Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview

Duty

The theme of duty arises mainly in connection with war: the duty of the soldier, the sailor, or the airman to his country and his superiors who issue his orders. That dying in the line of duty is an honorable death is an ancient assumption sometimes upheld, sometimes challenged, by the poets. Duty in the more general sense of living thoughtfully and selflessly is the subject of William Wordsworth's “Ode to Duty” (1804), a somewhat uncharacteristic poem that Wordsworth said was modeled on Thomas Gray's “Ode to Adversity” (1742), which in turn had been a translation of the Roman poet Horace's “Ode to Fortune.” The poem is prefaced by a Latin quotation from the Roman writer Seneca, who said that he acted morally because he had been trained to do so, not because of conscious intent. Wordsworth addresses Duty as the “Daughter of the Voice of God,” and the poem examines the relationship between the poet and his sense of duty, which he likens to conscience in calling it “a light to guide.” Wordsworth maintains Duty as a general concept throughout the poem; he does not identify the object of duty as being one's family or country, but he echoes Milton in seeing the object as fulfilling the will of God, which in youth we often choose to ignore. Duty is the imposing of restrictions on the sometimes selfish freedom of youth, and he describes his own desire to curb “this unchartered freedom” in favor of the greater benefits of being guided by Duty. The poem ends with a plea for humility: “Give unto me, made lowly wise [a phrase from Milton],/The spirit of self-sacrifice.” Recalling the biblical statement that the truth shall make you free, Wordsworth sees the passage from youth to maturity as an acceptance that the “Bondman,” Duty, shall “in the light of truth” paradoxically give us greater freedom than we think we have when we rely only “upon the genial sense of youth.”

In “Quiet Work” (1849), the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold also con-

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Thematic Guide to British Poetry
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction vii
  • Anthologies of British Poetry and Abbreviations Used xi
  • Active and Contemplative Lives 1
  • Art, Imagination, and Inspiration 15
  • Beauty 31
  • Carpe Diem 43
  • Christmas Poems 47
  • Death 53
  • Death of the Young 65
  • Duty 77
  • Fame and Ambition 81
  • Family Relations 85
  • Freedom and Captivity 89
  • The Golden Mean 93
  • Immortality 97
  • Industrialism and the City 105
  • Innocence and Experience 111
  • Love 119
  • Marriage 141
  • Music 153
  • Nature and Country Life 159
  • Old Age 187
  • Patriotism 193
  • Politics and Human Rights 197
  • Pride and Vanity 205
  • Rebellion and Conformity 215
  • Regret, Consolation, and Melancholy 221
  • Religion 229
  • Sleep 243
  • Time and Change 251
  • War 257
  • Biographical Sketches 269
  • Further Reading 293
  • Index 295
  • About the Author 305
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