The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

V. William Wordsworth

§ 9. Ode to Duty

In want of comfort, he turned to duty. Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty (1805), produced at the turning-point of his career, is full of import and significance. It throws a light both on the years that went before and on those that were to follow. It also reveals an aspect of the poet’s nature not usually apparent. It is common to speak of him as one of the teachers of duty, and to refer to this ode (or to its title) as a proof. Now, he distinctly resigns himself to the control of duty because, at his time of life, a man can do no better. He abjures with regret the faith that, till then, had been his and in which duty had no place, the dear belief that joy and love can guide man to all good—or, rather, he does not renounce it, but still mutters a hope that better days may come when, joy and love reigning supreme, duty can be dispensed with. As for himself, he would still cling to the same creed if he preserved spirit enough to bear the shocks of change and enjoy his “unchartered freedom.” He retires into the arms of duty as a weary warrior of old might end his days in the quiet shelter of a monastery. He still feels an uncertain convert: “Thee I now would serve more strictly, if I may.” The “stern lawgiver,” at first sight, inspires him with more fear than love. He only reconciles himself with the “awful Power” when he has realised that duty wears a smile on her face, that she is beautiful, that, after all, she may be identical with love and joy:

  • Flowers laugh before thee on their beds,
  • And fragrance in thy footing treads;
  • Thou dost preserve the Stars from wrong,
  • And the most ancient Heavens through thee are fresh and strong—
  • a noble stanza, the loftiest of a poem signalised by the almost plaintive appeal that is heard throughout and by the longing, lingering look cast behind.

    The Ode to Duty seems to have been written just before the death of his brother John. He expressly says that he is still “untried,” and moved by “no disturbance of soul.” When the trial came that darkened the world for him, Wordsworth made it his chief task to struggle against grief. He resolutely bade farewell to “the heart that lives alone, housed in a dream.” He welcomed “fortitude and patient cheer.” He called his former creed an illusion. His themes now, more exclusively than before, will be the sorrows and tragedies of life. But he must find “blessed consolations in distress.” He must tell of “melancholy Fear subdued by Faith.” The consequence is that his exploration of human woes will, henceforth, be guarded and cautious. He now lacks the bold spirit of youth that can haunt the worst infected places without giving a thought to the danger of contagion. He is the depressed visitor of the sick, who must needs beware, and be provided with preservatives. He could no longer offer such harrowing pictures of misery as those to be found in his Ruined Cottage or even (in spite of the abrupt conclusion) in his admirable Michael (1800). His diminished vitality makes it necessary for him to ward off dejection.