The Passions, An Ode For Music "When Music, Heavenly Maid, Was Young"

William Collins

"When Music, Heavenly Maid, Was Young"

Context: Collins was a gifted minor poet whose output was quite small but of unusually high quality. His life was brief and much of it was desperately unhappy. Educated at Oxford, he settled in London and became a literary hack writer, but he was indolent and his health was bad; he failed to accomplish most of the projects he undertook. He was deeply in debt much of the time. When his odes, on which his poetical reputation rests, were first published, they attracted no attention and sold slowly. Collins was bitterly disappointed and burned the unsold copies. During his last years his health grew increasingly worse, and his mind was affected; he was confined for a time in an asylum. In his poetry he uses a number of conventional mannerisms characteristic of the eighteenth century–neoclassic effects and an abundance of personified abstractions. However, his verses are notable for subtle rhythms, imaginative phrases, and a delicate balance between classic restraint and poetic sentiment. They are now considered permanent masterpieces of lyric verse. In The Passions, Collins personifies the various passions and describes the effect which music (also personified) has on them. Music, very young and beautiful, has been playing on various instruments; and the Passions, much swayed by the sounds produced, decide to try out her instruments themselves. Each produces a result of supernatural power in keeping with his own characteristics: Fear, Anger, Despair, Hope, Revenge, Pity, Melancholy, and a number of others all portray themselves in sound. The ode ends with the poet's sorrow that music in his own day has lost the heavenly fire that it had when the world was young. The first portion of the poem describes Music and the Passions' reaction to her:

When Music, heavenly maid, was young,
While yet in early Greece she sung,
The Passions oft, to hear her shell,
Thronged around her magic cell,
Exulting, trembling, raging, fainting,
Possest beyond the Muse's painting:
By turns they felt the glowing mind
Disturbed, delighted, raised, refined;
Till once, 'tis said, when all were fired,
Filled with fury, rapt, inspired,
From the supporting myrtles round
They snatched her instruments of sound;
And, as they oft had heard apart
Sweet lessons of her forceful art, Each (for Madness ruled the hour)
Would prove his own expressive power. . . .