The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 661

“Ode, Inscribed to W. H. Channing” alludes frequently to historical people and events. The William Henry Channing to whom the ode is inscribed was a nineteenth century author and Unitarian minister, like his more famous uncle, William Ellery Channing. The younger Channing, a vigorous opponent of slavery, apparently occasioned this ode by urging his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson to join the cause in some formal or active way. The abolition issue was dividing increasing numbers of people. Daniel Webster, whom Emerson once greatly admired and probably had in mind all the while he wrote the ode, had turned against the Abolitionists in an effort to preserve the Union. Also, the Mexican War had just begun. This ode is Emerson’s explanation of his reasons for remaining aloof and a proclamation of his strong feelings regarding the issues.

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Addressing Channing as the “evil time’s sole patriot,” the poet begins with an explanation of why he cannot leave his “honied thought” and study: “The angry Muse/ Puts confusion in my brain (lines 10 through 11). The “evil time” is riven by “the priest’s cant” and “statesman’s rant” and by politics (“politique”) that are at best fraudulent. Anyone who chatters (“prates”) about improved “arts and life” (line 14) should behold his country’s raids into Mexico. Anyone who praises the “freedom-loving mountaineer” of the North should know that the poet has found, by the banks and in the valleys of its rivers, the agents (“jackals”) of the slave owners (in search of fugitive slaves).

The fifth stanza cites New Hampshire as an example (or source) of the “evil,” for it is “taunted” by little men—“bat” and “wren.” The list of ills is long: If the disturbed earth should “bury the folk,/ the southern crocodile would grieve” (lines 30-31). “Virtue” babbles or equivocates (“palters”), and “Right” has disappeared; “Freedom” is hidden, and funeral eloquence disturbs those buried heroes it purports to put to rest; these two lines, and the earlier reference to “little men” (line 26), may allude to Daniel Webster, a native of New Hampshire, and to his funeral oration at Bunker Hill, which Emerson heard.

Stanza 6 addresses Channing again (“O glowing friend”), alluding to his apparent support of dividing the North from the South over the slavery issue. The poet asks rhetorically what good separation would do, since commerce and other affairs (represented by Boston Bay and Bunker Hill) would continue as the evil is everywhere (“Things are of the snake”). Further examples (stanza 7) show how affairs are topsy-turvy: They serve who should be served. Deference to things rules the day (line 48), and the consequence is that mankind is ridden like a beast of burden by the very things it worships.

Stanza 8 returns to the causes of this travesty: People have confused the laws governing man and thing (line 55). Men should not be governed by physical law, which is good for building “town and fleet,” but runs wild and destroys man’s supremacy (“doth the man unking”). The next two stanzas develop the idea that different laws apply to different spheres. Physical laws fittingly fell trees, build, grade, till, and so on. Humans should make laws themselves for friendship and love, to benefit truth and harmony. The state should adjust to these laws “how it may” (line 69), as Olympus is ruled by Jove.

The longest stanza, 11, continues the idea that a proper order should obtain in human affairs. People have their fit realms of activity (line 75); when one is forced out of one’s proper sphere, things go awry. The poet implies that man should trust the “over-god,” who rules human affairs with a knowledge and power beyond man’s, for he “Knows to bring honey/ Out of the lion” (lines 86-87). The final stanza turns again to conditions as they are—in Europe, aggression has reduced Poland—but the ode ends with a promise: The victors divide into two camps, half fighting for freedom, and the “astonished” Muse finds thousands defending her.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 368

The poem is an irregular ode composed of twelve stanzas of unequal length, ranging from five to nineteen lines each, totalling ninety-seven in all. The lines have a range of two to five stresses (only lines 20, 21, 74, and the last line of the poem have five stresses). No consistent pattern is apparent in the use of stresses, though the seven lines in the third stanza all have three stresses each, and often lines with an equal number of stresses are grouped together. Most of the metric feet are iambs, and most of the lines end on a stressed syllable.

Freedom of form is also evident in the use of rhyme, which displays no consistent pattern from stanza to stanza. Most of the stanzas have only four rhymes, many of them paired (aa or bb, for example) and many alternated (abab). Though structurally diverse, the poem is also unified by a number of structural features. The individual stanzas are knitted together by the rhymes, which are usually metrically stressed; by grouping together lines of equal number of stresses; and, often, by repetition. In stanza 7, for example, the first four lines repeat the same structure and verb: “The horseman serves . . ./ The neatherd serves . . ./ The merchant serves,” and so on. Stanza 9 repeats the same sentence structure through a series of seven lines, each with two stresses.

The poet uses other means to unify the ode and elevate its tone. The apostrophe is used (“O rushing Contoocook!”) along with personification (“Virtue palters; Right is hence”) and allusions to classical figures, using the “Muse” at the beginning and end to represent the arts in general and poetry in particular, and citing classical mythology: “As Olympus follows Jove.” These “learned” reminders of the formal nature of the ode are interwoven with indigenous material, place names (Boston Bay, Bunker Hill), and local topography (forest, mountain, orchard, glebe) to demonstrate the breadth and nature of the poet’s vision, and to give much of the poem considerable symbolic power. The odic structure itself and references to classical figures place the poem in one tradition, while place names would be expected to arouse powerful associations in the minds of readers all too familiar with the importance of geography.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 199

Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981.

Bosco, Ronald A., and Joel Myerson, eds. Emerson in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Jacobson, David. Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Myerson, Joel, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Robinson, David M. Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Sacks, Kenneth S. Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Yanella, Donald. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

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