To Anne Killigrew: Summary and Analysis

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      The poem begins with an address to Mrs. Anne Killigrew, saying that she is the "youngest virgin-daughter of the skies/Made in the last promotion of the best." Dryden wonders precisely which part of heaven she inhabits. The poem is obviously not about a particular person but rather about a person who stands for all great poetesses. Before her death, Anne's sons on the earth were a prelude to her heavenly music.

      In the second stanza, Dryden speculates on how Anne Killigrew become so lovely a poetess. She might have been influenced by her father's poetry. On the other hand, she might be an incarnation of the Greek poetess, Sappho. But her soul is too pure to go through any more incarnations. When she has listened to Dryden’s poem, she must return to the choir of divine singers.

      The third stanza describes heaven celebrating the birth of Anne Killigrew. Heaven and earth rejoiced in her beauty and sang at her birth. People even heard the music of the spheres.

      In the fourth stanza, Dryden moves from the description of Anne's birth to a depiction of the low state of contemporary poetry. Dryden is sad and ashamed at the low, bawdy, obscene literature of the day. He calls this decline of poetry second "fall" of man and asks if Anne Killigrew's death can atone for it.

      Stanza five enlarges upon the beauty and natural grace of Anne Killigrew's poetry, which is artless and yet vigorous and naturally charming. The gift was innate, and not imitative. Even Diogenes' lamp, says Dryden, cannot discover any flaw in her poetry. Warm love, and not sensual passion, was expressed in Anne's poetry.

      In stanza six and stanza seven, Dryden explains how Anne was not satisfied with mastery in one field alone, i.e., poetry, but turned to painting as well. She showed her excellence in painting, too. She, was particularly good at rendering people and pastoral scenes. Sometimes her paintings were more lovely than she could imagine them to be. Two of Anne's paintings are praised. Her portrait of James II was executed so well that the inner nature - "the image of his heart" - was reflected in the painting of the "outward part." The portrait of Queen Mary had been painted in all the beauty and splendor of her coronation.

      In stanza eight, Dryden mourns the tragic fate of Anne, who had not only died but had died after being ravaged by smallpox. The disease had deprived Anne of her beauty before robbing her of her life. Her fate is compared to that of ‘'Orinda", another poetess who had died of smallpox.

      In stanza nine, Dryden speculates on the sorrow of Anne's brother, Henry, a navel attache. He was at sea and would hear the news of Anne's death later. He would never be able to embrace his sister again. Though he has not experienced shipwreck at sea his sister's death has certainly caused a disaster at home. But, says Dryden, if Henry saw a new-kindled star among the Pleiades, he will know that it is none else but his sister, Anne. In the last stanza, Dryden assures everyone that Anne Killigrew will be among the first to show the way to heaven when Judgement Day arrives. On that day; the graves will open and the bodies of the poets will come out. After Judgement, they will shoot up to the skies with Anne showing them the way.



      Ode to the Memory of Anne Killigrew is the best of the elegies written by John Dryden. Anne Killigrew was the daughter of a clergyman. She became the Maid of Honour to the duchess of York. She was well versed in the arts of poetry and painting though not to the extent to which Dryden's ode testifies. She died at a young age, in 1685, of smallpox. Dryden celebrates the art of poetry itself through praising Anne's poetry.

Structure of the Poem

      The ode is clearly divided into parts. The first stanza gives us the theme and an address to the dead. The next two stanzas are in praise of the dead. The poet speculates about the dead Anne's present place in heaven and on how she could have become such a lovely poetess. In stanza four, we have the lament for contemporary poetry. It contrasts vividly with the preceding stanza which presents loveliness. The fifth, sixth and seventh stanzas enumerate and describe Anne's achievements in the spheres of poetry and painting. In the eighth stanza, the poet speaks of the unavoidable fate or destiny. The ode closes with the stanza of consolation, that Anne will show the way to heaven to all the "sacred poets" rising from their graves on Judgement Day.

Perfect Development of Theme within Structure

      Dryden has skillfully developed the theme within the structure of the poem. It is an elegy on a poetess, and pre-supposes the happy fate of the deceased. The theme of the poem are poetry, heaven and earth. The first stanza gives the three themes - Anne Killigrew is even now singing in some heavenly region, and her earthly songs served as a prelude and probation for the heavenly music. In the second stanza, the emphasis is on earth and Anne's ancestry in poetry. By immediate heredity, she comes from a poetical father, and by reincarnation from Sappho. The stanza ends with heaven. Anne's soul is too pure for her to suffer any further incarnations. She must return to her heavenly abode as soon as she has listened to the poem now written for her. The third stanza again contains all three themes, but emphasizes on heaven, which celebrated her birth with joy. This pure enjoyment suggests the contrary in stanza four, i.e., the general impurity of contemporary poetry. The pessimistic, satirical, and urgent tone contrasts finely with the serene static tone of the first three stanzas, as Tillyard remarks. The stanza comes to rest on the thought that Anne is not only an exception to this degeneracy but could be an atonement. Thus the body of the ode is introduced - stanzas five to eight deal with Anne's attainments on earth.

      Heaven is now in the background, while we hear of Anne's art and her early death. Death leads to mourning, and in stanza nine, the poet speculates on her brother's sorrow when he learns the news. Her brother is at sea and has no news. But if he scans the stars like a sailor, he might notice a bright new member of the Pleiades - the star which is his sister's soul. The mention of stars once again connects with the theme of heaven. It leads to the last stanza, where poetry, heaven, and earth are brought together in the description of the opening graves and the Last Judgement. Anne Killigrew would lead the poets, the first souls to join their resurrected bodies, to their heavenly mansion. The poem's evolution is perfect, as Tillyard observes.

Form of the Poem: An Elegy as well as an Ode

      Dryden has combined the form of the elegy and the ode. He has fused the Greek and Latin elegy with the tradition of Donne, all within the form of the Pindaric ode. The main part is supplied by the classical lament, while Donne taught him the philosophical meditation on the fate of man. Dryden ignores the convention of pastoral allegory, as it would have been unsuitable to the tastes of the times, as well as uncongenial to the form of a Pindaric ode.

      The poem clearly has the classical parts of an elegy. It has the statement of the theme with an address to the dead, praise of the deceased, a lament on the contemporary situation, the admission that fate is unavoidable, the grief of the mourners, and the final consolation.

      Dryden also makes use of the formal conventions and requirements of the Pindaric ode. The stanzas are of different lengths and composed in rhyming verse. The Pindaric ode was a poem celebrating some great idea, as Ruth Wallerstein observes. Dryden imitated the structural parts of the ode with the amazing neatness of that form. The elegiac praise of the dead is transformed into the praise of the victor which is part of the ode convention. "The lament for the times opens out in Stanzas V, VI, VII into the celebration of the idea - in this poem a critical definition of the new principles of painting of which Mrs. Killigrew was one of the first practitioners."

Style: Language and Imagery

      The greatness of the poem arises from Dryden's apt choice of words and phrases and images. Several critics have declared that the poem expresses ideas more poetically than the Cecilian odes. The first stanza has been praised by many critics. Loveliness and grim ugliness have been superbly contrasted through effective use of language. The beautiful body of the poetess and the natural beauty of excellent poetry brought out by the language contrasts with the slow and grim progress of small pox on Anne. The beauty and ugliness are not incompatible. The latter only sharpens the essence of the former. They work together effectively to illuminate the memory of Anne Killigrew.

      The imagery is chosen deliberately to express the ideas. What is noteworthy, is that imagery and idea are closely woven; neither overshadows the other. Phrases which carry overtones of the metaphysical conceit - such as 'probationer', 'candidate', 'inmate', etc - are not elaborated so much that the meaning is distorted. But they serve to give added embellishment to the idea.

      The traditional association between 'palms' and 'victory' is explored to achieve a decorous effect in the lines,

Whose palms, new pluck'd from paradise,
In spreading branches more sublimely rise
Rich with immortal green above the rest:

      The image which follows, with its reference to Anne’s 'star', is again restrained. It anticipates the star imagery in the ninth stanza. In stanza nine, as Hamilton observes, Dryden creates "a fine personal anecdote moving into myth by a simple, moving and charming description of Anne's brother at sea not knowing of his sister's death and seeing a new star appear amid the Pleiades." Dryden is not quite so successful with the political imagery in the sixth stanza. Here the imagery is elaborate but does not embellish the statement. Apparently, Dryden fails when he attempts to provide "articulated structure through the sustained development of the image itself".

The Sixth Stanza: A False Note in the Beauty of the Poem

      The music and modulation of the ode has been praised by several critics, though some feel that it is not consistently excellent. In general, however, there is a sustained tone of Solomon's rapture. One cannot, of course, say that the poem has no lapses. The political metaphor in the sixth stanza is one such lapse. Nor can one accept the last line of stanza seven, "What next" she had designed, Heaven only knows". The modern reader, in fact, detects a note of absurdity in the line which might not have seemed so to the seventeenth-century reader.


      Dryden's ode to Anne Killigrew is one of his greatest works, in spite of its lapses. The simplicity of theme is balanced by the superb evolution. There is an exposition on the state of poetry, in combination with the inherent classicism of Dryden. Language and imagery are both restrained and evocative. As Tillyard remarks, "what astonishes and delights is the wealth of imaginative invention and the glory of the verbal music. Here, if anywhere, Arnold's attribution of the prosaic to Augustan verse is refuted, while the rapture into which his contemporaries fell over one kind of musical verse are perfectly appropriate to the excellence if not to the kind of Dryden's." The opinion is apt and justified. The ode holds a high place. significantly, Dr. Johnson considered it to be "the noblest ode that our language (English) has ever produced." Saintsbury finds it a "remarkable elegy", while A.D. Hope thinks the poem to be the most astonishing feat of modulation in the whole of English Poetry.

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