ANALYZING THE ODE

analyzing the odeIntroduction

We analyze a formal, eighteenth century poem {1} as a contribution to what poetry always needs to do: build lines into an effective whole.

The Bard

Nothing could be more dead that the ode today, surely, with its elevated tone and conspicuous artifice: {2}

 

The Bard

"Cold is Cadwallo's tongue,
That hush'd the stormy main;
Brave Urien sleeps upon his craggy bed:
Mountains, ye mourn in vain
Modred, whose magic song
Made huge Plinlimmon bow his cloud-topp'd head.
On dreary Arvon's shore they lie,
Smear'd with gore, and ghastly pale:
Far, far aloof th' affrighted ravens sail;
The famish'd eagle screams, and passes by.
Dear lost companions of my tuneful art,
Dear, as the light that visits these sad eyes,
Dear, as the ruddy drops that warm my heart,
Ye died amidst your dying country's cries--
No more I weep. They do not sleep.
On yonder cliffs, a griesly band,
I see them sit, they linger yet,
Avengers of their native land:
With me in dreadful harmony they join,
And weave with bloody hands the tissue of thy line:--

From The Bard by Thomas Gray: I.3.

But if we put aside prejudices to this style of poetry today, and just listen to the lines, we find them surprisingly good. The phrasing and imagery is conventional, but the sense is conveyed with admirable clarity. The ictus can fall irregularly but stresses the important words:

"Cold is Cadwallo's tongue,
That hush'd the stormy main;

The alliteration is not decorative, but again emphasizes what is important:

Brave Urien sleeps upon his craggy bed
Made huge Plinlimmon bow his cloud-topp'd head.

Even the ms here underline what we can accept: that the mountains look mournful, and that Modred had magic powers. This is not a personal narrative, but a retelling of a popular story (which Dr. Johnson thought unfit for such poetry {3}).

Mountains, ye mourn in vain
Modred, whose magic song

Thomas Gray (1716-1771) {4} was an extraordinarily learned man, and the intelligence continues into the interweaving of rhyme scheme and stress pattern:

1. "Cold is Cadwallo's tongue, a 3
2. That hush'd the stormy main; b 3
3. Brave Urien sleeps upon his craggy bed: c 5
4. Mountains, ye mourn in vain b 3
5. Modred, whose magic song a 3
6. Made huge Plinlimmon bow his cloud-topp'd head. c 5
7. On dreary Arvon's shore they lie, d 4
8. Smear'd with gore, and ghastly pale: e 4
9. Far, far aloof th' affrighted ravens sail; e 5
10. The famish'd eagle screams, and passes by. d 5
11.    Dear lost companions of my tuneful art, g 5
12. Dear, as the light that visits these sad eyes, h 5
13. Dear, as the ruddy drops that warm my heart, g 5
14. Ye died amidst your dying country's cries — h 5
15.    No more I weep. They do not sleep. ii 4
16. On yonder cliffs, a griesly band, j 4
17. I see them sit, they linger yet, kk 4
18. Avengers of their native land: j 4
19. With me in dreadful harmony they join, l 5
20. And weave with bloody hands the tissue of thy line: — l 5

Summarizing:

Setting the scene: 6 lines rhymed a b c b a c
Lament for fallen dead: 4 lines rhymed d e e d
Companionship with the dead: 4 lines rhymed g h g h
Manly resolution: 6 lines rhymed i j k j l l: i and k are rhymed internally.
Dear is repeated twice ( anaphora {5}) to mark the shift in tone.

Clearly a very organized piece of writing, the lines end-stopped in accordance with Augustan verse, rather grand and lacking emotional shading. We can see why the Romantics wanted to write differently, but does the poem work today? I would have said yes, provided we regard poetry as an art, and not spontaneous outpourings that make their own rules as they go along.

But perhaps the best answer is to see what can be done with this approach. Our poem should be a piece of public declamation, no doubt unfashionable today, but using some of our Romantic inheritance: enjambment, more contemporary imagery.

The Great Dinosaurs

My friend: this is the land of bank-clerks, mostly.
The pugnacious, the dutiful, the brave?
The rank
Upon rank
Ride on plate or in cenotaph. They
Airily to earth graves have gone
Who fought at Plassy or Verdun.
We, in our own lines, orderly and grey,
Take as stipends what they gave,
We, who follow quietly, laid as closely

In our cemeteries the same. My friend,
this is the land of consort, not content-
ment, here, where
Small lives flare
Vainglorious and seeded as summer's end
In parks, allotments, or knots
Of thistles in council plots —
Which clouds envelop, and the hills blend
In rain-smudged contours that are not consent -
Not here, not now, in England, where empires end

In injured mummery, Malacca pride
Of old gentlemen swashbuckling and spruce
In their pedigreed
Waistcoat and tweed
Of social engagements on rainbowed hills
Dotted around Esher, Godalming, Chorley.
Gone, all of them, just as surely
As the lichen extends and its fibre fills
The eyes of the angel that without excuse
Shelters the fallen on some far hillside.

Ridiculous those bugles or the broken harp
To those with money or learning how.
In suburbs nearby
The great names lie
Locked into streetnames, and the sagging gate
Leads to the mansions that all too long
Reigned at ball and evensong.
Outside, not silent, the mammals wait
The mass-starts of history that new times allow,
Their teeth and manners cut very sharp.

Concluding Remarks

The reader must judge the success or otherwise of the piece, but the exercise may illustrate a useful approach to structure. Pound's Cantos are built around their author's views, organized by musical phrase and thick tissue of allusion. The Black Mountain poets argued for open forms, but in practice rewrote their jottings. Philip Larkin used a free verse not far from prose for opening stretches, but then tightened the phrasing into an iambic dense with rhetorical devices. And so on. Gray's work is fastidiously correct, rather cold and formal for our taste, but that complex interweaving of rhyme and lines of unequal length can produce pointedly individual poems.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

References

1. The Progress of Poesy: A Pindaric Ode. Thomas Gray (1716-1771). Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com.
2. The Bard by Thomas Gray: I.3. Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com.
3. Samul Johnson's Lives of the English Poets: Thomas Gray. http://www.hn.psu.edu/Faculty/KKemmerer/poets/gray/default.html NNA. Excerpts and selected poems.
4. The Thomas Gray Archive. Alexander Huber. Feb. 2005. http://www.thomasgray.org/index.shtml Excellent material, including notes for The Bard.
5. Handbook of Rhetoric. Robert Harris. 2002. http://www.virtualsalt.com/rhetoric.htm.

 

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