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As far as rhyming scheme is concerned, Ode to the Medieval poets is written in

Alcaic stanza which a Greek lyrical meter and together with Sapphic stanza is one of
the two important forms of Classic poetry. It was also used by Horatio in his Odes
and this there it was present in English in translations from Renaissance and
famously used by Alfred Tennyson in his Ode Milton commemorating the
eponymous 18
th
century poet, author of epic poem Paradise Lost. W.H. Auden in
his praise for Medieval also uses the stanza. Originally the stanza is not rhymed and
consists of a regular number of syllables 11, 11, 9, 10 and a mixture of dactylic and
trochaic feet with caesura between 5
th
and 6
th
syllable in two first lines of each
quatrain. Auden breaks that pattern, although, he conforms to the tendency in a
several ways. He uses caesura but it is not in a regular and fixed position. The
number of syllables changes and it is so in every stanza. The reasons for that are
twofold. First, it may seem an imitation of the stanza, as if Auden was not able to
write it properly which would prove his final statement in the ode saying that the
medieval poets would have wrought them so much better. The use of word
wrought is quite significant. The somewhat old fashioned word which refers to the
creative act of medieval poets, implies shaping, moulding. Therefore, it may point to
the form, the shape of the poem which is imperfect here. Second, he makes some of
the lines longer (never shorter) in order to strengthen some of the words, thus,
adding to the meaning, significance and power of some words. Similarly, Auden also
uses trochee and dactylic feet, like in the traditional Alcaic stanza, with occasional
spondaic, pyrrhic and iambic substitutions which serve to emphasize some words.
Speaking of the genre, Ode to the Medieval Poets is an ode, of course. It is
addressed to Medieval Poets, as the title suggest. Some of them are enlisted in the
first line. Untypically for the ode, it is not rhymed. This may add to the feeling of
imperfection of the form, but, it may also stand as a deliberately awkward attempt to
imitate the alliterative style of Anglo Saxon poetry but using modern language. Some
suggest it is the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien who was Audens lecturer in Anglo Saxon
poetry at Oxford and it is then that Audens interest in medieval poetry began This
interest is also is visible in his The Age of Anxiety in which he describes people of
the modern society trying to comprehend the world around them. This interest and
the fact that Auden read the medieval poetry is resembled in the lines of the ode
Without it heartless/ engines, though, you could not tenant my book shelves/on
hand to delect my ear and chuckle/ my sad flesh. There is another link with The
Age of Anxiety. He in the ode voices the common displeasure with the
contemporary world We all ask, but I doubt if anyone/ can really say why all age-
groups should find our/Age quite so repulsive So, the medieval poetry seems the
best form of escapism for the speaker. So much better than writing, in fact. But if
Auden, not the speaker of the poem, writes the ode, then his writing is also a form of
escaping from the Age of Anxiety.
The dominating device in the ode seems to be enjambment. It appears in every line.
This gives the ode the appearance of being imperfect in form, slightly disjointed. It
also allows the poet to give prominence to the words appearing at the beginning of
the next line which are thus followed by a pause.
The poem starts with enlisting the names of some medieval poets. Geoffrey Chaucer
(14
th
century) is the famous writer of Canterbury Tales, satire on the then society,
known as the father of English literature. William Langland (14
th
century) is the
author of Piers Ploughman, the dream vision about the search for good Christina life.
Gawain Douglas (15
th
/ 16
th
century) is the first translator of Aeneid into English.
William Dunbar was 15
th
century Scottish writer of courtly and comic poetry. Chaucer
and Langland are also famous for their use vernacular, English language instead of
more popular Latin or French. The second line starts with words brothers Anons
which pertains to other writers of the Middle Ages which were anonymous like the
authors of the Pearl Poem and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for instance. The
word brother suggest that the speaker sees them as an unified group. The second
line is then lengthened to express the speakers surprise. In fact, the whole first
sentences which occupies 7 lines is a question addressed to the poets. The speaker
asks how the poets managed to be cheerful in their poetry, that they did not
complain, grimace. Self-pathos expresses the feeling of pity and compassion
towards themselves which the poets avoided successfully. Here the speaker also
expresses his admiration and the opinion that such wallowing is self-feeling would
not be good for poetry. This may be dedicated by Audens preference not to speak in
his own voice in poetry.
The speakers surprise is at the poets achievement is the greater as he enumerates
problems and obstacles, not present today, they had to overcome in order to write
poetry without grimaces. In the third line the speaker expresses some comforts that
modern man possess which ease their live like plumbing, or their pains like
anaesthetics, which were not at the poets disposal and would be completely
unknown then. Here, the speaker also establishes himself as a man of modern
times, using modern words. This is contrasted with all that might have caused fright
in the poets, dangers and the supernatural forces. Plosives and iambic substitution in
words In daily peril strengthen the feeling of toil. The next line enumerates more
tangible dangers from wars and sickness. Line 6 starts with very strongly
accentuated beat after the pause at the end of line 5. The word burning is given
prominence. It can point to burning rage of the attacker or men of war but also to
wartime destruction. After this there is pyrrhic another strong word came which
expresses the violence of the onslaught. Whats more the alliterating burning and
mercenaries render the frightfulness of the situation. Cheerfully which stand at the
end of the line is in the relation of opposition to burning which has the same number
of syllables. This expresses the contrast between the world of the poets and what
they wrote.
The next sentence continues from line 8 until line 14. Here the speaker refutes any
accusation one can have against the medieval poets and goes on to discredit the
contemporary ones. He or she says their writing may seem long but is does not
show any lack of taste, they are not common in style. Here the speaker also tells
truth about the ode since it is quite long an uses very wordy, long sentences with
some of the words which may seem simple and everyday use. Some of the
sentences may seem ordinary, to be used every day how on earth did you ever
manage, we all ask, but I doubt if anyone can really say why all age-groups should
find our/Age quite so repulsive. In line 9 there continues the description of poets
style. The speaker says the poets could write about their humorous writing being
bawdy so balancing on the verge of indelicacy and indecency but not grubby
which means immoral and explicitly indecent. The same consonant used in grubby
and bawdy and in the pair long-winded and vulgar shows the speaker balancing
between the two just like the poets did. Raucous flytings refer to the contest of
insults which was noisy and involved accusing the opponent of cowardice or a
perversion often it was conducted in verse. This is why flytings and bawdy
alliterate.
After caesura in line 10 the speaker describes our makers which he or she does
not call poets. They are makers, as if they just produced poetry. They are deemed by
the speaker much lower than the medieval poets. He or she ironically says they are
beset by every creature comfort which is in contrast to the perils that were
besetting the medieval poets. Words beset and immune are an iambic
substitution which give certain stress to them. Word immune may refer either to the
fact that the poets are immune to the comforts, they do no longer feel any pleasure.
It may also refer to the fact that they are immune to all superstitions which may
suggest that they face no real risks or threats which medieval poets faced. Yet, they
believe, so they feel some fright, anxiety towards something which they know is
superstition. It may refer to the anxiety of the modern or post-modern society. First
half-line in Line 12 is characterised by change in meter into iambic which sets it off
from the rest. The makers are morose, so very gloomy even when they are at their
best. The end of line 13 and line 14 are like a stream of invectives. Very offensive
word kinky opens line 14. Then the speaker calls them petrified, so deprived of
every feeling, turned into stone by their egos which are compared to the mythic
creatures Gorgons which had power to turn men into stone with her eyes. The
consonance in words gorgon egos , the fact that they are followed by a pyrrhic
substitution in meter and that they are the last word in the second sentence renders
them very strong. Gorgon may also mean ugly or repulsive. In fact the second
word is used by the speaker in reference to the makers later on. Also speaking of
them in third person separates them from the speaker and the medieval poets he or
she looks up to. This part of the ode seems like flyting with the makers being the
opponent.
Line 15 starts with strongly accentuated words. The speaker identifies here with
other people contemporary to him or her. The lyrical I says that all of his or her
contemporaries think of their age as repulsive but do not know why it is so. They do
not know the reason for that. Voicing this common opinion the speaker uses plain,
common words. There is a pause before Age since line 16 is unusually long. It
renders a certain distance and the feeling of disdain towards the period. It is
capitalised, it describes a historical period but this period is despised in comparison
to the Middle Ages.
The last sentence continues from line 17 to line 24. In these lines the speaker finally
speaks in first person singular, voicing his admiration to the skill of medieval poets
and his or her own reasons for reading their poetry. The speaker says it is for
heartless engines of the age that on his or her shelves there is medieval poetry. So
it is the world of machines, world without feeling that he or she seeks the escape
from. The lyrical I praises the medieval poetrys meter, which is not so perfect in the
ode. He or she uses the very rare word delect to express that the poetry is pleasant
to listen to. It has also the ability to make the speaker laugh chuckle my flesh it
cheers him or her up.
Lines 21 and 22 are marked treat of the speakers inclination and readiness towards
writing his own poetry. This is resembled in the regularity in metre and in the number
of syllables. The lines are also characterised by many alliterations.
The speaker is being very humble here, even, self-humiliating. When he speaks
about his desire to write poetry he uses words turning out which describe the out of
mechanical production which stands in contrast to the poets being able to wrought
poetry which implies an artistic art of creation. He or she says that the topic of the
writing would be thundery jovial June which may refer to the Middle Ages, period
which was turbulent, as it was stated before, but the poetry was good-humoured.
Judas-tree in blossom alliterating with June may suggest that such a poetry
written by the speaker would be, nevertheless an act of treason to the medieval
masters which are yet again, like at the beginning of the ode addressed. The ode
ends with spondaic foot which highlights the fact that the medieval poets were better
skilled than the speaker.