In Which I Fail to Get Started on Reading Wordsworth’s Poem, ‘Ode to Duty’

Front Garden, having benefited from extra attention during lockdown, 3 September 2020

I haven’t posted here for a long time as life took over in the run-up to The Reader opening Calderstones Mansion this time last year. But this morning there was time and mental space, so here I am. But as one of the world’s slowest readers, as you’ll see, I didn’t get very far!

Thanks and apologies to people who posted responses I didn’t look at – I seemed to have simply turned away from this place and completely forgotten to ever look back. I’d forgotten how to log in. But hope I have approved those comments -thanks for responding. It’s good to hear a voice at the other end!

But about Ode to Duty….

In my early relationship with Wordsworth ‘Ode to Duty’ was a poem I chose to ignore. I would skip past it because, well, duty. ‘Duty’. Pah.

I was born in 1955, when, following the massive amount of duty done in 1939-45 war, the  idea of ‘something being due[1]’ was beginning to go out of fashion. By the time I was ten, the concept was almost entirely gone from the minds of children who had grown up in the war: it was the 60’s! My parents certainly didn’t instil any sense of duty in me, except maybe duty to self –  I learned that adults did what pleased them. And by the time I was an adult myself, let’s say by 1975, when I was 20, and punk was emerging, ‘duty’ was a dirty word, and I was a self-pleasing adult.

So, as I began to read Wordsworth, from my mid-twenties on, I’d see this poem and ignore it. I think I read it in a class, with my Adult Ed students as part of ‘a get into poetry’ course, twenty, perhaps thirty years ago. And I read it when giving some kind of talk somewhere in Scotland, about the thing we at The Reader now call Shared Reading. At that point I had come round to the idea of ‘duty’. I’d be at least 40, maybe 50 by then and experience had changed my thinking. But I remember some vocal people in the audience really not liking it, not even being able to imagine what ‘duty’ might be or why humans might benefit from it. So certain we are self-determining and so much like me in the 1970s.

I don’t recall if I have read ‘Ode to Duty’ since that occasion.

Lately, the poem, a faded presence in the shadows at the back of my mind, has been stirring.  The phrase – ‘stern daughter of the voice of god,’ rises unbidden and pretty much unwelcomed into consciousness as I am tussling with myself about doing things I don’t want to do. This fight-with-self has grown large during the Covid experience, perhaps because external demands have shrunk.  The external demand of turning up at place of work and doing and being seen to do what is required of you has gone. Now there is only me to witness how much I give to my tasks, whether I’ve prepared for work, or tidied my room. I look at myself as if I were looking at someone else and see this woman needs to internalise externals, she needs habit-bones, she requires requirements. But lockdown and now not-quite-lockdown have left this jelly-like, unboned, unhabituated Jane facing her day without structure. She needs a sense of duty – something that feels external, something like habit.  That, my poetry-reciting unconscious seems to be telling me, might be duty.

This morning, as I was doing what has become the daily exercise of inner-arm-wrestling-with-self, I heard the voice offering me the line ‘stern daughter of the voice of God’ and decided to listen to it, and read the poem again. Looking it up on The Poetry Foundation website and was surprised by the epigraph, which I didn’t remember from previous readings.

Jam non consilio bonus, sed more eo perductus, ut non tantum recte facere possim, sed nisi recte facere non possim”

“I am no longer good through deliberate intent, but by long habit have reached a point where I am not only able to do right, but am unable to do anything but what is right.”
(Seneca, Letters 120.10)

I’ve never read Seneca’s Letters but I know he is famous for Stoicism  – the school of  philosophy which advocates the cultivation of inner strength in order to build acceptance of the vagaries of fortune[2] –  so I was almost alarmed by this assertion, which didn’t look stoical at all, rather unbelievably self-satisfied. How would you know?  Choices are often not right or wrong but perhaps better or worse, to a greater or lesser extent cognizant of the variousness of things, more or less intelligent. So I tell myself – you can’t judge Seneca, nor Wordsworth’s use of his words, from this quotation. What’s the context? I need to read that letter and see the whole of it. You’ll find it here

Having read that, I’m now thinking that Seneca wasn’t talking about himself as it initially seems in the epigraph, but about a human model (I don’t know why it is translated as ‘I’, because the two translations I’ve looked at[3] both have it in the third person), a model for any of us to follow:

Besides, he has always been the same, consistent in all his actions, not only sound in his judgment but trained by habit to such an extent that he not only can act rightly, but cannot help acting rightly. We have formed the conception that in such a man perfect virtue exists.

I’m reading the letter quickly, but  as I rush through I notice this, which stops me:

that perfect man, who has attained virtue, never cursed his luck, and never received the results of chance with dejection; he believed that he was citizen and soldier of the universe, accepting his tasks as if they were his orders. Whatever happened, he did not spurn it, as if it were evil and borne in upon him by hazard; he accepted it as if it were assigned to be his duty. “Whatever this may be,” he says, “it is my lot; it is rough and it is hard, but I must work diligently at the task.”

I love the idea of being a citizen and soldier of the universe! It takes me reeling back to Doris Lessing’s Canopus books, which first set me off on this long trail of my life at The Reader – it was from reading Shikasta that I began to understand and believe in the idea of ‘purpose’, which like, duty, was very out of fashion as a concept in my youth.  I’m remembering a sentence from Shikasta which hit me when I first read it – haven’t the book to hand, so this is from rough memory: someone is looking at post-war generations and seeing how self-obsessed they are – ‘that something was due, and from them…(then something like, not a thought they could have…’ Need to go look it up.)

 As I  turn back to Seneca, I’m also struck by the idea of the belief in ‘hazard’ (by which I assume he means chance – see etymological dictionary – game of dice ) being destructive to one’s state of mind. If bad luck, unhappy events are merely hazard you are stuck with meaninglessness and undermined not simply by the bad event itself but also by the purposelessness of that chance. If the bad stuff we suffer is not seen as meaningless chance, but rather as a given task – ‘assigned to be his duty’, ‘my lot…the task’ what you get is a sense of a higher power – the one who assigns the orders, the duty. You don’t have to make this ‘god’, I tell myself, you can have the universe itself, the flow of life, as the assigner.  Just get on with the job, Jane.


[1] See Shikasta  by Doris Lessing

[2] This is my own definition, made up on the spot. You can find a better definition here.

[3] https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Moral_letters_to_Lucilius/Letter_120 https://archive.org/stream/Seneca/Seneca_djvu.txt

3 thoughts on “In Which I Fail to Get Started on Reading Wordsworth’s Poem, ‘Ode to Duty’

  1. J September 5, 2020 / 3:45 pm

    Nice to see a new post.

  2. Elaine Bentley September 6, 2020 / 1:33 pm

    So glad that you are back and giving us your wisdom on poetry that we may have overlooked. I am missing seeing our library group ‘Feel Better with a Book at Tavistock library, but we have tried to keep going by sending poems out by e-mail. Its not the same as human contact.

    • drjanedavis September 7, 2020 / 8:46 am

      Such a shame we can’t meet in real life at the moment, Elaine. Everyone is missing that contact. I was hearing from some of the Leicester Shared Reading groups that they have good sessions over the phone -free- through WhyPay. Don’t know if something like that would work for your group? And there is always The Reader stuff online, Facebook Live and so on… but agree – it is still not the same!

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