Collins's 'Ode on the Poetical Character.'

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Editor: Michelle Lee
Date: 2006
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 72)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,237 words

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[(essay date March 1967) In the following essay, Wasserman examines Collins's theory of the creative imagination outlined in "Ode on the Poetical Character."]

As once, if not with light Regard, I read aright that gifted Bard, (Him whose School above the rest His Lovelist Elfin Queen has blest.) One, only One, unrival'd Fair,* Might hope the magic Girdle wear, At solemn Turney hung on high, The Wish of each love-darting Eye; Lo! to each other Nymph in turn applied,           As if, in Air unseen, some hov'ring Hand, Some chaste and Angel-Friend to Virgin-Fame,           With whisper'd Spell had burst the starting Band, It left unblest her loath'd dishonour'd Side;           Happier hopeless Fair, if never           Her baffled Hand with vain Endeavour Had touch'd that fatal Zone to her denied! Young Fancy thus, to me Divinest Name,           To whom, prepar'd and bath'd in Heav'n,           The Cest of amplest Pow'r is giv'n:           To few the God-like Gift assigns,           To gird their blest prophetic Loins, And gaze her Visions wild, and feel unmix'd her Flame! *Florimel. See Spenser Leg. 4th.

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Because of its apparent theme Collins' "Ode on the Poetical Character" has been granted a somewhat special place among eighteenth-century theories of the poetic process. What is notable about the Ode, so the argument customarily runs, is that, instead of perpetuating the doctrine that art imitates nature and requires regulation by judgment, it defines the act of fancy as like God's act of creation.1 Although the idea that poetry is a divine gift had never wholly vanished, however much it had sunk into an empty commonplace, Collins' poem, by espousing it with complete sincerity, momentarily revived the belief in the poet as an inspired God-like maker, anticipated Smart's and Blake's faith in the bardic prophet, and offered its special contribution to the growing eighteenth-century cult of the creative (rather than imitative) imagination, differing from similar contemporary theories, such as Joseph Warton's, in proposing that what the poet creates is truth, not fiction, and is a finite counterpart of God's creation.2 According to this loose interpretation, which does not seek out the relation in the Ode between the poet's prophetic and creative power and which derives almost exclusively from the second stanza, the entire poem is, in the words of the late A. S. P. Woodhouse, "an allegory whose subject is the creative imagination and the poet's passionate desire for its power."3 Similar efforts to interpret the Ode by drawing out of it some imprecise but rather exceptional definition of the poetic act have marked its critical history. Mrs. Barbauld's analysis, characteristically centering on the middle stanza, suggests how the theme of the poem has been wrestled with and how difficult it was for those in the neoclassic tradition to relinquish the assumption that, whatever else art is, it is also a didactic imitation of nature:

Probably the obscure idea that floated in the mind of the Author was this, that true Poetry being a representation of Nature, must have...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420073040