1812
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ode to Genius.

Universal Magazine NS 17 (February 1812) 133-35

Mary Russell Mitford


An irregular Pindaric ode in six stanzas, "Spoken by Mr. Quin at the Surrey Institution, 1812." Mary Russell Mitford seems to model her poem on Collins's Ode on the Poetical Character and Gray's Progress of Poetry. The poem follows the progress of Genius from Greece to Britain, where the trio of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton appears as the chief national poets: "O never more to roam! | Shakspeare and Spenser claimed thee all; | And he who sang of Eden's fall, | Sightless himself to give to others sight" p. 134. The poem does not stop in Britain, however, for the concluding stanza abandons the "progress" argument to discover Genius dwelling promiscuously among all climes and nations.

Mary Russell Mitford to Sir William Elford: "she was able to correct a very incorrect proof of a certain Ode to Genius which the messenger brought and took back again, and to write to her dear papa, and even to finish the intricate machinery of a Spenser stanza, in which she was engaged when the alarm began, before she went to bed. Apropos of the Ode to Genius, I am delighted that you like it, not only because I am always proud of your approbation, but because — it looks very vain to say so, but as it is the first time that it has happened with any thing that I have written — I really like it myself. And I hear that it is much spoken of in London" 28 January 1812; in L'Estrange, Life of Mary Russell Mitford (1870) 1:141-42.

Richard Alfred Davenport ["D."] to Richard Polwhele: "In one of your former letters you speak of Miss Mitford's compositions with warm praise, which I think well merited. She is a firm and active friend to my Poetical Register, the next volume of which will contain a descriptive poem of hers, superior even to 'Watlington Hill.' Every body thinks more highly of her abilities than she herself does" 10 February 1815; in Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 670.



I.
Spirit! that nor in air, nor sea, nor earth,
Our grosser mortal sight hath known;
Whose heavenly nature speaks a heavenly birth,
The world thy kingdom, man's firm mind thy throne;
Genius! thou emblem of Divinity!
If aught, save the Eternal-one,
Could claim the bended knee,
To thee should earthly homage bow alone,
And worship his high attribute in thee!
Thou only pure unchangeable,
Amidst a world of change;
Whose never-dying principle,
Through ages and through climes can range,
Like molten gold unmixed remain,
And undebased unite again;
Ductile to all that virtuous is and good,
Nor ever with the wicked blending:—
Genius! at thy mysterious altars bending,
A thousand tongues thy power proclaim,
A thousand bards exalt thy fame,
A thousand lyres re-echo to thy name,
But none hath raised th' impenetrable hood:
Shrouded by "excess of light,"
More than by Cimmerian night,
Still hath thy power been felt, but never understood!

II.
Unsearchable thy source; and vain
It were to seek the hidden chain,
Th' electric impulse, sudden, bright,
That flashes forth thy radiant light.
We hear the clash, we see the blaze,
But He alone, who formed the maze
Of man's wild trackless mind;
He only knows the magic sweet,
Which bids the maddening pulses beat,
And spreads unseen its vital heat,
Like sun-beams on the blind.
Enough for us in every race,
Which time and war and vice have spared,
Th' unconquerable flame to trace;
The sacred ashes guard.

III.
Nursed in Beauty's native clime,
Where love lay hid in myrtle bowers;
Whence sprang old Homer's lay sublime;
Whence Sophocles' and Pindar's powers?
Whence but from thee? Oh ne'er again,
So bright, so godlike shalt thou reign,
As when the bards of Greece arose,
Victorious o'er thy deadly foes,
And vanquished Space and Time.
Yes, proudly eminent they stand,
The glory of their fallen land!
Vain was in sculptured domes thy trust:
Vainly thou breath'd'st in every bust;
Thy gorgeous temples sink to dust!
Of Phidias mangled heaps remain;
Of Xeuxis, but a name;
Whilst slumbering nations wake at Homer's strain,
And dazzled votaries veil at Pindar's flame.
Thy mortal body fades away;
Thy soul immortal springs to deathless day!
Alas, how changed thy classic scene;
Still Athens breathes her air serene;
Still fragrance down her vallies floats;
Still echo there in softened notes
Sweet Songs of Love from Maidens fair;
But vanished now is Greece's spell
Her cities of the Spoiler tell;
Degenerate and unmourned she fell,
When weeping Genius fled before Despair.

IV.
Where didst thou fly? Imperial Rome,
With thee awhile the Spirit staid;
And vassal nations owned thy doom,
And the world trembled and obeyed.
Then Virgil's song and Tully's speech,
Seemed half the Grecian strength to reach;
Till luxury and vice with victory came,
And Genius fled away!—
Where heavenly Spirit did'st thou stray
Thro' that long night in which no genial ray
Flashed thy undying flame?
Say, didst thou seek in rosy bowers,
The lovely maids of Cachmire's vale,
Re-echoing through the moonlight hours,
The warblings of the Nightingale?
Or didst thou wake in Iceland's storms,
The magic notes of Odin's shell,
And 'mid Valhalla's shadowy forms,
Sing those who conquered, those who fell?
Or did'st thou in a world unknown,
Pour the wild Indian's warlike tone,
Where courage, seeking but to die,
Climbs undesigned the heights of Poesy?

V.
Still lingering in thy lovely Italy,
When Europe from her trance awoke,
Thy meteor fire in Dante's vision broke,
And in Orlando's tale of witchery.
Then was it quenched: — and then was heard,
In northern climes thy gifted word.
Scarce on the flowery plains of France,
Ethereal Genius, did'st thou glance;
Scarce from the mitred prelate roll,
One peal of eloquence to wake the soul;
While England, happy England, was thy home!
O never more to roam!
Shakspeare and Spenser claimed thee all;
And he who sang of Eden's fall,
Sightless himself to give to others sight;
And the long train of Bards in heaven-born radiance bright.
O Genius of the liquid lay!
How sweetly in her evil day,
O'er Albion's hills thy visions play,
And breathe thy spirit ever;
Here fix thy dwelling-place and say,
"England, I leave thee never."

VI.
O vain and idle prayer! To give
Unbounded spirit bounds to live!
Where liv'st thou not? Let pedants tell,
That only shut in Learning's cell,
Or in the Minstrel's lighter spell,
Thy magic shines confest;
Still let them pour their narrow strife;
Thou liv'st wherever man has life!
Wherever love can warm the breast,
Where'er the hero's glories rest;
Where'er the peasant's mountain nest,
Is snatched from tyranny.
Yes! from Arabia's burning zone,
To where from giant nature's gorgeous throne,
The northern Indian views lake, river, tree,
Majestic as the sky's bright panoply,
And calls them all his own,
The earth his vassal, man, man only free!
Yes, even there, or on the Lapland rock,
Which seems the sounding surge to mock,
The Fisher whose unceasing toil,
From Ocean plucks his scanty spoil,
And, like the eagle in his eyrie, shares
With one dear mate, his joys, his griefs, his cares;
Yes even with him, blest Genius, may'st thou dwell,
And though the grand ideas that swell,
His bursting spirit, scarce his tongue can tell,
Yet not extinct, tho' smothered is thy flame,
And brighter the wild flash that none may claim,
And dearer is its power,
To cheer the toilsome hour,
Than the forced sickly blaze that lends wit's flickering fame.
Genius! presumptuous reason may not dare
Thy bounds to scan;
But where is love, and liberty, and man,
Genius, thou wilt be there!

[pp. 133-35]