William Wordsworth's "Ode to Duty"
The Collected Poems of William Wordsworth
This collection includes "Ode to Duty"
Especially since the 1960s, in Western culture, "duty" has been a dirty word. It smacks of kowtowing to authority, not being allowed to "do your own thing"; it cramps your style.
Laurence Goldstein's contemporary poem "On Rereading 'Ode to Duty'" with the following lines sums up the 1960s undisciplined attitude that still deems "duty" "a four-letter-word": "it bullies us to settle for less, / to acknowledge as deity not the unruly wolf / but the obedient Lab, collared and trained."
But for the speaker in William Wordsworth's "Ode to Duty," the word is a "light" that guides, it quiets the "empty terrors" that can overcome, and it can set one free from "vain temptations."
Wordsworth's speaker understands that settling for less is exactly what happens to those who shirk their duty. The obedient Lab exemplifies the creature of accomplishment who earns love and trust, while nobody knows the name of the "unruly wolf."
First Stanza: "Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!"
The speaker personifies and addresses "duty" as the "Daughter of the Voice of God." Then he begins to enumerate the pleasing and useful qualities of this daughter named Duty: she is a light that guides and she is discipline that ends error. She is "victory and law / When empty terrors overawe." And she frees the human being from "vain temptations" that lead to debauchery. Following her leads to calmness and eliminates the "weary strife of frail humanity."
Second Stanza: "There are who ask not if thine eye"
The speaker prays for the deliverance of those who do not understand the power of Duty and the wisdom of following her. They are usually the young ones who rely on natural instinct to guide them, seeking no higher power of God and Duty to guide them. And the speaker asks Duty to protect them "if," and more likely when, "They fail."
Third Stanza: "Serene will be our days and bright"
The speaker says that those following Duty will sleep peacefully and their personality will reflect happiness, "When love is an unerring light, / And joy its own security." Following Duty secures the individual's path through life, that he/she will not be led astray by unhealthy temptations.
Fourth Stanza: "I, loving freedom, and untried"
In the fourth stanza, the speaker confesses to having failed to follow Duty: "I, loving freedom, and untried: / No sport of every random gust." He was young and inexperienced and was tempted to abuse his free will, even though he did not follow every tempting distraction, he still found he was relying too heavily on his own appetites, but then when he was able to hear again the guiding voice of Duty, he changed his ways, and his path became easier to walk. And now, he has decided to follow Duty more closely, if Duty will allow it.
Fifth Stanza: "Through no disturbance of my soul"
The speaker has discovered that following every will-o'-the wisp desire has only agitated his soul and prompted him to do things that destroyed his peace of mind. To eliminate these unfulfilling and annoying emotions, he asks to follow Duty to gain control of his emotions, his thoughts, and his life.
The speaker wants to control his own life and not be controlled by raw human emotions that lead to loss of peace. He now seeks "for a repose that ever is the same." This sameness is nothing like the disdained "rut" that results from blindly following a routine; this sameness refers to an ever-new bliss that is achieved through following Duty as the voice of God.
Sixth Stanza: "Yet not the less would I throughout"
In the sixth stanza, the speaker again describes his situation as he rationalized his failure to follow Duty. When he continued to follow his own foolish impulses, he would rationalize that he was, in fact, properly asserting free will. But now he no longer wishes to be prideful, he wishes to seek a "second Will more wise."
Seventh Stanza: "Stern Lawgiver! yet thou dost wear"
In the seventh stanza, the speaker offers undeniable evidence that it is, in fact, Duty that governs the high road of human endeavor: he calls her "Stern Lawgiver," but also adds that she represents the grace of God. And the human heart understands itself only by listening to the natural laws that represent this Daughter of the Voice of God.
Even the flowers and the stars are evidence of this quality. The flowers follow their Duty producing ever-new beauty and fragrance, and the stars do not go roaming all over the heavens, but remain ever in place following their Duty to the cosmos.
Eighth Stanza: "To humbler functions, awful Power!"
In order to follow Duty, one must be humble. Pride leads to destruction. Self-aggrandizement results from leaving the path of Duty and following haphazardly every desire that strikes the mind and heart.
The speaker beseeches Duty to guide him so he will become strong: "let my weakness have an end!" Slavery to the senses leads to ruin, but becoming a "Bondman" to Duty frees the heart, mind, and allows one to follow one's true self, the Soul.
The speaker wants to live in the "spirit of self-sacrifice," and he wants the "confidence of reason," and he wants above all to live "in the light of truth." None this would be possible, if he continued to lurch forward down his path of life like an adolescent who awkwardly abuses free will in order to achieve momentary gratification of the senses.
This speaker wants to make of his life a beautiful humble palace of ever-new joy. And he knows he can do that by listening to and following Duty, that Daughter of God's Voice.
Reading begins at 3:00
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes