William Collins – Ode to Evening


This poem personifies evening in rich, complex description. Likened to the Bible’s ‘Eve’ in line 2, already we are given an ambivalent perspective on the subject – both an object of beauty and something fallen and flawed. The poet dwells on evening’s ability to both reveal and obscure, and sets up a contrast between characterization as a pure, religious figure, and a sensual, sexualized being. The final exultant address extends this characterization of eveining to a reflection on women.

Evening is referred to as ‘chaste Eve’, bringing an immediate comparison with the Biblical character. The ‘chasteness’ of Eve as a character is ambiguous, as Milton and others have seen the Fall as a form of seduction, playing on Eve’s pride, something countered in the poem by ‘modest’. We are therefore meant to see evening as ambivalent, whether the poet is trying to cast off these prejudices or ironically enforce them. This allusion then informs our interpretation of the personified sun, depicted here as male in the convention of describing Apollo the sun-god. We could read this as Adam, Eve’s partner, who in the act of setting is being put aside, separated off allowing us to place our focus solely on the evening or ‘Eve’.

Evening is also depicted as a Classical muse, inspiring song in the poet which he hopes will ‘suit’ her – both in the sense of reflecting evening’s peace and in the sense of being pleasing to it. There is a pun in the epithet, ‘maid composed’, in that evening’s calm is described as ‘composure’, but also this figure has been is involved in ‘composing’ music as a muse. Perhaps also this figure is itself ‘made’ or ‘composed’, manufactured by the poet to stand in for something else – the poem will go on to reveal that it is really reflecting on the nature of womankind not just evening. Using ‘compose’ in its musical sense, the poet’s exhortation to the muse suggests along with the poem’s title a desire to praise or elevate the subject.

There is however a darker element to this image; the idea of ‘measures, stealing through thy darkening vale’ suggests the creeping of a predator. We see the image of a beetle with a ‘sullen horn’ as well: the ominous side of falling night. This image is partially obscured from us, introducing troubling glimpses like the ‘heedless’ ‘pilgrim’, suggesting vulnerability and lack of awareness. Here the poet demonstrates evening’s ability to both reveal, as it casts things in a new light and conjures ‘elves’ and ‘nymph’s, and obscure, by darkening detail and hiding faces. The lines in which evening’s ‘elves’ emerge are mimetic of the lethargy and gradual change of twilight itself, with long drawn out syntax extending the sentence from line 21 to 27.

The poem is full of religious imagery, used to emphasize the reserved purity of evening’s actions. Evening is apostrophised as a ‘calm vot’ress’, suggesting the word ‘devotion’ and the idea of votive candles – we have an image of a praying woman strengthened by the reference to a ‘dusky veil’, standing for both the physical darkness obscuring faces and a symbol of nun-like purity. Contrasted with this clam reserved-ness we see the sensuous vitality instilled in evening by the seasons. The description is sexualised in ‘breathing tresses’ and ‘lap of leaves’, suddenly giving ‘evening’ characteristics of flesh. The ‘sport’ of Summer and Winter’s ‘rend[ing] of robes’ also seem to have sexual connotations. The contrasted views of evening available in the poem match with the ambivalent allusion to Eve as a Biblical character: femininity as both pure and unreachable, and as earthly and bodily.

The final lines ascribe ‘Fancy, Friendship, Science and rose-lipped health’ to evening, and here we have a clue that the poem also has a discourse on womankind and femininity itself. These things would seem strange to ascribe to ‘evening’, but might better be a reflection of womankind, with the idea of ‘gentlest influence’ especially sounding like a description of women typical of this time. One could see the shapely elegance of the poem’s form – two pentameter lines alternating with two trimester lines – as another incarnation of femininity in the poem.

This poem uses femininity as a way of characterizing and beautifully representing evening. But perhaps more significantly it uses the idea of evening as a means of expressing the poet’s views or women as paradoxical, unknowable and life giving.

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