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Poems

An Ode on Aeolus’s Harp (1748)

Ethereal race, inhabitants of air,
Who hymn your God amid the secret grove,
Ye unseen beings, to my harp repair,
And raise majestic strains, or melt in love.

Those tender notes, how kindly they upbraid!
With what soft woe they thrill the lover’s heart!
Sure from the hand of some unhappy maid
Who died of love these sweet complainings part.

But hark! that strain was of a graver tone,
On the deep strings his hand some hermit throws;
Or he, the sacred Bard, who sat alone
In the drear waste and wept his people’s woes.

Such was the song which Zion’s children sung
When by Euphrates’ stream they made their plaint;
And to such sadly solemn notes are strung
Angelic harps to soothe a dying saint.

Methinks I hear the full celestial choir
Through Heaven’s high dome their awful anthem raise;
Now chanting clear, and now they all conspire
To swell the lofty hymn from praise to praise.

Let me, ye wandering spirits of the wind,
Who, as wild fancy prompts you, touch the string,
Smit with your theme, be in your chorus joined,
For till you cease my muse forgets to sing.

 

Notes
Title. For a definition of ode, see the note on the title “Ode: Rule Britannia”. Aeolus is the deity who determines the intensity of the winds, according to the wishes of the higher gods. The Aeolian Harp is an instrument that does not need to be played: the currents of air cause its strings to vibrate and produce music. It was invented by Athanasius Kircher in the 17th century and its unpredictable sounds, created by a natural element, fascinated the Romantic poets: S. T Coleridge used the image in “The Eolian Harp” and “Dejection: An Ode”.

 


An aeolian harp

 

Versification: Heroic quatrains or elegiac stanzas. The lines are iambic pentameters rhyming abab.
l. 1. Ethereal race, inhabitants of air. The winds, ruled by Aeolus, “their God”.

l. 2. Hymn (v.). The blowing of the various winds is compared to hyms sung in praise of Aeolus.

l. 2. The secret grove. Aeolus lived in Lipara, the main island of an archipelago that is named after the god (Aeolian Islands). Its rugged scenery would have struck a poet like Thomson as the perfect example of the picturesque: “an eighteenth-century theory which stressed notions such as variety, irregularity, ruggedness, singularity and chiaroscuro [...] in the appreciation of landscape” (English Literature in Context, ed. Paul Poplawski, Cambridge: CUP, 2008, p. 275). On his island, near Sicily, Aeolus kept all the winds inside a cave and would release them, singly or in combination, when commanded by the main gods.

l. 4. Strains. Tunes, songs, melodies.

ll. 5-8. Those tender notes [...] sweet complainings part. The stanza, where we find two examples of oxymoron (“kindly upbraid”, “soft woe”), echoes literary clichés that have a long tradition in European poetry: “the sweet pain of love”, “the death in love”. We can also perceive traces of the “cult of melancholia”, which influenced Renaissance English poets such as John Dowland and was also a source of inspiration for the Romanticsas in Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy”. Melancholy is here enhanced by the music of the wind.

l. 9. Hark. Listen.

l. 10. The sacred Bard [...] his people’s woes. A reference to the prophet Jeremiah. In the Book of Lamentations, “among the drear waste”, he cries over the fatal destruction of Jerusalem.

ll. 13-14. Such was the song [...] made their plaint. In Psalm 137, the Israelites (“Zion’s children”) are asked to play their harps and sing, but their memory of the tragic destiny of Jerusalem prevents them from doing so: “By the rivers of Babylon [i.e. the Tigris and the Euphrates], there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof” (1-2, emphasis added).

 


By the Rivers of Babylon, by Eugène Delacroix


l. 17. Methinks. It seems to me that [...].

l. 18. Awful. Extremely beautiful, breathtaking, sublime.

l. 23. Smit. Join in.

l. 24. For till you cease my muse forgets to sing. The poet is spellbound by the music of “the angelic harps” or “the celestial choir”, which transcend his individual voice as a poet. As the poem reaches its conclusion, God, Nature (the wind and its music) and the poet’s Soul have become one. Such integration is central to the Romantic ethos.