Ode to Evening by William Collins


Introduction

An ode is a long lyric poem beginning with an invocation. It is in the form of an address, dignified and elaborate in stanzaic structure with a serious subject matter. The ode itself is a product of Greek genius and while Collins wrote the Odes, he brought to his poetry a freshness of thought and simplicity of language.

“Ode to Evening,” is one among the most enduring Odes of William Collins. It is a beautiful poem of fifty two lines, addressed to a goddess figure representing evening. The poem appeared in Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegorical Subjects in 1747.

In Ode to Evening, the poet is seen at his best. The personification of the ‘evening’ makes it a masterwork creation of Collins. The poem starts with an invocation to the spirit of the evening to teach the poet to sing a soft strain to it. She is not just a part of dead nature. His song should be as soft as the murmur of the streams or the dying winds. The poet says that barring the cry of the bat and the beetle, there is complete calm all around in the evening. The poem ends with the poet’s conviction that the evening shall continue to inspire fancy (poets), friendship (friends), science (men of learning) and smiling peace (lovers of peace) throughout the seasons of the year.

Summary of ‘Ode To Evening’

An ode is a long lyric poem beginning with an invocation. It is in the form of an address, dignified and elaborate in stanzaic structure with a serious subject matter. The ode itself is a product of Greek genius and while Collins wrote the Odes, he brought to his poetry a freshness of thought and simplicity of language. The ‘Ode to Evening’ shows Collins at his best. Written in the year 1747, it was published in Collins second poetic anthology under the title of ‘Odes of Several Descriptive and Allegorical Subjects’. The poem is a tribute to Evening.

Although odes are always written in rhymed verse, this ode is an exception. Collins chose the unrhymed form because probably the rhymed form would disturb the gentle, peaceful and transitory effect of the evening, which the poet seeks to produce. The lyric stanza, without rhyme, was first introduced by Milton, in his stiff, obscure translation of the 5th ode of the first book of Horace. Collins is best known for his Ode on the Passions, but incomparably his finest and most distinctive work is the Ode to Evening. Keats in the Ode to Autumn has followed Collins in the general setting and some details of his poem. The poet imbibes the spirit of the evening in his soul and expresses his admiration for its sublime beauty; the evening is personified here as a solemn maiden.

The poet in all humility wants to learn to compose poetry from Evening. Poetry that would compliment her sublime and serene self as are her springs and gales. Thus the poem acquires a prayer like quality. The poet describes the beauty and glory of evening against the radiant setting sun .He describes the evening ambience, the activities, sights and sound and the gradual transition of the evening into night .

Evening is charming in every season, Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter PENSIVE PLEASURES give her company and they along with scented Hours, Elves and other Nymphs prepare and draw her chariot. All men love and recognise her influence and chant the name of their adorable one – the Evening.

‘Ode to Evening’ foreshadows the coming of Romanticism with its lyricism, its subjectivity, its melancholy and its love of nature. But Collins is unable to free himself from the classicism of his age. He makes abundant use of the device of personification– a common feature of the classical poetry of the eighteenth century.

Critical Analysis

Ode to Evening appeared in Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegorical Subjects (1747). It remains one of the most beautiful lyrics of the eighteenth century. It is written in unrhymed stanzas of four lines.

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The poem starts with an invocation to the spirit of the evening to teach the poet to sing a soft strain to it. She is not just a part of dead nature. At times she comes across as a contemplative Eve. She wants to hear the poet’s songs. Her hours are fragrant. Fairies, sleeping inside the buds at the daytime, appear in the evening filling the atmosphere with their fragrance.

His song should be as soft as the murmur of the streams or the dying winds. The poet says that barring the cry of the bat and the beetle, there is complete calm all around in the evening. He wishes to go to some solitary and barren spot or some ancient ruined building among lonely valleys in the evening to watch its beauty. But if he is prevented from doing so by the ‘chill, blustering winds or driving rain’, he would like to go to a lovely cottage on the mountainside to watch the dark coloured evening gradually descending over the surrounding landscape with the ’gradual dusky veil’.

The poem ends with the poet’s conviction that the evening shall continue to inspire fancy (poets), friendship (friends), science (men of learning) and smiling peace (lovers of peace) throughout the seasons of the year.

An allegorical ode is one in which the poet develops the georgic topic of time and change in an exquisite blank verse lyric. A comparison can be drawn with the Spenserian sunrise described by William Blake in To Spring, also unrhymed, which emulates Milton and Collins in lyric condensation and quasi-allegorical imagery. There are significant textual variants in what is today the best-known of Collins’s poems. The Ode to Evening was a touchstone poem for early romantic poets and became one of the most frequently imitated odes written in the eighteenth century.

The succinct picture of the setting sun, in the 8th book of the Iliad, ‘Now deep in ocean sunk the lamp of light, / Drawing behind the cloudy veil of night’ has very strong outlines, and commends the warmest approbation of our judgment; but, being unadorned by other circumstances, and wanting objects to enliven the landscape, the applause ends with the judgment, and never sinks deep into the heart. The following scene in Mr Collins’ Ode to the Evening, being animated by proper allegorical personages and coloured highly with incidental expressions, warms the breast with a sympathetic glow of retired thoughtfulness: ‘For, when thy folding star, arises, shews / His paly circlet…’

The lyric stanza, without rhyme, was first introduced by Milton, in his stiff, obscure translation of the 5th ode of the first book of Horace. This new order of verse was adopted, polished and rendered exquisitely harmonious by Collins in his Ode to Evening. Collins wrote his admired Ode to Even; he had a design of writing many more Odes without rhyme. If Collins lives by the reputation of one, more than of another performance, it strikes the critics that his Ode to Evening will be ‘THAT’ on which the voice of posterity will be more uniform in praise. It is a ‘PEARL’ of the most perfect tint and shape.

In smaller poems, blank verse has been rarely tried, except in numerous and nameless imitations of an indifferent prototype by Collins — a poet who had, indeed, a curious ear as well as an exquisite taste in versification; but both were of so peculiar a kind that neither the music of his numbers nor the beauty of his imagery are always agreeable. The very structure of the stanza of his Ode to Evening is so mechanical to the eye — two long lines followed by two short ones — that a presentiment (like an instinctive judgment in physiognomy) instantly occurs, that both thought and language must be fettered in a shape so mathematical, wanting even the hieroglyphic recommendations of the metrical hatchets, wings, altars and other exploded puerilities of the later Greek epigrammatists and the elder English rhymers. Collins’s Ode itself is a precious specimen of mosaic work, in which the pictures are set with painful and consummate skill, but have a hard and cold effect, beyond the usual enamel of his style. A critic Algernon Charles Swinburne says: ‘Collins’ range of flight was perhaps the narrowest but assuredly the highest of his generation. He could not be taught singing like a finch: but he struck straight upward for the sun like a lark. Again, he had an incomparable and infallible eye for landscape; a purity, fidelity, and simple-seeming subtlety of tone, unapproached until the more fiery but not more luminous advent of Burns. Among all English poets he has, it seems to me, the closest affinity to our great contemporary school of French landscape painters. Corot on canvas might have signed his Ode to Evening; Millet might have given us some of his graver studies, and left them as he did no whit the less sweet for their softly austere and simply tender gravity.’ Collins is best known for his Ode on the Passions, but incomparably his finest and most distinctive work is the Ode to Evening. The superior popularity of The Passions is easily explained. It might be recited at a penny reading, and every line of its strenuous rhetoric would tell and every touch would be at once appreciated. But the beauties of the Ode to Evening are of a much stronger kind, and the structure of it is infinitely more complicated. A critic George Saintsbury says: ‘We shall meet with this uncovenanted rhymelessness not seldom; and it would be premature to discuss it in its first example, which, however, it may not be premature to say, remains by far the most successful ever written. In fact, we ought to be particularly grateful for it, because it shows, with as little adventitious aid as possible, how exquisite Collins’s ear was. Yet it is impossible not to think how much more beautiful it would be with rhyme.’

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The poem was doubtlessly the result of personal experience, for it notes facts, such as the rising of the beetle in the path at twilight, that was not yet stock poetical property. The lines, ‘Thy dewy fingers draw / The gradual dusky veil,’ could hardly have been written by one unfamiliar with the slow disappearance of a landscape as night comes on. More remarkable are the simplicity and directness of touch by which the few details are made to stand for complete pictures. The cloudy sunset, the silence of evening, the calm lake amid the upland fallows, the fading view and the windy day in autumn, are all excellent examples of the stimulative as opposed to the delineative description. Keats in the Ode to Autumn has followed Collins in the general setting and some details of his poem. ‘Thou hast thy music too’ is the first note in Collins, and instead of the bat and beetle, Keats’ Spirit is attended by the gnat and the swallow. The silvered fallows of Collins were never far from the ‘stubble-plains’ touched ‘with rosy hue’ of the later genius. The Ode to Evening was reprinted in Dodsley’s collection and became popular enough to be frequently imitated. John Langhorne observes: ‘The blank ode has for some time solicited admission into the English poetry; but its efforts, hitherto, seem to have been vain, at least its reception has been no more than partial. It remains a question, then, whether there is not something in the nature of blank verse less adapted to the lyric than to the heroic measure, since, though it has been generally received in the latter, it is yet unadopted in the former. In order to discover this, we are to consider the different modes of these different species of poetry. That of the heroic is uniform; that of the lyric is various; and in these circumstances of uniformity and variety probably lies the cause why blank verse has been successful in the one, and unacceptable in the other. While it presented itself only in one form, it was familiarized to the ear by custom; but where it was obliged to assume the different shapes of the lyric muse, it seemed still a stranger of uncouth figure, was received rather with curiosity than pleasure, and entertained without that ease or satisfaction which acquaintance and familiarity produce — Moreover, the heroic blank verse obtained a sanction of infinite importance to its general reception when it was adopted by one of the greatest poets the world ever produced and was made the vehicle of the noblest poem that ever was written. When this poem at length extorted that applause which ignorance and prejudice had united to withhold, the versification soon found its imitators and became more generally successful than even in those countries from whence it was imported. But lyric blank verse had met with no such advantages; for Mr Collins, whose genius and judgment in harmony might have given it so powerful an effect, has left us but one specimen of it in the Ode to Evening.’ He further adds: ‘In the choice of his measure, he seems to have had in his eye Horace’s ode to Pyrrha; for this ode bears the nearest resemblance to that mixed kind of the asclepiad and pherecratic verse; and that resemblance in some degree reconciles us to the want of rhyme, while it reminds us of those great masters of antiquity, whose works had no need of this whimsical jingle of sounds.’

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He further says: ‘From the following passage one might be induced to think that the poet had it in view to render his subject and his versification suitable to each other on this occasion, and that, when he addressed himself to the sober power of Evening, he had thought proper to lay aside the foppery of rhyme’.

‘Now teach me, maid composed To breathe some soften’d strain,
Whose numbers, stealing through thy darkening vale,
May not unseemly with its stillness suit, As, musing slow, I hail Thy genial loved return!’

But whatever were the numbers, or the versification of this ode, the imagery and enthusiasm it contains could not fail of rendering it delightful. No other of Mr Collins’s odes is more generally characteristic of his genius. In one place, we discover his passion for visionary beings:

‘For when thy folding-star arising shows
His paly circlet, at his warning lamp
The fragrant Hours, and Elves
Who slept in buds the day,
And many a Nymph who wreathes her brows with sedge,
And sheds the freshening dew, and, lovelier still,
The pensive Pleasures sweet,
Prepare thy shadowy car.’
In another we behold his strong bias to melancholy:
‘Then let me rove some wild and heathy scene,
Or find some ruin ‘midst its dreary dells,
Whose walls more awful nod
By thy religious gleams.’

Then appears his taste for what is wildly grand and magnificent in nature; when prevented by storms from enjoying his evening walk, he wishes for a situation,

‘That from the mountain’s side
Views wilds and swelling floods’

and through the whole, his invariable attachment to the expression of painting:
‘and marks o’er all
Thy dewy fingers draw
The gradual dusky veil.’

It might be a sufficient encomium on this beautiful ode to observe, that it has been particularly admired by a lady to whom nature has given the most perfect principles of taste.

Questions and Answers

Q. How has ‘evening’ been personified in the poem Ode to Evening?

Ans. The personification of the ‘evening’ makes it a masterwork creation of Collins. It is not just a time of dusk. It is the spirit of the ‘evening’ appearing as Nymph. She is depicted as being reserved by nature. She is serene and simple. In her tent, the sun sets and resets. She has been depicted as a composed maid.

Q. How does the poem Ode to Evening begin?
Ans. The poem starts with an invocation to the spirit of the evening to teach the poet to sing a soft strain to it. She is not just a part of dead nature. At times, she comes across as a contemplative Eve. She wants to hear the poet’s songs.

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