Saturday, 16 July 2016

'Ode to Wisdom' - Elizabeth Carter

When Fortune drops her gay parade,
When Pleasure’s transient roses fade,
And wither in the tomb;
Unchang’d is thy immortal prize,
Thy ever-verdant laurels rise
In undecaying bloom.
 
‘Ode to Wisdom’
Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806)
(Published in Poems on Several Occasions, 1762)
 
Wisdom: it’s something the world could do with more of.  Evidently Elizabeth Carter felt the same way in the early eighteenth century.  Her ‘Ode to Wisdom’ is a powerful, personal expression of both praise and longing for wisdom.  It begins with ‘The solitary bird of night’ (the owl), a creature associated with the classical Greek deity of wisdom, the goddess Pallas Athene.  Using the first stanza to set the scene, Carter creates an atmospheric image of an owl, having roosted alone all day in some ruinous ‘time-shook tow’r’ now flying through the mysterious darkness of the night. 
 
The persona of the poem hears the ‘solemn sound’ of the owls flight, and via this symbolic link to classical wisdom, she offers obeisance to the imagined throne of Wisdom.  In the third stanza, therefore, the opening pronoun ‘She’ now functions as a personification of Wisdom founded upon the Greek image of Pallas Athene: the owl is, after all, referred to as the ‘Fav’rite of Pallas’.  Wisdom, Carter writes, ‘loves the cool, the silent eve, / Where no false shews of life deceive’.  Here the darkness of night-time is used as a visual and moral leveller, a time when truth can no longer be disguised. 
 
The fourth stanza continues the praise of Pallas, identifying her, and therefore also wisdom, as the ‘queen of ev’ry art, / That glads the sense, and mends the heart’.  It is wisdom, Carter claims, that is the ‘source of purer joys’.  The longing of the poetic persona to achieve true wisdom is then crystallised in the subsequent stanza, in which she figures herself as a ‘modest suppliant’ whose ‘vow’ to Pallas Athene is more of a request to be ‘taught by thy [Pallas’s] unerring rules, / To shun the fruitless wish of fools’ and to instead aim at ‘nobler views’.

 

In the pursuit of this wisdom, the poet rejects ‘Fortune’s gem, Ambition’s plume’ and ‘Cythrea’s fading bloom’ (in case you’re wondering Cythrea is just another name for Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love).  All of these goals are simply ‘glitt’ring toys’, childish trinkets far beneath the aspirations of this poet who seeks instead ‘Each moral beauty of the heart, / By studious thoughts refin’d’.  The only ‘Power’ this poet hopes for is ‘An empire o’er the mind’.
 
To express the transience of material triumph, Carter then examines the effects of time upon these competing qualities:
 
When Fortune drops her gay parade,
When Pleasure’s transient roses fade,
And wither in the tomb;
Unchang’d is thy [wisdom’s] immortal prize,
Thy ever-verdant laurels rise
In undecaying bloom.
 
By choosing Wisdom as her moral specialism, the poet will be ‘protected’ from the ‘ignorance and spite’ of those who seek to mock through the ‘pointed ridicule / Of undiscerning wit’.  A means of escaping ‘From envy, hurry, noise and strife’, embracing wisdom enables the poet to rest in ‘the peaceful groves’ where only the spirits of clever philosophers such as Plato may be found.  The following stanza continues in praise of Plato, referencing his ‘philosophick theme / Of Perfect, Fair, and Good’.  Upon arrival in Athens, this philosophy ‘Reclaim’d, her [the city’s] wild licentious youth’ as under the influence of wisdom ‘The Passions ceas’d their loud alarms’. 
 
Returning once more to addressing wisdom directly, the poet lists how:
 
Thy breath inspires the Poet’s song,
The Patriot’s free, unbiass’d tongue,
The Hero’s gen’rous strife’
 
But before the poet gets too carried away in praise of classical deities – at a time when Christianity was the predominant European religion – she adds a deft and subtle twist upon the classical model.  ‘No more to fabled Names confin’d’, she writes, ‘To the supreme all-perfect Mind / My thoughts direct their flight’.  Obliquely indicating her acknowledgement of Pallas Athene as a ‘fabled Name’, she now identifies wisdom as the ‘gift’ of ‘the supreme all-perfect Mind’ (an implicit allusion to the Christian God).  Thus it is also with an address to this ‘supreme all-perfect Mind’ that the poem ultimately concludes, as Carter bids this power to ‘send her [wisdom’s] sure, her steady ray, / To regulate my doubtful way’.  For it is:
 
Beneath her clear discerning eye
The visionary shadows fly
Of Folly’s painted show:
She sees thro’ ev’ry fair disguise.
That all but Virtue’s solid joys
Are vanity and woe. 

Happy Reading!


You can find this poem:
http://www.eighteenthcenturypoetry.org/works/o5154-w0420.shtml
(This fantastic free copy of the poem is the source of the quotations given in this blogpost, and a superb resource!! Definitely worth having a shufty around the rest of the site too!!)

(Was recently introduced to this site by a senior academic, and it’s absolutely fab! Follow this link and find Carter’s ‘Ode to Wisdom’ on page 84.  Or you could just start at the beginning if you’re enjoying her poetry!)

You can find out more about Elizabeth Carter:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Carter
(Wikipedia!!!)

(Another shockingly short biography for such an influential writer.  It does have all the main dates and events of her life, though, so a useful starting point at least)

(this page has a short bibliography of references to Carter in published

Saturday, 2 July 2016

'The Seasons' - James Thomson


Gradual sinks the breeze
Into a perfect calm; that not a breath
Is heard to quiver through the closing woods,
Or rustling turn the many twinkling leaves
Of aspen tall.  The uncurling floods diffused
In glassy breadth, seem, through delusive lapse,
Forgetful of their course.  ‘Tis silence all,
And pleasing expectation.  Herds and flocks
Drop the dry sprig, and, mute imploring, eye
The falling verdure.  Hush’d in short suspense,
The plumy people streak their wings with oil,
To throw the lucid moisture trickling off;
And wait the approaching sign to strike, at once,
Into the general choir.  E’en mountains, vales,
And forests seem impatient to demand
The promised sweetness.  Man superior walks
Amid the glad creation, musing praise,
And looking lively gratitude.  At last,
The clouds consign their treasures to the fields;
And, softly shaking on the dimpled pool
Prelusive drops, let all their moisture flow
In large effusion o’er the freshen’d world.
The stealing shower is scarce to patter heard,
By such as wander through the forest-walks,
Beneath the umbrageous multitude of leaves.
But who can hold the shade, while Heaven descends
In universal bounty, shedding herbs,
And fruits, and flowers on Nature’s ample lap?
Swift Fancy fired anticipates their growth;
And, while the milky nutriment distils,
Beholds the kindling country colour round.
   Thus all day long the full-distended clouds
Indulge their genial stores, and well-shower’d earth
Is deep enrich’d with vegetable life;
Till, in the western sky, the downward sun
Looks out, effulgent, from amid the flush
Of broken clouds, gay-shifting to his beam.
The rapid radiance instantaneous strikes
The illumined mountain; through the forest streams,
Shakes on the floods, and, in a yellow mist,
Far-smoking o’er the interminable plain,
In twinkling myriads lights the dewy gems.
Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around.
Full swell the woods; their every music wakes,
Mix’d in wild concert with the warbling brooks
Increased, the distant bleatings of the hills,
Engraved title-page for 'Spring' in the 1876
illustrated edition of Thomson's Seasons 
The hollow lows responsive from the vales,
Whence, blending all, the sweeten’d zephyr springs.
Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense, and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion, running from the red,
To where the violet fades into the sky.
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And, to the sage-instructed eye, unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling maze.  Not so the boy:
He wondering views the bright enchantment bend,
Delightful, o’er the radiant fields, and runs To catch the falling glory; but amazed
Beholds the amusive arch before him fly,
Then vanish quite away.

(Excerpt from ‘Spring’)
The Seasons James Thomson (1700-1748)
1728-30


Engraved frontispiece for 'Spring' from the 1876
illustrated edition of Thomson's Seasons.
You might be wondering why today’s quotation is so long.  Well, quite simply it’s because this is something of a tricky poem to get hold of (and I didn't want folks put off reading it by its eulsiveness).  Published in 1730, James Thomsons’s Seasons would have a profound effect on English Literature throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century.  Sadly, however, like many great eighteenth-century poets, his works are not always remembered today.  Indeed, my attention was only drawn to this talented poet and his work through my investigations into pre-chapter quotation, since extracts from Thomson’s Seasons frequently appear in the works of Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe (whose novels I am currently researching).  It’s a fantastic example of how an interest in one thing can stimulate a love of something else in literary studies!
Divided into four sections, each corresponding to a specific season, Thomson’s Seasons is a lush, and glorious poem.  It’s also rather long, so for the purposes of this blog post I’ll focus on the extract I’ve typed up above.  This section is taken from ‘Spring’, and narrates the approach and arrival of a brief spring shower, finishing with the inevitable rainbow splashed across the sky.  Thus it begins with a sense of anticipation: ‘‘Tis silence all, / And pleasing expectation’.  The herds stop their grazing, and ‘The plumy people [the birds] streak their wings with oil’ in preparation for the forthcoming rain.  Importantly, the rain is also seen as a good thing here as ‘E’en mountains, vales, / And forests seem impatient to demand / The promised sweetness’ that the rain will bring.

Finally ‘The clouds consign their treasures to the fields’, and the world is ‘freshen’d’.  In just three lines, Thomson forms an exquisite and evocative image of wandering beneath the trees as the rain falls overhead:
 
‘The stealing shower is scarce to patter heard,
By such as wander through the forest-walks, Beneath the umbrageous multitude of leaves.’

(I had to look up what ‘umbrageous’ means, so just in case you’re not sure either it means ‘shady’, or ‘shaded’.  Good word to use at parties, and in crosswords.).  Yet neither is this just a romantic description of the countryside: there’s a practical side to it too.  This ‘universal bounty’ or ‘milky nutriment’ will call to life ‘herbs, And fruits, and flowers’; that the rain also causes ‘the kindling country [to] colour round’ is simply an added bonus.  It’s like when you think of how vibrantly green the beautiful hills of Wales always look, because of the rain from the mountains.  Here too, the rain is bringing out all the glorious colours of nature.

In Thomson’s poem, the rain lasts ‘all day long’, spreading its goodness around until the ‘well-shower’d earth / Is deep enrich’d with vegetable life’.  Only as the day draws to a close does the sun peek out ‘effulgent’ or radiant from the clouds.  It’s sunset, and the light ‘instantaneous strikes / The illumined mountain’, glowing ‘in a yellow mist’ as it ‘In twinkling myriads lights the dewy gems’ of all the settled raindrops clinging to the plants.  Beautiful, isn’t it?  And then, ‘Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around’, and the birds sing as in the woods ‘every music wakes’ to blend with ‘the distant bleatings’ of sheep and the ‘hollow lows’ of cattle in the valleys.  And crowning all, a rainbow appears:
Engraving from 'Spring' in the 1876 illustrated
edition of Thomson's Seasons.
‘Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense, and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion, running from the red,
To where the violet fades into the sky.’


The reference to Newton alludes to his discovery of the refractive properties of light, in which a glass prism can separate ‘The various twine of light, […]/ From the white mingling maze’.  It’s a nice touch of science in this otherwise eminently poetic description.  But the last word goes not to Newton, but to the ‘wondering’ boy who longs to catch hold of the rainbow, which fades and pulls away as he tries to grasp it.  It’s a good image for the whole purpose of this kind of nature poetry, which aims to capture the intangible beauty of a world that must be experienced to be fully enjoyed and appreciated.  Through the words of Thomson, even those not fortunate enough to live in the countryside can capture a sense of that experience of the natural environment.

Happy Reading!!

You can find this poem…
…with great difficulty.  For some strange reason, it doesn’t seem to be in popular print anymore.  Which is a huge shame because it’s an absolute masterpiece!!  Here are a few suggestions of starting points, though:

(Not perhaps the most attractive font in the world, but this does seem to include the whole poem!  And lots of other lovely Thomson material too!! Go forth and read folks!)

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-four-seasons-summer/
(This only contains one of Thomson’s four seasonal poems, ‘Summer’, but still it’s a start!)

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/james-thomson#about
(Poetry foundation: contains extracts from ‘Spring’ and ‘Winter’.  Also includes Thomson’s other famous poem, ‘Rule Britannia’, from which comes the seminal Last of the Proms anthem!)

There are also umerous old/antique copies of this poem available from second-hand retailers online and on the high street, some of them not too expensive.  There was an annotated Oxford edition of the text published in the 1980s, but even today this is priced for only the most enthusiastic of readers.
 
You can find out more about Thomson and his work:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-Thomson-Scottish-poet-1700-1748
(A biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica that is shockingly short for such an important chap!  But it does have lots of the most important dates)

(Wikipedia – a rather longer biography, so might actually be more interesting than Britannica’s entry)

(Interesting blogpost about illustrated versions of Thomson’s poem)

(Another nice blogpost about the influence of Thomson’s Seasons upon later romantic poets to whom time has been somewhat kinder, such as Coleridge)

https://www.waterstones.com/book/weatherland/alexandra-harris/9780500292655
(I believe there's also a rather nice section on Thomson in Alexandra Harris's fab new award-winning book Weatherland.  The link connects to Waterstones website, though of course it is available at all good bookstores, online and on the high street!! I haven't read this yet, but it's on my list... )

Copyright notice: All images used in this blogpost are the property of the author.  I'm happy for others to use these images for educational or research purposes free of charge, on condition that due acknowledgement is given.