1804
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ode to Despair. Irregular.

Select Icelandic Poetry, translated from the Original: with Notes. Part First.

Rev. William Herbert


An imitation of Collins's Ode to Fear in four irregular stanzas. The poem, dated "1796," was composed the year after William Herbert matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, from Eton College. It presents a series of allegorical figures, terminating with the most fearsome of all: "And chiefly he, the giant power, | Whom lustful sin to Murder bore, | Fell Suicide, that stalks behind, | With ghastly smile and baneful breath, | When Hope has left the guilty mind, | Sounding the dirge of death."

Walter Scott: "The original poetry with which these translations are interspersed, displays no peculiar vigour of imagination. Indeed, the author has in general chosen subjects which have been too frequently the theme of the Muses to admit of any great novelty in the mode of treating them. Thus, we have an Ode to Despair, in the first volume, very well executed for that kind of composition; but we have now seen so many of these addresses to personified passions, and are so much accustomed to the routine of their being supplied with appropriate amusements, and a suitable pedigree, that a disagreeable and unimpressive similarity is their principal characteristic" in Review of Herbert, Miscellanies; Edinburgh Review 9 (October 1806) 222.

Critical Review: "And first we observe that the author prefixes to his poems the date of the year in which he atchieved a deed of such hardihood. This led us to notice that the early poems are neither better nor worse than the latter, and in no respect differ from them, excepting that they are more excusable from being the indiscretions of youth. Our author wrote and printed long ago an ode to Hellebore, or nonsense, we forget which. No man who follows the bent of his genius will ever make a bad figure, and no man who baulks his natural propensity in favour of what is contradictory to his inclination, can ever make a good one. Mr. Herbert's ode drew forth this remark. In this ode the juvenile bard displayed such a thorough intimacy with the subject, and succeeded so eminently, that it is really surprising he should have deserted a cause to which he was a proselyte, and expatiated in the dangerous and profitless fields of sense" review of Miscellaneous Poetry; S3 10 (January 1810) 51.

William Herbert (1778-1847) was, as the title of the volume suggests, a notable linguist; in 1795 he had edited three volumes of Greek and Latin poetry, Musae Etonenses. His translations from the Icelandic are said to be the first in English to be from the original language. A second part of this volume was published in 1806, and Herbert went on to compose several epics. He seems to have been a polymath; in addition to his linguistic studies and poetry, he served in parliament before taking orders and later in life was a notable botanist and acquaintance of Charles Dawrin.



1.
O thou, the fiend to Death allied,
Who sit'st by weeping Sorrow's side,
And bid'st unreal shapes arise
Of monsterous port and giant size,
Despair! thy gorgon eye
Can numb the heart with stern controul,
And bind in ice the palsied soul.
Where'er beneath some whistling shed
Thy sullen form is laid,
Scaring from orphan breasts the balm of sleep;
Or listening to the hollow sigh
Of her, whose infants watch and weep,
While round her side with slow consuming pans
The barking dogs of famine hang.

2.
Or cast upon some trackless shore,
'Gainst which the barren billows roar,
Thou turn'st thy leaden eyes in vain
Across the immeasurable main;
And thro' the hoarsely murmuring spray
Hear'st the sad sea-shriek die away:
While thro' the howling storm in awful pride
The baleful spirits of the thunder ride.

3.
Oft by the taper's mournful ray
In arched vaults but dimly seen,
Where cloister'd virgins vainly pray,
Thou lov'st to mark the solemn scene;
And haunt the gloomy cell,
Where pale Regret and hopeless Memory dwell,
And weeping Love; and by his side
Unsated Lust and lingering Pride,
Who left the world, they loved so well;
And Shame, that shuns the day.

4.
But fiercest on the blood-stain'd ground,
Where crush'd Ambition stares around,
And kindred Vice of coward soul,
That hugs the knife with downcast eye,
And dreads the blow, she dares not fly;
There sits thy dark terrific form
With swollen balls, that wildly roll,
And points the slowly gathering storm
Big with the threats of fate.
Around thy hideous phantoms wait;
And chiefly he, the giant pow'r,
Whom lustful Sin to Murder bore,
Fell Suicide, that stalks behind
With ghastly smile and baneful breath,
When hope has left the guilty mind,
Sounding the dirge of death.

[pp. 48-50]