in verse #38 : Greek to me

Alexander Pope, born in 1688, dead in his 56th year, commonly viewed as the last great neo-classicist, could also be viewed as the first of the Romantics — because of his sincerity.  As Aubrey Williams has it:  “Pope’s poetry can move us deeply because it so often stirs us to a sense of the innate precariousness of all things.  The uncertainty of riches, the decay of beauty, and the crash of worlds, these are the prevailing themes and subjects of his poems.”[i]  It is as if the boisterous discourse of Dryden, Butler, Rochester, Defoe, Swift, Johnson, Boswell et al. has passed him by.  Sure, he can write sarcasm, as in “The rape of the lock,” but his heart is in large-scale works like An essay on man, which opens its “Epistle I” with this:

Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of Kings.
Let us (since Life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o’er all this scene of Man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A Wild, where weeds and flow’rs promiscuous shoot,
Or Garden, tempting with forbidden fruit.
Together let us beat this ample field,
Try what the open, what the covert yield;
The latent tracts, the giddy heights explore
Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;
Eye Nature’s walks, shoot Folly as it flies,
And catch the Manners living as they rise;
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
But vindicate the ways of God to Man.

Those 8 balanced couplets sound very reserved and sedate, but Pope is not afraid in them to take on John Milton and Paradise lost, the scourge of his Catholic family.  He is, like Milton, a religious exile, born in the year that England imported William of Orange and Mary (eldest daughter of James II, the reigning Stuart and Catholic king) to “restor[e] free elections to Parliament and ensur[e] a Protestant succession to the throne.”[ii]  But perhaps even more striking is the knowledge he shows of country life, a knowledge echoed in the last of the great Romantics, John Clare.  So effective was Pope at his use of the couplet that it survived the entire run of the Romantics, becoming Clare’s primary form — not his only form, but a sturdy base, as in these lines from a poem about a badger:

The badger grunting on his woodland track
With shaggy hide and sharp nose scrowed with black
Roots in the bushes and the woods and makes
A great hugh burrow in the ferns and brakes
With nose on ground he runs a awkward pace
And anything will beat him in the race
The shepherds dog will run him to his den
Followed and hooted by the dogs and men[iii]

The difference in scope, breadth of observation, punctuation, spelling and diction should not mask how completely and expertly Clare deploys his iambic pentameter couplets.  So here’s the question this raises for me:  why did most of the Romantics — outside of Smart and Blake — look wildly about for models anywhere but in their immediate past?  And why did so many of them settle on the Greek ode?  These were revolutionary poets in revolutionary times — why settle on “the most formal, ceremonious, and complexly organized form of lyric poetry, usually of considerable length”[iv]?  They made use of the ballad form as exemplified by Thomas Percy’s Reliques of ancient English poetry published in 1765.  They explored the various sonnet forms.  They invented new forms, like Byron’s Don Juan stanza.  Why did so many turn to the ode?  As The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics puts it:

The romantic ode in Eng. lit. … begins with Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” (1802) and Wordsworth’s pseudo-Pindaric “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (written 1802-04, pub. 1815).  Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode,” with its varied line lengths, complex rhyme scheme, and stanzas of varying length and pattern, has been called the greatest Eng. Pindaric ode.  Of the other major Romantic poets, Shelley wrote the “Ode to the West Wind” and Keats the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “To Autumn,” arguably the finest three odes in the lang.[v]

In part, these poets were political radicals looking for a new vehicle for expression.  I have pointed out the same dynamic at work in Blake (and to a lesser degree in Smart, who first came to notice by translating Pope’s Ode on St Cecilia’s day into Latin), but been unable to account for it.  Now to the rescue rides Roger Sales, who argues that in the Romantic authors we find apologists for the destruction of English rural life.  He begins with this:  “Pastoralism is composed of the famous five Rs:  refuge, reflection, rescue, requiem and reconstruction.”[vi]  The first four, he continues, “all sustain the illusion that pastoral deals with universally acknowledged truths.  It is, however, deceptive and prescriptive. It offers a political interpretation of both past and present.”[vii]  Sales identifies the deception as intended to “provid[e] sheep’s clothing for aristocratic wolves, or indeed for anybody who was on the side of the victors in the civil war which was fought for control of rural society.”[viii]  I’m not sure that Sales is right, but, as I am still reading God’s Englishman[ix] I can appreciate his allusion to the economic consequences of the English civil war.

There’s a better way to test Sales’s premise.  Despite my having presented only the skeleton of his argument, you should be able to use it to evaluate Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” ode, asking yourself if this sounds like a political interpretation of the pastoral.  Here is the ode, all 203 lines of it.  Take a deep, calming breath.  Now read it aloud.

Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

The child is father of the man;
 And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

(Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up”)

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
And while the young lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every Beast keep holiday;—
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.

Ye blessèd creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.
Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And, even with something of a Mother’s mind,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,
A six years’ Darling of a pigmy size!
See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,
With light upon him from his father’s eyes!
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learn{e}d art
A wedding or a festival,
A mourning or a funeral;
And this hath now his heart,
And unto this he frames his song:
Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;
But it will not be long
Ere this be thrown aside,
And with new joy and pride
The little Actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his “humorous stage”
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage;
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation.

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul’s immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy Immortality
Broods like the Day, a Master o’er a Slave,
A Presence which is not to be put by;
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That Nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest;
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:—
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:
But for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
And let the young Lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
Ye that pipe and ye that play,
Ye that through your hearts to-day
Feel the gladness of the May!
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.[x]

That’s not a simple poem, but Sales’s argument is not a simple argument, either.  Is Wordsworth an apologist for the present moment, as Sales argues that Jane Austen is?  Does he present here “a political interpretation of both past and present”?

But hold on, I hear you say.  What of Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats?

Your turn.


[i] Poetry and prose of Alexander Pope / selected with an introduction and notes by Aubrey Williams. – Boston : Houghton Mifflin, c1969; Introduction, p. xxiv.

[ii] Ibid., p. ix.

[iii] Selected poems and prose / Clare ; chosen and edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield.  — Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1966; p. 126.  Robinson & Summerfield give this poem the title [The Badger]; Clare gave it no title.

[iv] The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics / edited by Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan ; Frank J. Warnke, O.B. Hardison, Jr., and Earl Miner, associate editors. — New York : MJF Books, c1993;  p. 855.  This definition of “ode”  is described as the one “In modern usage.”

[v] Ibid., p. 857 — abbrev’s in source.

[vi] English literature in history. 1780-1830 : pastoral and politics / Roger Sales.—New York : St. Martin’s, c1983, p. 15.  The quote comes from chapter 1, The propaganda of the victors.  Sales does not say whose “famous five Rs” these are, and, no, this is not Roger Sale (with whom I studied at Washington).

[vii] Ibid., p. 17.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] God’s Englishman : Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution / Christopher Hill ; introduction by Tristram Hunt (London : Folio, 2013).

[x] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/ 174805, accessed 28 February 2014

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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2 Responses to in verse #38 : Greek to me

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I’d have to read Sales’s argument in more depth — and I’d have to know more about the Romantics (not an era I’ve studied in any depth). But while I’m willing to concede political implications of poetry (often unintended, and sometimes counter what was intended), I take a lot of convincing to see the political and/or economic as driving Romantic poetry. (As opposed to poets such as Vergil or Langland, where I’ll concede a significant political motivation.) I’m a lot more willing to grant “poetical radicals” than “political radicals” as driving their exploration of new forms.

    I’m also not sure what the attachment of the Romantic poets to the ode form has to do with their avoidance of iambic pentameter couplets. But maybe they were separate points, and there wasn’t supposed to be a connection between them…

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Well, as for the political and economic forces driving Romantic poetry, note the injured tone of this poem, and guess who wrote it, and about whom, and on what occasion:

      Just for a handful of silver he left us,
      Just for a riband to stick in his coat—
      Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
      Lost all the others she lets us devote;
      They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
      So much was theirs who so little allowed:
      How all our copper had gone for his service!
      Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!
      We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
      Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
      Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
      Made him our pattern to live and to die!
      Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
      Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
      He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
      —He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!

      We shall march prospering,—not thro’ his presence;
      Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;
      Deeds will be done,—while he boasts his quiescence,
      Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
      Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
      One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
      One more devils’-triumph and sorrow for angels,
      One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!
      Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!
      There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,
      Forced praise on our part—the glimmer of twilight,
      Never glad confident morning again!
      Best fight on well, for we taught him—strike gallantly,
      Menace our heart ere we master his own;
      Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
      Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne!

      The comparisons of the subject to Christ, crowned in heaven, and the sense of betrayal among those he turned from, are strong — and a little mean-spirited. The subject of the poem is Wordsworth — hence the comparisons with other poets — and the occasion of the poem is Wordsworth’s accepting of the post of Poet Laureate upon the death of Robert Southey in 1843. The previous year he had been awarded a civil-list pension of 300 pounds a year. Until his death in 1850 he wrote no “official” poems as Laureate.

      The poem is “The lost leader” by Robert Browning, and the bitterness it evokes with its implicit initial comparison of Wordsworth to Judas is to me ample evidence of the political and economic nature of the Romantics. What was the post of poet laureate at that time? More than anything else, a national honor. Wordsworth at first refused the post, until he was assured by the Prime Minister that he would have nothing required of him.

      Almost all of the Romantic poets were, like Blake, dissenters or non-believers, and would have agreed with Blake’s famous assessment of Milton & Satan that “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” (from “The marriage of heaven and hell”). Surely Browning shows that same radicalism in this assessment of Wordsworth, who was 73 at the time, and lived another 6 or 7 years. That Browning so strongly felt the “betrayal” of an old man accepting a deserved honor indicates the strength of feeling that persisted in the wake of the radical Romantic movement, although perhaps an anarchy would be a better description.

      I’m still not sure about Sales and his observations, since they are advanced as much by sneer as by logic — still working it out. But he seems to feel some of that same betrayal felt by Browning.

      In my mind, the connection between turning away from the classical couplet and to the Greek ode is political; the former represented the settled orthodoxy of the previous century (although Pope was certainly heterodox in his religion), and the latter the democratic and wildly dionysiac spirit of freedom sweeping Europe. The poet follows the prevalent form with the classical couplet; he or she invents the form in the Pindaric ode, as Wordsworth did in the Immortality ode. I may be reading too much into this, but it is signficant to me that the romantics tried just about everything but the dominant verse form of the preceding 100 years, and did not often return to Milton’s blank verse either.

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