The New Year, a Muse in Overalls, and William Wordsworth’s “Ode to Duty”

Ode to Duty

by William Wordsworth

“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)

Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!

O Duty! if that name thou love

Who art a light to guide, a rod

To check the erring, and reprove;

Thou, who art victory and law

When empty terrors overawe;

From vain temptations dost set free;

And calm’st the weary strife of frail humanity!

There are who ask not if thine eye

Be on them; who, in love and truth,

Where no misgiving is, rely

Upon the genial sense of youth:

Glad Hearts! without reproach or blot;

Who do thy work, and know it not:

Oh! if through confidence misplaced

They fail, thy saving arms, dread Power! around them cast.

Serene will be our days and bright,

And happy will our nature be,

When love is an unerring light,

And joy its own security.

And they a blissful course may hold

Even now, who, not unwisely bold,

Live in the spirit of this creed;

Yet seek thy firm support, according to their need.

I, loving freedom, and untried;

No sport of every random gust,

Yet being to myself a guide,

Too blindly have reposed my trust:

And oft, when in my heart was heard

Thy timely mandate, I deferred

The task, in smoother walks to stray;

But thee I now would serve more strictly, if I may.

Through no disturbance of my soul,

Or strong compunction in me wrought,

I supplicate for thy control;

But in the quietness of thought:

Me this unchartered freedom tires;

I feel the weight of chance-desires:

My hopes no more must change their name,

I long for a repose that ever is the same.

Stern Lawgiver! yet thou dost wear

The Godhead’s most benignant grace;

Nor know we anything so fair

As is the smile upon thy face:

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.

To humbler functions, awful Power!

I call thee: I myself commend

Unto thy guidance from this hour;

Oh, let my weakness have an end!

Give unto me, made lowly wise,

The spirit of self-sacrifice;

The confidence of reason give;

And in the light of truth thy Bondman let me live!

*****

The New Year, a Muse in Overalls, and William Wordsworth’s “Ode to Duty”

by Doug Jackson

Image by Doug Jackson
Image by Doug Jackson

Duty – not the sexiest word in the lexicon. Especially for a writer.

Sultrier synonyms shimmy across my consciousness when I ponder the writing process: creativity, genius, imagination, and that Mae West of writer-words, inspiration. Each of these voluptuous nouns virtually bursts from the tight-laced corset of its dictionary definition and croons to me of unimagined pleasures. Duty, by comparison, stands by in sensible shoes, horn-rimmed spectacles well down on the nose, and orders me in clipped, tweedy accents to “Get down to it.” Ogden Nash highlights the distinction – and our own reaction to it – in his knock-off of this piece, entitled, “Kind of an Ode to Duty,” which begins:

 

O Duty,

Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?

Why displayest thou the countenance of the kind of conscientious spinster

That the minute you see her you are aginster?

Not a cutie. No seductress. But it’s a getting-things-done kind of word, a blue jeans and work gloves word, the kind of word you want around when the day’s unwritten words stack up on your desk like dirty dishes heaped beside the kitchen sink.

Winnie the Pooh, A. A. Milne’s ursine philosopher, pondering an unfinished writing assignment, observes: “But it isn’t Easy. Because Poetry  and  Hums aren’t  things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

And duty is the going there – to the writing table, the workbench, the gym, the garden, the laundry room – and doing the things one can do as a way of training for the things one cannot. It’s like a modified version of the Serenity Prayer: “Lord, give me the serenity to await the things I cannot command, the courage to command myself to do the things I can, and the wisdom to know that the two are, in the end, experssions of the same process.”

And don’t feel bad if you frequently forsake an arranged marriage to this schoolmarm muse and pursue instead an infatuation with one of her more seductive sisters. Wordsworth admitted that his own resolutions often came to grief. “Many and many a time,” he grins, “have I been twitted by my wife and sister for having forgotten this dedication of myself to the stern lawgiver.” The good news is that Duty, like a relentless nanny, never gives up on us. We can always start over.

C. S. Lewis’ sums up this poem when he observes that:

A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people) like a crutch which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it is idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc.) can do the journey on their own.

And one day, when the Kingdom fully comes, we will take up our beds and walk. Even now, few exalted souls may stride powerfully into the Kingdom. Most of us, however, have to hobble for a while.

If this strikes anyone as legalism, I would point out that Duty is not a god, nor even the daughter of a god, but the daughter of God’s voice: If we listen to her for long enough, we will hear the Lord speak. So get to work! It is when Duty has your ear that Genius tends to grab you by the throat.

*****

Doug Jackson is a preacher/professor/poet who after a quarter-century in the pastorate now teaches spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for the Logsdon Seminary program at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. His collection of poetry, Nothing There is Not More from Finishing Line Press, will be published in February 2014 and is available for preorder now.

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