By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Ode to Death’ is a poem by Charlotte Smith (1749-1806), a fascinating poet who is regarded as one of the first English Romantic poets (before Wordsworth and Coleridge had officially ushered in the movement in Britain). Published in 1797, ‘Ode to Death’ takes the perhaps unlikely position of celebrating death as a blessed release from the struggles and hardship of life.
Perhaps the best way to offer an analysis of Smith’s poem is by going through it, stanza by stanza, summarising its content as we go. So, if you’re ready …
Ode to Death
Friend of the wretched! wherefore should the eye
Of blank Despair, whence tears have ceased to flow,
Be turn’d from thee? – Ah! wherefore fears to die
He, who compell’d each poignant grief to know,
Drains to its lowest dregs the cup of woe?
Charlotte Smith begins ‘Ode to Death’ by addressing death directly: odes are usually to something, so this form of direct address is to be expected, of course. Death is a ‘friend of the wretched’ – the most miserable and most downtrodden in society – because they provide a release from suffering.
Smith goes on to ask, why should those who feel nothing but despair not turn to death in the hope that it will relieve them of their grief? Note here that this is ‘blank Despair’ (the capital letter personifying the emotion), which doesn’t even produce tears any more: the sufferer is beyond tears, and has become numb to the world’s pleasures and pains. Nothing is left. Life has become a husk, a shell. Death starts to look like the better option, Smith argues.
And why would ‘he’ who has been down to the very lowest point, and felt the deepest and darkest misery, fear to die? Smith uses the image of a cup of wine, a curious inversion of the usual idea of drinking happiness out of a cup (the idea being, quite rightly, that wine = happiness).
Would Cowardice postpone thy calm embrace,
To linger out long years in torturing pain?
Or not prefer thee to the ills that chase
Him, who too much impoverish’d to obtain
From British Themis right, implores her aid in vain!
Death, Smith continues in the second stanza, provides a ‘calm embrace’, banishing all misery and suffering. Smith is saying that any fear or reluctance (‘Cowardice’) someone may have about embracing death would soon disappear when they realised the alternative is ‘long years’ of ‘torturing pain’.
Next, Smith turns to a topic which greatly interested and inspired British Romantic poets, especially female poets (see also Anna Lætitia Barbauld’s poem ‘To the Poor’): the sense of injustice that afflicts the poorest within society. A man (‘Him’) who is too poor to afford justice and fairness before the law (‘Themis’ was the ancient Greek titaness who personified divine justice) will call upon her to help him in vain, and will much prefer death to the various hardships which dog him through his wretched life.
Sharp goading Indigence who would not fly,
That urges toil the exhausted strength above?
Or shun the once fond friend’s averted eye?
Or who to thy asylum not remove,
To lose the wasting anguish of ungrateful love?
‘Indigence’ – again, an abstract quality personified with a capital letter – means ‘neediness’ or ‘poverty’. If you’re poor and needy, you need to keep ‘toiling’ or working away until the point of exhaustion. It encourages our friends to abandon us out of shame, and those we love to spurn us, causing further ‘anguish’ which wastes us away. Death provides an ‘asylum’ from all of these troubles.
Can then the wounded wretch, who must deplore
What most she loved, to thy cold arms consign’d,
Who hears the voice that soothed her soul no more,
Fear thee, O Death! – Or hug the chains that bind
To joyless, cheerless life, her sick, reluctant mind?
In this stanza of ‘Ode to Death’, Charlotte Smith touches upon her own personal tragedy: the death of her daughter (‘What most she loved’). She doesn’t use the lyric ‘I’ here, but instead distances herself slightly from the tragedy, to make it universal. She tells us how she no longer ‘hears the voice that soothed her soul’, the voice of her own daughter; how can she then fear Death, after she has lost what she held most dear?
How can she welcome or embrace the ‘chains’ which bind her to life, since life is without happiness now? Smith’s rhyming of ‘bind’ with ‘mind’ summons Blake’s ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ from ‘London’: the worst chains for those suffering from grief are the psychological ones which keep one tied to a wretched existence, which is barely ‘living’ at all.
Oh, Misery’s cure! who e’er in pale dismay
Has watch’d the angel form they could not save,
And seen their dearest blessing torn away,
May well the terrors of thy triumph brave,
Nor pause in fearful dread before the opening grave!
Smith concludes ‘Ode to Death’ by calling death a cure for ‘Misery’ (again, this emotion is personified) and referring indirectly to her daughter’s untimely death again (‘the angel form they could not save’: Smith, too, was unable to save her child from dying young). It’s easy to brave triumphant death, however terrifying it may seem in its finality, if one has reached the bottom of despair.
Note how each of the rhymes in this closing stanza are linked through their shared assonance: that long, open ‘a’ sound: dismay, save, away, brave, grave. This reinforces the idea of being released from those mind-forged chains that bind one to a life of misery, as does the triple-rhyming of save and brave – both verbs with positive connotations pertaining to salvation and courage – with grave, reinforcing the notion that embracing the ‘grave’ as a release from suffering is a courageous act.
‘Ode to Death’ is written predominantly in iambic pentameter, whose similarities with the rhythms of everyday English speech make it ideal for a meditative poem which reveals the thoughts and feelings of the poet. Take the second line of the first stanza (we’ll return to the first line in a moment):
Of blank Despair, whence tears have ceased to flow,
This can be scanned as follows, so its regular iambic metre is apparent (an iamb is a foot comprising two syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed):
Of BLANK de-SPAIR, whence TEARS have CEASED to FLOW
However, the very first line of ‘Ode to Death’ is slightly different:
FRIEND of the WRETCH-ed! WHERE-fore SHOULD the EYE
If we ignore the first foot (i.e. the first two syllables, ‘FRIEND of’), we can see that the rhythm is the same as the second line: iambic. But that first foot is reversed: rather than being iambic (e.g. ‘Of BLANK’), it’s the opposite, with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed (‘FRIEND of’). This is an example of a trochee, which is the reverse of an iamb. The effect of this, right at the start of Smith’s poem, is to grab our attention with a strong, forceful opening, while also underscoring the perhaps paradoxical or counter-intuitive idea that death might be a ‘friend’ to us.
What’s more, from the second stanza onwards, Smith adds an extra foot to the last line of each stanza, writing a line of iambic hexameter (six feet) rather than pentameter (five feet). This hexameter line is also known as an alexandrine.
The effect of this longer line is to conclude each stanza with a more conclusive final flourish, a kind of ‘and that’s that’ effect which reinforces the end of each stage of her ‘argument’. The rhyme scheme throughout also supports this: ababb, whereby the abab quatrain is extended to allow for a fifth and final line whose b rhyme complements and reinforces the previous two instances.
One final note on Romanticism, which is relevant to ‘Ode to Death’, given Smith’s status as a proto-Romantic figure in English literature (i.e. she was writing before the heyday of Romanticism, which really began the year after she published ‘Ode to Death’, with the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798).
Romanticism was characterised as a literary movement by a focus on personal human emotion and individual experience, rather than objective and ‘rational’ argument. If we compare a poem by an earlier eighteenth-century poet, like Alexander Pope or Samuel Johnson, with Smith’s poem, we can see how the discursive and didactic style of those poets has shifted to a style that is more emotive and personal.
Finally, if you enjoyed Smith’s ‘Ode to Death’, you might also like her ‘Sonnet Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex’.