution any modern practitioners against it, as we in general are so fearful of knocking out our brains against the stars, that like geese, we even duck our heads under a barn-door. Nor can I perceive any danger of falling into those extravagancies from the flights of over-heated imagination, whilst we go as cautiously to work upon a poem, as if it were, as indeed it really is, no more than a piece of mechanism.

There are, it is true, many niceties to be attended to in the well-ordering the musical part of these compositions; but, as every genius of sixteen is already master of the proper pauses, cadences, &c. necessary to the perfection of jingle, any instructions upon this head would be altogether useless and impertinent. Alliteration is the artificial all in all of poetry. The Epithet must not only agree with the substantive; but even wear its livery, and ape the fashion of its master. Hence it must always begin with the same letter, and those verses, are the most finished in which there are two substantives, two adjectives, and one verb. The verb standing in the middle to keep the peace, and the adjectives preceding their respective substantives, as a body-guard. But a whole line, where every word begins alike, is a master-piece of execution, and to be met with only amongst your first-rate geniuses. Though even this may be attained by a careful study of BYSSHE'S art of poetry, and DYCHE'S spelling-book.

But that I may not be supposed to have drawn up rules which I am unable to practise, in my next I shall present you with a perfect ode, of which I shall only say with Horace,

Speret idem, sibi quivis.

Yours, W. C.

[pp. 119-25]