Thanksgiving ode, January 18, 1816


(The British Museum stamp shows in the page of the book)

The Bennett Special Collections in Simon Fraser University holds a copy of the 1816 first edition of Thanksgiving Ode, January 18, 1816, and other short pieces. The Signed Author is William Wordsworth and the place of the first publication was London. The publishers were Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and the printers were Thomas Davison and Whitefriars. The date of publication and first edition were both 1816 and it had only one volume. The format of the book is octavo. The book is collected in the William Wordsworth Collection under the call number PR 5858 A1 1816 and the genre of the book is poetry. The physical text is 50 pages, it has a four-page advertisement by the author, and measures 19.3 cm in length, 14.7cm in width. The binding and layout of the book are simple and clean. There is no illustration in the book, and I found an advertisement begins from III to ix, and it was written by the signed author William Wordsworth, in Rydal Mount, March 18, 1816.

(Right: The Ode housed by SFU Special Collections;

Left: Another Version)

Nevertheless, the composition date of the poems are not so clear as the advertisement’s, the history of the composition is worthy to noticing. Based on my research, I found that the book was composed in January 1816, but published three months later. In common condition, Wordsworth submitted his manuscripts for publication as soon as he completed them. (Cohen) The manuscript of the book was sent to the printer around 18 March 1816, the date of its predatory advertisement, for in a letter of April 9 to R.P. Gillies, Wordsworth speaks of having sent it “three weeks ago”. In the Harvard copy (which is also the copy that housed by SFU’s Bennett Special Collection), it contains a 4 page publisher’s advertisement dated March, 1816, possibly indicative of a publication date early in May. Then, in The Letter of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, it shows that the book finally appeared between May 3 and May 26. For more specific, on the Thanksgiving Day, Wordsworth wrote “Sonnet, Inscription for a National Monument in commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo”, “Sonnet, occusioned by the same Battle”, and another sonnet that collected on page 37, “O, for a kindling touch of that pure flame”, 3 sonnets in total. At first, Wordsworth planned to publication these three works in order to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon’s, in his letter to Scot (March 11, 1816), he wrote, “When I wrote the Sonnets inserted in the Champion I had no design of doing anything more.” However, later he changed his mind, “I threw off a sort of irregular Ode upon this subject… Out of this have sprung several smaller pieces.” For the first ode in the book, some scholars consider it was written on the date it shows in the poem, “the morning of the day appointed for a general Thanksgiving”, however, in Bernard Cohen’s essay, “there is convincing evidence that it was not written in January.” I found that Wordsworth supposed to compose the Thanksgiving Ode on 18th, January, 1816 when he talked to his brother and Robert Southey according to the letters. In another letter to Scott (25th February, 1816), Wordsworth indicated that he was working on the ode, “I am myself engaged with an attempt to express in Verse some feelings connected with these very subjects[Napoleon]”, so that the ode must not be finished in January. However, it seemed that the book did not enjoy a wide contemporary popularity, and it has not worn well. The statistics show that eight years after the publication of Thanksgiving Ode, a mere 164 copies out of 500 had found buyers. After ten years, in 1834, 220 copies continued to gather dust in its publisher’s warehouse. (Clair, Reed) The copy that I saw also reflected this because it seemed to be new and have no clear signs of marks and notes.

Place setting for Thanksgiving

The book is highly relevant with the tradition of Thanksgiving Day, especially the significance of Thanksgiving Day in 1816. From 1606 onwards, Samuel de Champlain followed the custom of First Nations harvest festivals and held feasts in the colony of New France attended by French settlers and local Mi’kmaq people. The celebrations of Thanksgiving sometimes moved around, the year 1816 was an example. English celebrated 18 January 1816 as a day of the end of the war between Britian and France, the celebration was held in spring that year, as a general rejoicing for the final defeat of Napoleon:

“Thursday, January 18, 1816, being the appointed day for a general thanksgiving, on the re-establishment of peace in Europe, the day was selected in London for the ceremony of lodging the eagles, taken from the enemy at the battle of Waterloo, in the Chapel Royal, Whitehall… after the Litany, a voluntary was played; and at the conclusion of the Communion-service, which was read by the chaplains of the chapel, the Rev. Mr. Jones and the Rev. Mr. Hewlett, the 100th Psalm was sung by the whole congregation. After the customary blessing, the band played “God save the King,” the whole congregation standing. The ceremony was witnessed by a great multitude of people, among whom was a considerable number of persons of distinction and fashion.”

The quotes shows that the celebration is valued by the government, the ceremony was conducted in great order, and the mass were enthusiastically responded. Wordsworth cast the ode in the form of an irregular ode, which means the frame of the meter of the pieces is different from the traditional odes. As his own words in the letter to Scott on 11th March, 1816, “I have finished any intention of executing in connection with the great events”, the book indeed expresses the poet’s feelings on the final outcome of the Napoleonic Wars. The intention can also be observe according to the subtitles and explanations in the context. It is well-known that the poet called the Battle of Waterloo “a hideous rout” in his work. Under the title of the sonnet, it said that it’s an “inscription for a national monument in commemoration of the battle of Waterloo”,  and the subtitle of another sonnet is “occusioned by the same battle”; and also one of the sonnets was composed in recollection of the expedition of the French into Russia. It is interesting to observe the reaction of literary figures towards the war, especially after I knew that not only Lord Byron, Wordsworth also had been to the battlefield at that time. In the poet’s own advertisement included in The Ode, “nor is it at the expense of rational patriotism, or in disregard of sound philosophy, that the author hath given vent to feelings tending to encourage a martial spirit in the bosoms of his countrymen, at a time when there is a general outcry against the prevalence of these dispositions.” Wordsworth called the pieces “rational patriotism” and “sound philosophy”, which indicates the works might act as the mouthpiece of politics, but not only pure literature away from life. In his own words in the letter to Henry Crabb Robinson, he spoke of the work, “it cost me more health and strength than anything of that sort I ever did before.” However, just because the works are transcendental, it is said that the ode is possibly Wordsworth’s most notorious poem, and it is widely criticized by the reviewers and scholars for its so-called “bellicosity”. Someone argues, “the poem is a strenuous exercise in Christian Thanksgiving, appropriate to the close of two decades of global war”, and “its tone is reflective and self-searching, and thought is grounded in the Old Testament, as were the numerous sermons preached on the morning of 18 January 1816, a ‘Day Appointed for a General Thanksgiving’.” (Richard Gravil) In the Ode, one line is widely reviled for harshness, it addressed to God, “Is Man – arrayed for mutual slaughter, –Yea, Carnage is thy Daughter”. In the magazine  The Examier,  William Hazlitt talked about the line:

“My soul, turn from them: turn we to survey’ where poetry, joined hand in hand with liberty, renews the golden age in 1793, during the reign of Robespierre, which was hardly thought a blot in their ’scutcheon, by those who said and said truly, for what we know, that he destroyed the lives of hundreds, to save the lives of thousands: (Mark; then, as now, Carnage was the daughter of humanity. It is true, these men have changed sides, but not parted with their principles, that is, with their presumption and self-will) let us turn where Pantisocracy’s equal hills and vales arise in visionary pomp, where Peace and Truth have kissed each other ‘in Philarmonia’s undivided dale;’ and let us see whether the fictions and the forms of poetry give any better assurance of political consistency than the fictions and forms of law.”

Also, in his review, he made Wordsworth compare with another poet who “cannot do well without sympathy and flattery”. The book was unpopular since it published, one of the reviews of this book published in Monthly Catalogue (or Literary Journal) on January 1817, said, “Mr. Wordsworth, indeed, has written a little Thanksgivings of his own… the thoughts are sometimes poetical: but the expressions, according to the author’s happy theory of familiarity in the language of verse, are often of the most conversational cast; and the whole effect of the poem is very much that of a moderate dose of magnesia, I spirited with a small quantity of lemon-juice.” Also in his review, the crisis considered the writing of the ode is quaint and prosaic. On the other side, there were praises as well, for instance, Leigh Hunt’s comment on the ode, published in The Examiner, “poetry has often been made the direct vehicle of politics … Milton, besides his political sonnets, took an opportunity in his Paradise Lost of insinuating some lessons to kings, which it might not be amiss to recollect now-a-days … For our parts, we certainly do not pretend to be ‘meek as dawning day,’ nor ‘assoiled from all the time’s encumbrance’, and so, it seems, we must not pretend to comprehend ‘this victory sublime.’” Besides wide discussions by the crisis,  it also made some other influences, Percy Shelley, as an admiring reader, was alienated by the work, and “serve as a damning exhibit in the case that was to be prosecuted against Wordsworth as the Lost Leader.”







Works Cited

  1. Wordsworth, William. Thanksgiving Ode, January 18, 1816, and other short pieces. Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, 1816. Print.
  2. Mark L. Reed. A Bibliography of William Wordsworth 1787-1930, 2 vols. Cambridge, 2013. Print.
  3. St Clair, William. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Cambridge, 2004. Print.
  4. Cohen, B. Bernand. “The Date of Composition of ‘Thanksgiving Ode’.” Notes and Queries, May 24, 1952. 236. Print.


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