A heroic ode in sprawling Pindaric stanzas, after Thomas Gray's The Bard. King Alfred, following his victory over the Danes, reflects in solitude upon the events of his life, and as his hand strays unbidden over the strings of his harp, beholds a vision. While the general shape of Robert Holmes's ode is modeled on Gray, its texture derives more from Milton's Lycidas. The poet, a Fellow of New College, Oxford, had studied under Joseph Warton at Winchester; he would succeed Thomas Warton as Oxford's Poetry Professor.
Alfred, an Ode consists of series of figures, beginning with the peaceful Chiefs of Science: "O scorn me not, ye Chiefs of dearest name, | While thus I cast my blood-stain'd wreath aside! | To shame and silence shrinks the warrior's pride; | Be mine your Triumphs, mine your peaceful Fame" p. 8. Next is Richard Coeur de Lion: "He muses deep of battles won, | By Arthur's Knights in old emprise" p. 9. Alfred then beholds the triumph of Christianity over the murderous Druids. Next appears a chorus of bards: "From age to age, from clime to clime, | Thro' scenes of past and future time, | Each Minstrel's winged fancy springs" p. 12. They catalogue the poets in a series of verse characters: Orpheus, Homer, Pindar, Tasso, Ariosto and the poets of romance ("Ye, that sing, in Fancy's Car | Rapt o'er the pomp of fabled war, | In faery fields of gay Romance" p. 17), Petrarch. The poem concludes as the minstrels hail Alfred himself, the champion of faith and letters.
Author's note: "King Alfred, after having defeated the Danes at Eddington, is placed in the following piece on the White-Horse Hills in Berkshire, which stood near the Northern Extremity of his Grandfather Egbert's hereditary kingdom of the West-Saxons, and overlooked Wantage, the place of his own Nativity. From this situation, which was not very remote from the Scene of his late victory, his Eye might command a distant view of that vale, in which Oxford now stands" p. 1.
Critical Review: "In this Ode, king Alfred, after having defeated the Danes at Eddington, is placed on the White Horse Hills in Berkshire, which stood near the northern extremity of his grandfather Egbert's hereditary kingdom of the West-Saxons, and overlooked Wantage, the place of his own nativity. From this situation, which was not very remote from the scene of his late victory, his eye might command a distant view of that vale, in which Oxford now stands. This circumstance leads him, very naturally, as the founder of University college, to launch out into a prophetic description of the Greek and Roman Muses fixing their residence in that pleasing and peaceful retreat, and animating the British youth to the love of classic learning! — This is no mean imitation of Mr. Gray's Welch Bard. The sonnets are of a grave cast, in lines of ten syllables" 45 (February 1778) 153.
John Langhorne: "No more! Yet we have seen many less happy imitations of Gray's manner" Monthly Review 58 (May 1778) 399.
Samuel Austin Allibone: "Robert Holmes, D.D., 1749-1805, a native of Hampshire, educated at New College, Oxford, became Rector of Staunton, Canon of Salibury, and, in 1804, Dean of Winchester. In 1790 he succeeded Thomas Warton as Professor of Poetry at Oxford" Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1858-71; 1882) 1:870.
"The Fury of the North,
That rush'd in Terror forth,
Is fall'n: at sable noon of Night,
Her Torch, dire-blazing, glares afar,
Disastrous Signal of the morrow's War,
No more." — 'Twas thus Great Alfred's tongue
Preluded to prophetic Song,
Upon a Rock, from whose proud height
That White-Horse looks o'er Offa's frontier-plain,
That girt around the Western-Saxon's reign,
Till haughty Conquest spread her wings,
Clotted with blood, on Egbert's head,
And gave his thirsty blade
To riot in the Hearts of Kings.—
On the cold ground alone,
The Minstrel-King was rudely thrown:
His soiled Vest, unseemly-riv'n,
Flow'd to the driving Winds of Heav'n.
The Harp, whose sweet enchanting tone
Was heard the tented foes among,
And thrill'd stern Guthrum's soul of stone,
Silent from his shoulder hung.
The White-Cross Banner waved near,
That o'er brave Alfred's ranks display'd,
As late he led his Battel on,
To hostile Eyes distressful shone,
And e'er the din of British onset bray'd,
Had smote with pale dismay the Dacian rear.
Uprose the King, and low in worship bow'd.—
Hope came, and breath'd her Spirit o'er his soul;
Then, as in Trance, his hands unbidden stole
Down on the Harp, and thus the numbers flow'd.
"Yet whence that fearful Sound
Swings o'er the rocky mound,
And deepens in each woody glen?—
Hail, Sound of Triumph — to his Den
The British Lion takes his way,
And, sated with the bloody prey,
Shakes on his mane the Dacian spoils,
That ring among the forest-iles.
Yet mourn, ye Saxon Fathers, mourn—
The Spirit of your land forlorn
From War's brave trophy turns her Eyes,
And still for nobler Triumph sighs.
Forget not, Heav'n: on watry Fen,
Sad Outcast from the walks of Men,
Bowing these weary knees, how oft I pray'd—
Father of Nations, bruise with vengeful Hand
Yon Host of Spoilers, that remorseless wade
In Floods of Slaughter o'er the gasping land!
Then high on Alfred's peaceful plains
To Thee shall rise the spiry Fanes,
By knees of Saints devoutly worn:
Then Truth, from her celestial Beam,
Shall stoop with letter'd Seers to dwell:
Then shall bright Wisdom's orient rays dispel
The Night of dreaming Sloth, and, wak'd by Morn,
The Muse shall breathe her Strains of lofty theme.
Lo! Heav'n hath heard — on yonder northern plain,
Their Mercian shore along,
The Chiefs of Science throng!
No ribs of plated steel embrace them round,
No murd'rous Cross-bows on their shoulders sound,
The Panoply of Peace they hold,
Stoles of White, and Lyres of Gold.
Hail, holy Kings! Unbloody Patriots, hail!
How poor my Praise, when Guthrum wildly-pale
Beheld his vanquish'd legions fly,
And wav'd with fruitless arm on high
His dark-wing'd Raven to the trembling Dane!
Unbolt your mail, and still the twanging yew,
Ye war-worn Britons. Lo! yon graceful Scene
Hath dress'd in guiltless green
Your Realm of Hope and Triumphs ever-new!
For in the lovely vale Ye throng,
Great Fathers of the British Song;
Ev'n now the name of Alfred dwells
Preluded on Your thousand shells.
Lo! quiv'ring beams of brightness glide
Along the wave's romantic side,
Shook from plumes of Spirits fair,
That hover in the lucid air:
Such, as scatter Graces warm
Upon the polish'd Marble's form:
Such, as on the mimic Tint
Strong Character of Life imprint:
Such, whose magic hands untie
The twisted links of Harmony:
Such, who rear with tendence kind
The Nurslings of the teeming Mind.
"Ye promis'd Spirits, hail!
That weave on yonder vale
The roll of Fame for Egbert's Line.
Ye saw the Heav'n-taught Pontiff shed
Imperial Oil on Alfred's youthful head,
'Great Son of Ethelwolf,' He cried,
'The Sceptre of thy Father guide,
The Majesty of Peace be Thine.'
'Twas then deep Rapture thrill'd my beating veins,
As, hovering yet on Tiber's darken'd plains,
I saw the Muse of Greece delay:—
On, on, I call'd — in British skies
No Clouds of Darkness rise:
Away, to Alfred's reign, Away!—
She flew to yonder shade;
Lo! there the Sister-train she stay'd.
Awaken'd by her voice divine,
That sounded thro' each classic shrine,
The Wise and Great of Britain's clime
List'ning in aweful Synod stand,
While now her strains of lore sublime,
Fill the bosom of the land,
As streams of precious Sweet distill
From Censers of ambrosial balm.
Hark! while such sounds each Pupil hears,
As oft have charm'd immortal ears,
The froward winds are sunk to sober calm,
And airs of joy the whisp'ring welkin fill.
O scorn me not, ye Chiefs of dearest name,
While thus I cast my blood-stain'd wreath aside!
To shame and silence shrinks the warrior's pride;
Be mine your Triumphs, mine your peaceful Fame.
"But cease, ye strings profane,
Nor mock with scornful strain
The peril of the hardy Field—
Lo! ringing loud his maiden shield,
A crowned Form comes striding on.
He muses deep of battles won,
By Arthur's Knights in old emprise:
He pauses now with lifted eyes,
And folded hands, in act of pray'r—
But, mark! his sparkling eye-balls glare:
His hands unlock: his spirit burns:
Eastward with threat'ning start he turns:
His wild right-hand hath drawn the blade,
That flashes red thro' Beaumont's shade.
Fly, fly ye Wolves of th' East, and faint beneath
The storm that gathers, black with dreadful woe:
Fierce on your necks descends the sword of death,
And lion-hearted Richard points the blow.
No more to glut the hungry maw
With flesh of Saints, your bloody paw
Shall dig the shrined Martyr's grave:
No longer shall your dissonant howl
Alarm the still religious fane.
Lo! the Great Shepherd of the wasted plain
Returns: his fond parental Arm shall save
The chosen fold from midnight rapine foul.
"Hail, holy Morn, when in the streaked East
The Christian Day-star shone!
Supplanted on her throne,
Th' Usurper Darkness thro' the mid-way sky
Down fell — fond Faith recall'd the straying eye,
And lighted on, to realms of Day
Holds her unbenighted way.
No more th' impenetrable groves among,
With sacred spoils and idol-trophies hung,
From altars foul dark wreaths of smoke
Imbosom the religious Oak;
When rous'd by Mona's bloody-mantled Priest,
Impatient Homicide, his Druid-crew
With eyes of madness watch the midnight spell,
And drown with deaf'ning yell
The scream of Captives stretch'd in furnace blue.
The Voice of Heav'n, in thunders loud,
Resounded from the rocking cloud—
'Back to thy doom, thou Spirit fell,
Dire Atheism, eldest-born of Hell:
The nations, whom thy sceptre broke,
Are started from thy tyrant-yoke.'—
Wither'd down from giant-size
To dwarfish shape, the Monster flies:
Down he drops the pitchy robe,
That veil'd from Gospel-dawn the globe:
Beams of Heav'n confound his sight,
And seal his aching orbs in Night.
Fiends, that dar'd in flight uphold
The Banner of the Anarch old,
All in hideous ruin driv'n,
Are perish'd from the face of Heav'n.
"But hark! on yonder plain
A thousand harps are strung:
Rous'd by the Muse, her tuneful quire
Swell out the choral strain—
Such sounds of sweetness, thoughts of fire,
Yet never liv'd on British strings,
Yet never wak'd a British tongue.
From age to age, from clime to clime,
Thro' scenes of past and future time,
Each Minstrel's winged fancy springs.
Ev'n now to life and wonted fame
Some old departed Bard they call;
With song they hail his kindred name,
And hymn his praise, or mourn his fall.
Prolong, ye Bards, your numbers clear;
They breathe not all in vain—
My soul with sweet enchantment glows,
And sits to listen in my wakeful ear:
Ev'n now I hear some holy strain,
And thus the broken measure flows—
"O Thou, whose Harp her native Heav'n regain'd,
And rose a Star with rays benign,
What time thy corse, by murd'rous hands profan'd,
Was hearsed by the weeping Nine—
Sweet Bard, whose numerous song,
Wafted by thy Parent-Muse
Threicia's waste along,
Still to Fancy's ear renews
Those melting sounds, that once beguil'd
To silence deep the roaring Wild:
When from rank and lurid cells,
Where the famish'd Tyger yells,
Dark Rhodope's unfathom'd womb,
Reluctant came her monstrous brood,
Th' unsated lust of prey subdu'd,
And kiss'd thy witching strings in rapture dumb.
"And Thou, whose Epic lyre,
Strung by a Muse of fire,
Alarm'd the sea-green Nymphs, that reign
O'er th' Aegean's broad profound:
They sunk beneath their echoing main,
In terror of the battel's sound.
When the sea's enraged God
Thrice immeasurably strode,
What dire dismay their bosoms smote,
Lest the stern Monarch's mighty foot,
Yet once again in thunder hurl'd,
Should fall, and whelm the crumbling world.
"And Thou, whose daring strings,
Heard o'er Pisa's rattling plain,
When rush'd th' impetuous Car along,
Swell'd out the great triumphal strain,
To Chiefs, and list'ning Kings,
Poet of more than mortal song:
Bursting the bosom's stubborn bar,
Down thro' the heart thy violent Muse
Her headlong way pursues,
Rapid, as the trophied Car,
Which regal Theron drove,
When sprung his burning axle forth
On to the dusty goal;
Resistless, as the bolts of Jove,
That, driv'n by the raging North,
Unhinge the stedfast pole.—
And Thou, the Mantuan Muse's child,
Whose even-measur'd lip
Her trumpet fill'd with notes more mild—
Tiber stay'd the dashing car
On the ridges of his deep,
And still'd the surge, that hoarsely rung,
To listen while the Poet sung,
How from Asia's hapless war,
The Chief of Ilium, wise and brave,
To furious whirlwinds spread the daring sail,
While Death behind the mountainous wave
Shook his dread spear along the yawning vale.
Yet safe his bark thro' tumbling surges bore
Her Host of Heroes to the Latian shore.
Rous'd by the patriot strain,
Each floating Triton grasp'd the shell,
And blew a loud triumphal swell,
That fill'd old Ocean's reign.
"And Ye, immortal heirs of future praise,
Whose notes the Muse prophetic bears
Familiar to our ravish'd ears;
That breathe on Sion's plain your solemn lays,
Where the heroic full Crusade,
Beneath the silver Cross array'd,
Hath broke Oppression's iron rod,
And crush'd th' insulting foe of God—
The wasted Nymph of Salem hears,
And, leaping from the ground,
Fresh as in bridal pomp appears,
Exulting to the pious sound.—
And Ye, that sing, in Fancy's Car
Rapt o'er the pomp of fabled war,
In faery fields of gay Romance,
Where spell-born Chiefs the falchion wield
Of fate, and catch the innocent lance
Of mortal arm on charmed shield—
Or Ye, in soft and plaintive lay
That waste your tender amorous day,
While the noontide Zephyrs bear
Sighs that lull the melting fair,
Or Echo whispers Laura's name
On myrtle-shaded Sorga's stream.
"All, all — where'er at close of day,
When Eve unrolls her mantle gray,
Your solitary steps explore
Each secret grove, or haunted shore,
To list, if tuneful Harps repay
With Welcome sweet your fond delay:
O turn — and while your pensive minds review
The Patriot-plans your Public-fathers drew,
The Spirit of departed Liberty
Shall beat within your veins again,
Nor shall Ye pass with scornful footsteps by,
While, British-born, she hails you to her reign—
Turn then your steps, dear wand'rers, turn,
These walks of hospitable shade among;
Here let your wonted fancies burn,
Here let your longing Harps again be strung.
"In saintly robe of dazling White,
Religion, from her sphere of light,
Hovers in the middle sky—
Ev'n now she waves the Cross divine,
Beck'ning the Mistress of your song—
Behold! the Muse hath caught the sign,
And starts with hasty wings along;
Rapture lightens in her eye,
And swells thro' all her panting veins.
They join: and o'er yon turrets fair
Suspend their level wings in air:"
"Be these," they cry, "our kindred fanes—
O Daughter of Immortals, holy Truth,
Here oft prolong thy mystic lay
To build th' exalted mind—
Then, while in trance he glows,
Around his brow each fond impatient Youth
An untried wreath shall bind,
Of old Parnassus' new-blown bay,
Inwove with Sharon's rose—
Then, starting as he beats the string,
His loud acclaim shall fill the vale,
Hail, British Alfred, patriot King,
Great Father of thy people, Hail!"