Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

Ostensibly, “Ode to Evening” is a nature poem, one of those often considered a prelude to the Romantic movement or a deliberate and intentional antidote to the heroic genres most prominent in the earlier part of the Augustan age. The poem looks forward to the Age of Sensibility, a label...

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Ostensibly, “Ode to Evening” is a nature poem, one of those often considered a prelude to the Romantic movement or a deliberate and intentional antidote to the heroic genres most prominent in the earlier part of the Augustan age. The poem looks forward to the Age of Sensibility, a label which poems such as Thomson’s The Seasons (1730) and Warton’s The Enthusiast: Or, The Love of Nature (1744) helped to create. Collins’s ode promotes scenic nature, as do these poems, in contrast to the neoclassical emphasis upon human nature. Similarly, it even hints at the sublime in the section describing the mountain storm and the view from the hut as well as in the images of winter at the end. Nevertheless, just as evening is neither day nor night, this poem is neither fully pre-Romantic nor conventionally neoclassical. It is transitional, subtle, and generally quiet, like its subject.

Even though Collins follows convention in imagery, diction, and verse form, he demonstrates that he is not a slave to it. The ode exerts the “gentlest” of influences, as its subject does. Even the superlatives Collins uses are not exaggerations, but the superlative forms of adjectives such as “gentle” and “meek.”

The striking passages are, first, those depicting the prospect of a violent mountain storm as well as attack by winter on Eve’s entourage and her flowing garments; and second, the images which are more sharply focused in the pageant of seasons which ends the poem. These seem to establish the grounds for the earlier prayer in hopes of adopting evening’s calm demeanor and reserved behavior. Especially poignant are the lines describing how the wind and rain of the storm keep the poet’s “willing feet” from obeying their desire to follow Eve. These lines seem highly personal in light of Samuel Johnson’s famous phrase describing the poet, “poor dear Collins.” Contemporaries’ accounts of Collins’s life, including those by his friends, record mental breakdowns which are entirely relevant if one notes the poet’s own signals in this and other poems. The allusion to Lear on the heath is not the poet’s personal equation of himself with Shakespeare’s egotistical king; other characters who join the scene in the hut would be more suitable for comparison with Collins’s presentation of himself. This passage is a faint echo of feelings expressed in the “Ode to Fear” from the same volume (1746). Although “Ode to Fear” is generated by Aristotle’s discussion of pity and fear in his concept of catharsis, the personal element is a noticeable dimension and reinforces a biographical interpretation for both poems.

The final section ventures into a more vivid style of natural depiction. The fragrances of spring, the length of summer days, the effect engendered by autumn colors and temperatures are just as compelling as the violence of winter and are not overpowered by it. The apparent timidity of the earliest passages and the passion tapped in the heath scene have a purpose within the poem itself: a careful buildup to a final celebration. Collins’s skillful manipulation of imagery and versification, along with the consequent modulations in tone and atmosphere, have created a poem representative of both the era and the inventive genius of the individual poet.

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