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scheme, strophe corresponds with strophe, antistrophe with antistrophe, epode with epode. Cf. The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, and note the corresponding meters and rimeschemes.
The student should remember in this connection, however, that most of the odes in the English language are irregular, and do not, therefore, correspond to the set form here described. The title is loosely applied to impassioned poems on dignified themes—especially if the form and meter of the stanzas are varied.
The more famous irregular odes of the eighteenth century are Dryden's Alexander's Feast and St. Cecilia's Day; in the nineteenth century the most noteworthy, Wordsworth's Ode on Immortality, Tennyson's Death of the Duke of Wellington, and Lowell's Commemoration Ode. 1 ff. Observe that the poet strikes out in medias res in the midst of things. Edward I, after a vigorous campaign against Wales, is returning from his victory of Snowdon. While passing down the mountain's shaggy side on that spring day of 1283, he is suddenly confronted by one of those black-robed bards who had done so much to keep alive the spirit of Welsh patriotism. In the prophetic harangue which follows, the future defeats of England are passionately narrated. The scene and the figure are picturesque in the extreme. The wild crags of the mountain are all about, and the Conway is roaring below. On the rock which overhangs the flood the poet has taken his defiant stand. His sable robe, his haggard eye, his loose gray hair and beard wildly flying about his head - all these combine to lend significance to the old man's prophecy as he sings it forth to the accompaniment of his revengeful lyre. Gray tells us that the figure of the bard is taken from that picture of Raphael which represents God in the vision of Ezekiel. 5 hauberk: a long steel-ringed tunic which fitted closely around the neck and covered all the body.
8 Cambria: Wales. Cambria is the Latin name.
13, 14 Glo'ster and Mortimer were generals in the royal army. 18 Poet: For an interesting account of the infuence of the
Welsh bards on the country see Green's Short History of the
28-33 Hoel, Cadwallo, Urien, and Modred are all names of famous Welsh bards. Llewellyn was the name of the Welsh king, and the lay here may refer to a lay sung in his honor. Possibly there was a bard of this name.
49 ff. The italicized lines compose the chorus which the bards supposedly sing. The events are all prophetic.
52 Characters: letters.
50-56 The prophecy here foretells how King Edward II was, through the disloyalty of his wife Isabella and her lover Mortimer, deposed (1327), shut up in Berkeley Castle, and there murdered.
57 She-wolf of France is the name the bard gives to Isabella.
59 From thee be born: Edward II was the son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile.
60 In the mind of the bard, this fate is taken as a nemesis for the outrages of Edward I against Wales.
61, 62 Lowell in his illuminating essay on Gray quotes these two lines in support of his assertion that "any slave of the mine may find the rough gem, but it is the cutting and polishing that reveal its heart of fire."
"The suggestion (we are informed in the notes) came from Cowper and Oldham, and the amazement combined with flight sticks fast in prose. But the personification of Sorrow and the fine generalization of Solitude in the last verse which gives an imaginative reach to the whole passage are Gray's own. The owners of what Gray "conveyed" would have found it hard to identify their property and prove title to it after it had once suffered Gray-change by steeping in his mind and memory." 1
63 The bard goes forward in his prophecy and tells us of the sorrowful events in the life of Edward III, the grandson of Edward I. For a long time Edward III was prosperous and happy, but he fell into disfavor. He lost Aquitaine, Parlia ment impeached his favorite lords, his son Edward died in 1376, and in the following year the king himself died little mourned.
67 sable warrior: Black Prince.
69 Why the interrogation? Supply the ellipsis?
71-76 Note the figure of the ship, sailing out proud and promising in the morning only to suffer shipwreck in the evening.
76 his: The antecedent is whirlwind.
79 he: The antecedent is Richard, grandson of Edward III, who was deposed in 1399. Read his history to discover if Gray was right in assuming that the deposed king was starved to death.
83 din of battle bray: the early rumblings of the Wars of the Roses, which extended from 1455 to 1485.
85 Long years: thirty years.
87 towers of Julius: Tradition assigned the building of the Tower of London to Julius Cæsar.
89 consort's: Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI.
father's: Henry V.
90 meek usurper: Gray explains that this refers to the fact that "the line of Lancaster had no right of inheritance to the crown."
91-92 Above, below, the rose of snow: When Henry VII became king he symbolized his connection with the two houses of York and Lancaster by adopting a royal standard with a red rose beneath and a white rose on top.
93 bristled boar: This was the symbol of Richard III, who was responsible for the death of his two nephews and many others besides.
95 accursed loom: the loom which the bards are using in weaving the "winding sheet of Edward's race.'
1 Lowell's Prose Works, vol. VII, p. 41. Houghton Mifflin Company.
97-99 In this passage the bard alludes to the sudden death of Eleanor, wife of Edward I.
110 genuine kings: The bard thinks of the Tudor kings as genuine because they were partly Welsh and hence were thought to be descendants of King Arthur.
115 form divine: Queen Elizabeth, the last of the Tudor line. 121 Taliessin: a Welsh bard of the sixth century. 125-127 Spenser's Faery Queene is here alluded to. 128 buskin'd measures: The buskin was the symbol of tragedy. The allusion is to Shakespeare's tragedies. 131-132 This reference is to Milton and Paradise Lost. 133 distant warblings: the poets who succeeded Milton.
THE PROGRESS OF POESY
1 Aeolian lyre: Mr. Hales in his Longer English Poems warns the reader against confusing this phrase with the Aeolian harp. Gray here forms the adjective from Aeolis, a part of Asia Minor. It was probably here that lyric poetry of the Greeks first found artistic expressions. Aeolian lyre may, therefore, be taken as the equivalent of lyric poetry.
3 Helicon's... springs: Near Mt. Helicon were two springs Aganippe and Hippocrene - sacred to the Muses. The grove of the Muses was near by.
9 Ceres: the goddess of grain and harvests.
13-24 The stanza discusses the calming and comforting power
of music especially as this effect is seen on Mars and on Jove. For the thought Gray says he is indebted to the first Pythian ode of Pindar.
17 Mars was anciently thought to have his seat in Thrace. 21 feather'd king: The eagle was sacred to Jove.
27 Idalia: a town in Cyprus.
29 Cytherea: Venus.
31-35 What is noteworthy about the meter here employed? Can you cite passages from other poems which produce a similar effect?
38 sublime: lifted high.
41 purple light: Gray here shows his indebtedness to the classics. Cf. Vergil, Æn. 1, 594:
42-53 The preceding portion of the poem has shown the influence of poetry on the gods and goddesses; the poet now shows its influence on men. Gray writes: "To compensate the real and imaginary ills of life, the Muse was given to mankind by the same Providence that sends the Day, by its cheerful presence, to dispel the gloom and terrors of the night." 54-65 In this passage Gray notes the influence of poetry in certain foreign and barbaric lands.
55 Where shaggy forms, etc.: Lapland,
as we know from
Gray's note. 63-65 Difficulty in interpreting this line is due to the plural
form of the verb pursue. The natural prose order would be: Wherein the goddess of poetry roves, glory, generous shame, the unconquerable mind, and Freedom's holy flame pursue her track. This order once perceived, the reason for the plural form of pursue is obvious.
66-82 This passage follows the course of poetry from Greece through Italy to England. Observe that in Gray's conception poetry vanishes from a nation as soon as the nation begins to grow decadent. It will not endure vice or oppression. 82-106 Gray in this passage pays his willing tribute to his great
English predecessors in verse Shakespeare (Nature's Darling, 1. 84), Milton (11. 95-97), and Dryden (11. 103-106). 101 In his second sonnet to Cyriak Skinner, Milton alludes to the fact that his blindness was caused by overplying his eyes in liberty's defense while he was Latin secretary to Cromwell. Gray doubtless knew this, but for poetic reasons makes this blindness due to the excessive light in the vision of Paradise Lost.
105 Two coursers: an allusion to the heroic couplet which Dryden made popular and which Pope perfected. 106 cf. Job 39, 19. 107-123 The first part of this passage continues the eulogy of Dryden commenced in the antistrophe, which precedes. Here he has in mind Dryden's two odes on St. Cecilia. Gray then apologizes for here attempting the Pindaric Ode the form invented by Pindar.
115 Theban eagle: He will, however, soar above the fate expected of common men.
ODE ON THE SPRING
1 rosy-bosom'd Hours: goddesses, here symbolizing either the days or the seasons.
4 purple: This is a favorite adjective with Gray. Being a classical student he doubtless used it in a sense synonymous with bright.
5 Attic warbler: the nightingale.
8 whispering pleasure as they fly: a participial phrase modifying Zephyrs.
11-20 Gray sees in the simple contemplative life of quiet folk something far superior to the life of the busy, the proud, and the great. The thought finds a fuller development in the famous Elegy.
23 peopled air: Peopled with what?
25-30 Who is symbolized by the insect-youth? Comment on other details in the comparison. Do you regard the metaphor as effective?
44, 45 An allusion to Gray's bachelorhood.
ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCHYARD It would perhaps not be extravagant to say that Gray's Elegy is the most popular poem in the English language,
though some would claim this honor for Longfellow's Psalm of Life. The latter poem, however, has not received from the learned the praises bestowed upon the Elegy, and certainly it is not so frequently quoted. The linking of the two poems in this similar comment, however, helps us to explain the popularity of each, and many of the traits resident in the Elegy are alike resident in The Psalm of Life.
The thought of the Elegy centres around the complementary theme of life and death, subjects upon which all minds fondly linger. Each of these themes is mysterious; each defies solution; and yet to their discussion we are ever intermittently drawn, charmed and defied by their very complexity and seeking always some new light.
In his treatment Gray is didactic, and didacticism of the right sort is comforting in its appeal, for the very reason that it offers real or apparent solution. There is something final, for instance, in that most famous line of the Elegy –
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Many other axiomatic truths are voiced by Gray with an intuition and a decision as convincing as a sentence from the liturgy.
Gray wins us likewise by his democracy. These unknown dead here lying in the isolated churchyard at Stoke Pogis were potentially great-as great, possibly, as were Cromwell, Hampden, or Milton. But they did not chance to live amid circumstances that developed their qualities in such a way as to lead them on to fame. Nor are such an isolation and such a denial wholly to be lamented; they circumscribed as well the possibilities of their crime.
A final reason for the popularity of the poem is its perfected art. Each line is musical, each important thought magnificently oftentimes inevitably - phrased. Certain passages have become crystallized, but no one calls them trite there is too much poetic vitality in them for that. They have simplicity, too, but perhaps the simplicity is more apparent than real, for study reveals complexity. But even the careless reader may get so much that he thinks he is getting it all, and therefore is abundantly satisfied.
A comparison of the following outline with the poem will show the reader that the whole has been carefully preconceived.
In the souls of many obscure country folk rest possibilities for large accomplishment, and the fact that these persons die unknown makes in the end no real difference.
I. Stanzas 1-4. THE SETTING. Idealized description of Stoke Pogis. II. Stanzas 4-8. IN DEATH THESE COUNTRY-FOLK NO LONGER KNOW THEIR JOYS AND DUTIES, but III. Stanzas 8-12. MEN OF RANK ARE REALLY NO BETTER OFF.