1791
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ode for the New Year, 1791.

Henry James Pye


Six irregular Spenserians. The Laureate's first new-year's ode adds a couplet to the Prior stanza and celebrates the great age of Drake, Raleigh and Elizabeth as a model for the reign of liberty and empire under George III. Pye used this original rhyme pattern in all his many laureate poems.

Henry James Pye was not a bad choice as laureate, taking into consideration the nature and duties of the position as then understood. His 1787 Poems contained substantial works in a variety of genres — especially the necessary Pindaric — and Pye praises the reign of George III in "The Progress of Refinement." Also in the georgic mode is his didactic poem, "The Art of War," knowledge of which might also be useful in a Laureate. Since Pye was financially independent, he could not be accused of venality. The easy assimilation of classical and modern elements in his verse would represented mainstream tastes.

Though much ridiculed, the laureate verses appeared in the major periodicals of the day. Pye adopted a distinctive stanza, but otherwise seems to have followed the manner earlier established by William Whitehead and Thomas Warton. He was the last laureate to compose birth-day odes and new-year's odes — Robert Southey made his acceptance of the laurel conditional on not having to stoop to such things. Unlike Pye's, Southey's laureate verse took risks and strove for originality, with characteristically uneven results.



I.
When from the bosom of the mine
The magnet first to light was thrown,
Fair commerce hail'd the gift divine,
And, smiling, claim'd it for her own.
'My bark (she said) this gem shall guide
Thro' paths of ocean yet untry'd,
While as my daring sons explore
Each rude inhospitable shore,
'Mid desert lands and ruthless skies,
New seats of industry shall rise,
And culture wide extend its genial reign,
Free as the ambient gale, and boundless as the wain.'

II.
But Tyranny soon learn'd to seize,
The art improving Science taught,
The white sail courts the distant breeze,
With horror and destruction fraught;
From the tall mast fell War unfurl'd
His banners to a new-found world;
Oppression, arm'd with giant pride,
And bigot Fury by her side;
Dire Desolation bath'd in blood,
Pale Av'rice, and her harpy brood,
To each affrighted shore in thunder spoke,
And bow'd the wretched race to Slav'ry's iron yoke.

III.
Not such the gentler views that urge
Britannia's sons to dare the surge;
Not such the gifts her Drake, her Raleigh bore
To the wild inmates of th' Atlantic shore,
Teaching each drear wood's pathless scene
The glories of their virgin queen.
Nor such her later chiefs who try,
Impell'd by soft humanity,
The boist'rous wave, the rugged coast,
The burning zone, the polar frost,
That climes remote, and regions yet unknown,
May share a GEORGE'S sway, and bless his patriot throne.

IV.
Warm Fancy, kindling with delight,
Anticipates the lapse of age,
And as she throws her eagle's flight
O'er Time's yet undiscovered page,
Vast continents, now dark with shade,
She sees in verdure's robe array'd,
Sees o'er each island's fertile steep
That frequent studs the southern deep,
His fleecy charge the shepherd lead,
The harvest wave, the vintage bleed:
See Commerce springs of guiltless wealth explore,
Where frowns the western world on Asia's neighbouring shore.

V.
But, lo! across the blackening skies,
What swarthy daemon wings his flight?
At once the transient landscape flies,
The splendid vision sets in night.—
And see Britannia's awful form,
With breast undaunted, brave the storm:
Awful, as when her angry tide
O'erwhelm'd the wreck'd Armada's pride.
Awful, as when the avenging blow
Suspending o'er a prostrate foe,
She snatch'd in vict'ry's moment, prompt to save,
Iberia's sinking sons from Calpe's glowing wave.

VI.
Ere yet the tempest's mingled sound
Burst dreadful o'er the nations round,
What angel shape, in beaming radiance dight,
Pours through the severing clouds celestial light!
'Tis Peace — before her seraph eye
The fiends of Devastation fly.
Auspicious, round our monarch's brow
She twines her olive's sacred bough;
This victory, she cries, is mine,
Not torn from War's terrific shrine;
Mine the pure trophies of the wise and good,
Unstained of woe, and undefil'd with blood.

[Hamilton, Poets Laureate (1879) 211-13]