The Progress of Poesy: A Pindaric Ode

Original Text: 
Thomas Gray, Odes by Mr. Gray (Strawberry Hill: R. and J. Dodsley, 1757). D-10 4088 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
And give to rapture all thy trembling strings.
A thousand rills their mazy progress take:
The laughing flowers, that round them blow,
Drink life and fragrance as they flow.
Now the rich stream of music winds along
Deep, majestic, smooth, and strong,
Now rolling down the steep amain,
Headlong, impetuous, see it pour:
Parent of sweet and solemn-breathing airs,
And frantic Passions hear thy soft control.
Has curb'd the fury of his car,
And dropp'd his thirsty lance at thy command.
With ruffled plumes and flagging wing:
Quench'd in dark clouds of slumber lie
The terror of his beak, and light'nings of his eye.
Temper'd to thy warbled lay.
The rosy-crowned Loves are seen
With antic Sports and blue-ey'd Pleasures,
Frisking light in frolic measures;
Now pursuing, now retreating,
Now in circling troops they meet:
To brisk notes in cadence beating
Glance their many-twinkling feet.
Slow melting strains their Queen's approach declare:
Where'er she turns the Graces homage pay.
With arms sublime, that float upon the air,
In gliding state she wins her easy way:
O'er her warm cheek and rising bosom move
The bloom of young Desire and purple light of Love.
Labour, and Penury, the racks of Pain,
Disease, and Sorrow's weeping train,
And Death, sad refuge from the storms of Fate!
The fond complaint, my song, disprove,
And justify the laws of Jove.
Say, has he giv'n in vain the heav'nly Muse?
Night, and all her sickly dews,
Her spectres wan, and birds of boding cry,
He gives to range the dreary sky:
Where shaggy forms o'er ice-built mountains roam,
The Muse has broke the twilight-gloom
To cheer the shiv'ring native's dull abode.
And oft, beneath the od'rous shade
Of Chili's boundless forests laid,
She deigns to hear the savage youth repeat
In loose numbers wildly sweet
Her track, where'er the goddess roves,
Th' unconquerable Mind, and Freedom's holy flame.
Isles, that crown th' Ægean deep,
In ling'ring Lab'rinths creep,
How do your tuneful echoes languish,
Mute, but to the voice of Anguish?
Where each old poetic mountain
Inspiration breath'd around:
Ev'ry shade and hallow'd Fountain
Murmur'd deep a solemn sound:
Alike they scorn the pomp of tyrant Power,
And coward Vice, that revels in her chains.
When Latium had her lofty spirit lost,
      Far from the sun and summer-gale,
What time, where lucid Avon stray'd,
Her awful face: the dauntless child
Stretch'd forth his little arms, and smiled.
Richly paint the vernal year:
Thine too these golden keys, immortal boy!
This can unlock the gates of Joy;
Of Horror that, and thrilling Fears,
Or ope the sacred source of sympathetic tears.
Upon the seraph-wings of Ecstasy,
The secrets of th' Abyss to spy.
Where angels tremble, while they gaze,
He saw; but blasted with excess of light,
Behold, where Dryden's less presumptuous car,
Wide o'er the fields of Glory bear
      Hark, his hands thy lyre explore!
Bright-eyed Fancy hovering o'er
Scatters from her pictur'd urn
Wakes thee now? tho' he inherit
Nor the pride, nor ample pinion,
Sailing with supreme dominion
Thro' the azure deep of air:
Yet oft before his infant eyes would run
Such forms, as glitter in the Muse's ray
With orient hues, unborrow'd of the Sun:
Yet shall he mount, and keep his distant way
Beyond the limits of a vulgar fate,
Beneath the good how far--but far above the great.


0] The Greek odes of Pindar (d. 442 B.C.) were symmetrical chanted poems characterized by a varied and elaborate versification regularly and exactly repeated. Here the three stanzas of the first group (called strophe, antistrophe, and epode, or in English, turn, counter-turn, and stand, from the positions of the chorus) exactly correspond in structure to the parallel stanzas in the second and third groups, strophe to strophe, antistrophe to antistrophe, etc. To the 1768 edition of these poems Gray supplied notes and an ironical advertisement stating: "When the author first published this and the following Ode [The Bard], he was advised, even by his friends, to subjoin some few explanatory notes; but had too much respect for the understanding of his readers to take that liberty." The notes quoted below are from this edition.
In a note Gray refers to Psalms (57: 9, Prayer Book version): "Awake, my glory: awake, lute and harp." "Pindar styles his own poetry, with its musical accompaniments, ... Aeolian song, Aeolian strings, the breath of the Aeolian lute" (Gray). Aeolia was a district of Asia Minor, with which Greek lyric poetry was specially connected. Back to Line
0] Helicon's springs. Helicon was a mountain in Boeotia which had two fountains Aganippe and Hippocrene, sacred to the Muses.
3 ff.: "The subject and simile, as usual with Pindar, are united. The various sources of poetry, which gives life and lustre to all it touches, are here described; its quiet majestic progress enriching every subject (otherwise dry and barren) with a pomp of diction and luxuriant harmony of numbers; and its more rapid and irresistible course, when swollen and hurried away by the conflict of tumultuous passions." (Gray)
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0] Ceres: the goddess who presided over grain and tillage. Back to Line
0] Cf. Pope, Iliad, XVII, 315: "Rocks rebellow to the roar." Back to Line
0] "Power of harmony to calm the turbulent sallies of the soul. The thoughts are borrowed from the first Pythian of Pindar." (Gray) Back to Line
0] shell. The lyre was supposed to have been originally made from a tortoise-shell. Back to Line
0] Thrace was a special haunt of Mars. Back to Line
0] "This is a weak imitation of some incomparable lines in the same ode [i.e., the first Pythian of Pindar]" (Gray). Back to Line
0] the feather'd king: the eagle, the bird of Jove. Back to Line
0] "Power of harmony to produce all the graces of motion in the body" (Gray). Back to Line
0] Idalia: in Cyprus, sacred to Venus. Back to Line
0] Cytherea: Venus. Back to Line
0] "To compensate the real and imaginary ills of life, the Muse was given to mankind by the same Providence that sends the Day by its cheerful presence to dispel the glooms and terrors of the Night" (Gray). Back to Line
0] "Or seen the morning's well-appointed star/Come marching up the eastern hills afar (Cowley)" (Gray). Gray misquotes Cowley, Brutus, an Ode (55-7): "One would have thought 't had heard the morning crow,/Or seen her well-appointed star/Come marching up the eastern hill afar." Back to Line
0] Hyperion: here identified with Apollo, god of the sun. Back to Line
0] Gray cites as reference Virgil, Aeneid, VI, [796], and Petrarch, Canzone 2 [''O aspettata in Ciel ... ," 48].
54-65.: "Extensive influence of poetic genius over the remotest and most uncivilized nations; its connection with liberty, and the virtues that naturally attend on it" (Gray).
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0] Cf. Paradise Lost, IX, 1116-17: "girt/With feather'd cuncture." Back to Line
0] pursue. The use of the plural verb after the first noun of a compound subject is common in Pindar. Back to Line
0] "Progress of Poetry from Greece to Italy, and from Italy to England. Chaucer was not unacquainted with the writings of Dante or of Petrarch. The Earl of Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt had travelled in Italy and formed their taste there; Spenser imitated the Italian writers; Milton improved on them; but this school expired soon after the Restoration, and a new era arose on the French model, which has subsisted ever since" (Gray).
Delphi: on the side of Mt. Parnassus, the chief shrine of Apollo. Back to Line
0] Ilissus: a river near Athens. Back to Line
0] Maeander: a river of Asia Minor where Homer is supposed to have been born, and where lyric poetry flourished. Back to Line
0] the sad Nine: the Muses. Back to Line
0] Latian plains: the plains of Latium, i.e., Italy. Back to Line
0] Albion: England. Back to Line
0] Nature's darling: Shakespeare. Back to Line
0] the mighty Mother: Nature. Back to Line
0] pencil: in its original meaning of a small paint brush. Back to Line
0] Nor second he: Milton (Gray). Back to Line
0] "'Flammantia moenia mundi'. Lucretius, i, [731]" (Gray). Back to Line
0] "'For the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels, and above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone--this was the appearance of the glory of the Lord.' Ezekiel, i, 20, 26, 28" (Gray). Back to Line
0] The reference is to Milton's blindness. Back to Line
0] "Meant to express the stately march and sounding energy of Dryden's rhymes" (Gray). Cf. Pope, Epistle to Augustus, 267-69. Back to Line
0] "'Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?' Job [XXXIX, 19]" (Gray). Back to Line
0] "Words that weep, and tears that speak. Cowley" (Gray). Gray quotes Cowley, "The Prophet" in The Mistress 20. Back to Line
0] "We have had in our language no other odes of the sublime kind, than that of Dryden on St. Cecilia's Day; for Cowley (who had his merit) yet wanted judgment, style, and harmony, for such a task. That of Pope is not worthy of so great a man. Mr. Mason indeed of late days has touched the true chords, and with a masterly hand, in some of his Choruses,--above all in the last of Caractacus: 'Hark! heard ye not yon footstep dread?' etc." (Gray). Back to Line
0] daring Spirit: refers to Gray himself. Back to Line
0] the Theban eagle. Pindar was a native of Thebes. "Pindar compares himself to that bird, and his enemies to ravens that croak and clamour in vain below, while it pursues its flight, regardless of their noise" (Gray). Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
G. G. Falle
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.224.