Before we can reflect on how William Collins uses epithets to celebrate evening in his poem “Ode to Evening,” we must first define our term. In literature, an epithet is a literary device that describes something by focusing in on one of its characteristics and setting that characteristic in a prominent position.
Let's see how epithets work in the poem. The poet is talking directly to evening, whom he calls “Eve.” In the second line, he uses the epithet “chaste” to describe evening. This time of day is pure and unsullied, the epithet suggests. Further, it helps to draw a subtle (but not too subtle) connection between evening and the Biblical Eve before the fall. Evening, the poet thus suggests, is the prime time of the day, the time most like the Garden of Eden.
Further, evening is a “nymph reserved.” “Reserved” is an epithet that suggests quiet and calm as well as a hint of mystery. Evening is holding something back, keeping something quiet, not letting anyone in to her full confidence. This only increases our desire to know more about the secrets of evening.
The poet also refers to evening as a “maid composed.” Again, the epithet “composed” suggests calm as well as self-control. Evening is not wild and loud, free and unrestrained. Rather, she is tranquil and relaxed, unflappable and at ease.
Later in the poem, the poet calls evening “meekest Eve.” Here, we have an epithet that is a superlative. Evening is not just meek; she is the meekest. She is quiet and still, calm and peaceful. Yet meekness does not mean a lack of power; it is power that is under control, held in check and used correctly. Evening has a definite power, but it is covered by peace and serenity.
Finally, the poet applies epithets to other creatures besides evening, and these enhance his presentation of evening. The bat is “weak-ey’d”; the setting sun is “bright-haired” with “cloudy skirts”; the vale is “dark’ning”; the “folding star” wears a “paly circlet” and carries a “warning lamp.” All of these epithets contribute to the description of evening in all her splendor.