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Where is thy pomp, thy festive throng, Thy revel dance, and wanton song? Proud King! Corruption fastens on thy breast; And calls her crawling brood, and bids them share the feast.*
The sacred Ode has been seldom attempted, and has still seldomer succeeded in modern English. Poetry is peculiarly allied to the fictions of imagination. Its very name (Greek poieo, I make) is allied to falsehood. "A Poet is a maker, and he who cannot make, that is, invent, has his name for nothing."+ The undisputed doctrines of faith are, therefore, obviously incompatible with an inherent principle of the poetic art. Even in the lesser Lyrics, this difficulty is seldom overcome. Johnson says, when speaking of Dr. Watts, "His devotional poetry is, like that of others, unsatisfactory. The paucity of the topicks enforces perpetual repetition, and the sanctity of the matter rejects the ornaments of figurative diction. It is sufficient for Watts to have done better than others what no man has done well."
* A regular Ode, on the same subject, by G. Dyer, may be seen in his "Poetics."
If we except Thomson's Hymn on the Seasons and a few other pieces, we may say that the modern English Ode is scarcely ever employed on the subject of Religion. It sings the praises of Heroes and of Kings; or it addresses the passions through the medium of some personified abstraction. The twenty-second of November was long held as a festival in honour of Saint Cecilia, the patroness of music; and we have, on record, between fifty and sixty irregular anniversary Odes which were set to music, recited and performed at those meetings between the years 1683 and 1740. Of those, the most famous is that of Dryden, entitled "Alexander's Feast," which is in the hands of every schoolboy. Pope also wrote an Ode, for one of those occasions, which has much merit, but has never been so highly esteemed. Collin's celebrated Ode (" The Passions") is of the same class, and is extremely beautiful.
Future times will probably describe with wonder the establishment, so long upheld in this country, of a Poet Laureate; whose especial duty it was (and but recently laid aside) to write two Odes annually, one for the King's Birth-day, and another to usher in the New Year. Both were of the irregular, or Pindaric Form, and set to music, as Songs of Praise on the Sovereign and his
Government. The present Laureate is, we believe, the first who has been excused from this periodical prostitution of talent.
There are numerous pieces under the title of Odes that are composed in uniform stanzas, and never were intended to be sung. Collins, Gray, and Akenside, have written many of this kind, as well as of the irregular form, which are too well known to warrant quotation.
With the Greek and Roman poets, every lyrical composition, regular or irregular, light or solemn, was termed an Ode, but in English we particularly distinguish between the ODE and the SONG. Both are professedly written so as they may be chanted, either alone or with instrumental accompaniments; but the former is more an imitation of the Songs of the ancients. The Odes of Anacreon and of Horace are often airy and gay; but there is, almost in all cases, something in the nature of their composition, (chiefly, perhaps, the incongruity between the antient and modern manners,) which prevents their translations from being ranked with the Songs of the present age in any nation of Europe.
The essence of the Song is the simplicity of the subject, as well as of the melody to which it is adapted. It is fitted for the social circle, and, every verse, sings of the tender feelings of
love; the mirthful pleasures of the table; or, assuming a satiric strain, it laughs at the little follies of individuals, or lashes the vices of the age. The War-song rises to a higher tone. It approaches nearer to the ancient Ode, but is still addressed to the feelings of the many; and often animates the courage of the soldier, by reminding him that he is defending the inhabitants of his humble home, while resisting the enemies of his country.
The Song is divided into similar stanzas, each of which is sung to the same air; and, consequently, the several parts of the composition ought to have a character of similarity, so that it may not be at variance with the Music. The same train of thought must run through all the stanzas; and hence that simplicity which the Song requires. Were it otherwise, the music, like that of the Ode, would need to be varied with every verse. It is plain, too, that under such circumstances the poem cannot be of great length. The music, which is associated with the Song, is also simple, as in the early ages, and should never be allowed to hide the words of the poet.
Among the English poets, it is surprising how few have been Song-writers. It is a poem of a sociable character; and, if it does not interest
the little circle in which it is chanted, it never passes as a song. Neither Chaucer nor Gower have left a single stanza of the kind on record. Indeed, it is suspected that there were then no national airs to which such simple poems could have been sung. The Provençal melodies were at that period well known on the Continent, but we have no evidence that they were ever adapted to English words. Throughout the south of Europe, those short and artless Lyrics seem to have been coeval with the lengthened Romances of the Troubadours. The following French Chanson, though written nearly three hundred years ago, has all the simplicity and sweetness of our best modern songs. We shall here copy it, along with Dr. Burney's translation:
Chanson de Marie Stuart, Reine d'Ecosse, en partant de Calais pour Londres.
Adieu plaisant pays de France,
Adieu, France, adieu, mes beaux jours!
La nef qui déjoint nos amours,
N'a cy de moi que la moitié ;
Une part te reste; elle est tienne ;
Je la fie à ton amitié,
Pour que de l'autre il te souvienne.