Ode to Duty: by William Wordsworth - Summary & Analysis

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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, m 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
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 Ode to Duty, was composed in 1805, and first published in 1807. The poet prefixed to it a Latin motto, which can be translated as, “No longer good by resolve, but so educated by habit that not only can I do right, but that I cannot do otherwise than right.”

      The Ode to Duty is a noble poem in which the poet gives the nature and function of Duty. He calls Duty the “stern Daughter of the Voice of God.” It is a light to guide men in the path of life, a correcting rod to chastise those who go astray. It lays down laws for our conduct and saves us from the grasp of the delusive temptations of the world and puts
an end to the painful and moral conflicts which harass our infirm nature. The poet, though he has not followed rigidly the dictates of Duty in the past, now resolves to follow implicitly the commands of Duty. This desire is not the outcome of any feeling of remorse, but of a longing for a state of tranquility that knows no change. The poet is tired of the unwarranted species of freedom and wearied with the burden of random impulses. He feels that Duty, though severe, is yet kindly and gracious in its aspect and is, like the natural law, an emanation of divine power:

Flowers I aught 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.

      The poet finally commands himself to the guidance of Duty, expressing his desire to live for evermore as her enlightened bondman.

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:


      Duty is the law of God as opposed to the private law of the individual. It is another name for conscience which is the voice of God. So it is a moral power inspiring men to good acts and restraining them from evil deeds. It enables them to overcome the worldly temptations and puts an end all the mental struggles going on in the heart of man whether to follow the easy pleasant paths or the difficult harsh courses. Duty gives the decision and puts an end to this dilemma by making us always take to the virtuous path.

      There are some happy souls who follow duty merely from a natural impulse towards what is right. Such people follow pleasure and at the same time perform Duty unconsciously and without any stain on their character. If, however through a mistaken reliance upon their instincts, they meet with failure; may Duty strengthen their hearts.

      Blessed is the state of those who can completely rely upon love and joy to guide them. And happy too are they who make such reliance the rule of their life, but supplement it by the support of Duty.

      The poet says that he himself, though inexperience and too much self-confidence, has often disobeyed the commands of Duty, but he has never been thrown from the path of virtue by the gust of impulse. He is now resolved to follow the dictates of Duty rigidly.

      The poet seeks the help of Duty as he is tired of exercising his freedom of choice. At moments impulses get the better of him and his hopes fly from object to object. Duty would make him stick to one unchangeable law, thus giving him peace of mind.

      Though stern in her commands, Duty is kindly and graceful in her appearance. The whole of Nature, the budding flowers and the shining stars obey the law of duty, thus fulfilling the purpose of creation. Everything is governed by a law. The altars and heavens exist because of the law of gravity and derive strength through obedience to law.

      The poet puts himself under the guidance of Duty. This will make him humbler and wiser and will teach him self-abnegation and recognition of a moral law, i.e., the clear perception of what is right.


Excellence and Merit of the Ode to Duty

      The chief excellence of the poem Ode to Duty, in its moral bearing, consists of the absolute spontaneity of its ‘good confession’ that duty is the one thing that gives dignity to life. The poet does not speak of excess into which human nature falls when apart from such a guide but of ‘omissions’.

The task imposed, I deferred from day to day

      It is in the ‘quietness of thought’ that he repudiates the ‘unchartered freedom’ which tries, and demands instead the liberating yoke of that subjection which is at once victory and law. He looks around him, and from every side, the same lesson is borne in upon him. It is because they obey law that the flowers return in their seasons and the stars revolve in their courses; the law of Nature is to inanimate things what Duty is to man. The peasant who had only half learned his lesson in science might imagine that the law of gravitation was but a burden that binds man to earth. The philosopher knows that amid the boundless fields of the creation it is that which gives to everything its proper place, its motion and its rest.

      The poet has beautifully blended together in the Ode the sublimity of thought, the grandeur of morality, and the excellence of poetry. Art and morality are so finely wedded together that we do not laugh at the philosophy embodied by the poet m the poem. The poet gives a beautiful and artistic expression of the lofty conception of Duty’s origin and conception with a beautiful emphasis upon the gracefulness and grandeur of a moral life.

Lofty not only in thought but also in Style

      The Ode to Duty shows the poet’s splendor of imagination in his transforming Duty into a goddess with a noble expression on her face and a smile on her lips. The main characteristics of the poem are sublimity, dignity and a high moral tone blended with rare thought, feeling, and imagination. It has also a lyric vein, because it is a confession of the poet’s weak heart and promise to correct himself.

Thought of the Ode to Duty

      The poem Ode to Duty, affirms the eternal conflict between the lower and the higher instincts in man. Some men follow the path of Duty, instinctively and without effort. But most of us are not so fortunate. We have to check ourselves at the very outset of a path that leads astray. It is never safe to depend upon merely the approbation of one’s conscience, or upon the self-satisfaction that follows the accomplishment of an action. We must submit to a voluntary bondage to Duty in all her power and beauty, in order that we may be truly free. Then alone will it be true to say:

Me this unchartered freedom tries
I feel the weight of chance derives

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