1807
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ode to Duty.

Poems in Two Volumes, by William Wordsworth, Author of the Lyrical Ballads.

William Wordsworth


In eight eight-line stanzas William Wordsworth takes his theme and form from Thomas Gray's Hymn to Adversity. That much-imitated poem had been very popular during the Della Cruscan era of the previous decade, when allegorical odes were typically composed in an elaborate diction that Wordsworth's spare style deliberately rejects.

Le Beau Monde: "There is a story about a highland boy going to sea in a wash-tub, which may amuse children in the nursery; and there is a song about a linnet, which will never amuse any body any where. The lines to a young lady, who was in the habit of taking long walks, are forcible and feeling. There are a great many other little pieces, some of which are written upon subjects that give scope for the display of genius; but Mr. Wordsworth has, in very few instances, taken advantage of his opportunity, and these poems, as well as those which we have more minutely criticised, bear the general characteristics of an author easily satisfied with his own productions, however little those productions be likely to satisfy any body else. Upon the whole, we have a most unfavourable opinion of the volumes before us; a few beauties indeed are scattered abroad, but, like violets, they lie very low, and are difficult of discovery. Mr. Wordsworth has ruined himself by his affectation of simplicity. Most good authors have been content to form themselves on the models of polished writers: Mr. Scott, in the present day, has chosen to copy the language of barbarous ages; but it was reserved for Mr. Wordsworth to imitate the lisp of children" 2 (October 1807) 142.

William Hazlitt: "The author tramples on the pride of art with greater pride. The Ode and Epode, the Strophe and the Antistrophe, he laughs to scorn. The harp of Homer, the trump of Pindar and of Alcaeus are still. The decencies of costume, the decorations of vanity are stripped off without mercy as barbarous, idle, and gothic" Spirit of the Age (1825) 234.

Oliver Elton: "Wordsworth, though at one time up in arms against the 'classical' diction, tells us that Gray and Horace were his patterns for the Ode to Duty. He there copies Gray's metre, and also enlists the old apostrophes and abstractions in the service of a deeper conception than Gray's" Survey of English Literature 1730-1780 (1928) 2:62.

W. P. Ker: "Gray's Hymn to Adversity belongs to the Spenserian school in nearly the same degree as the verse of Milton's Nativity Ode. When Wordsworth borrows that pattern of stanza for his Ode to Duty he is both following Gray and also following with understanding the principles on which Gray worked; Wordsworth understands Gray's method and knows he can do similar things. In Wordsworth's poems of 1807, where the Ode to Duty is found, Wordsworth copies the Spenserians in other places, as in Resolution and Independence, which is suggested by Milton's seven-lined stanza in the Proem to the Nativity Ode. The 1807 volume shows much more research and experiment in form than the Lyrical Ballads" Form and Style in Poetry (1927) 200-201.



Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!
O Duty, if that name thou love
Who art a Light to guide, a Rod
To check the erring, and reprove;
Thou who art victory and law
When empty terrors overawe;
From vain temptations dost set free;
From strife and from despair; a glorious ministry.

There are who ask not if thine eye
Be on them; who, in love and truth,
Where no misgiving is, rely
Upon the genial sense of youth:
Glad Hearts! without reproach or blot;
Who do thy work, and know it not:
May joy be theirs while life shall last!
And Thou, if they should totter, teach them to stand fast!

Serene will be our days and bright,
And happy will our nature be,
When love is an unerring light,
And joy its own security.
And bless'd are they who in the main
This faith, even now, do entertain:
Live in the spirit of this creed;
Yet find that other strength, according to their need.

I, loving freedom, and untried;
No sport of every random gust,
Yet being to myself a guide,
Too blindly have reposed my trust:
Resolved that nothing e'er should press
Upon my present happiness,
I shoved unwelcome tasks away;
But thee I now would serve more strictly, if I may.

Through no disturbance of my soul,
Or strong compunction in me wrought,
I supplicate for thy controul;
But in the quietness of thought:
Me this uncharter'd freedom tires;
I feel the weight of chance desires:
My hopes no more must change their name,
I long for a repose which ever is the same.

Yet not the less would I throughout
Still act according to the voice
Of my own wish; and feel past doubt
That my submissiveness was choice:
Not seeking in the school of pride
For "precepts over dignified,"
Denial and restraint I prize
No farther than they breed a second Will more wise.

Stern Lawgiver! yet thou dost wear
The Godhead's most benignant grace;
Nor know we any thing so fair
As is the smile upon thy face;
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds;
And Fragrance in thy footing treads;
Thou dost preserve the Stars from wrong;
And the most ancient Heavens through Thee are fresh and strong.

To humbler functions, awful Power!
I call thee: I myself commend
Unto thy guidance from this hour;
Oh! let my weakness have an end!
Give unto me, made lowly wise,
The spirit of self-sacrifice;
The confidence of reason give;
And in the light of truth thy Bondman let me live!

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