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“The Bard” was begun in 1754 and finished in 1757, appearing in print shortly after its completion in company with “The Progress of Poesy.” (See introductory note to that poem.) It was introduced by the following advertisement: “The following Ode is founded on a tradition current in Wales, that Edward the First, when he completed the conquest of that country, ordered all the bards that fell into his hands to be put to death.”
The original argument which Gray wrote for the ode, but which he discarded, is interesting: “The army of Edward I, as they march through a deep valley, are suddenly stopped by the appearance of a venerable figure seated on the summit of an inaccessible rock, who, with a voice more than human, reproaches the king with all the desolation and misery which he had brought on his country; foretells the misfortunes of the Norman race, and with prophetic spirit declares that all his cruelty shall never extinguish the noble ardor of poetic genius in this island; and that men shall never be wanting to celebrate true virtue and valor in immortal strains, to expose vice and infamous pleasure and boldly censure tyranny and oppression. His song ended, he precipitates himself from the mountain and is swallowed up by the river that rolls at its foot.”
2. Confusion. Destruction, ruin.
4. They mock the air with idle state. Gray here quotes the following line from Shakespeare: “Mocking the air with colors idly spread.”
King John, Act V, Sc. I, 1. 72. 5. Hauberk's twisted mail. “The hauberk was a texture of steel ringlets, or rings interwoven, forming a coat of mail, that sat close to the body, and adapted itself to every motion." (Author's note.)
8. Cambria's curse. Cambria, the ancient Latin name of Wales.
9. The crested pride. In connection with this phrase Gray quotes the following from Dryden:
“The crested adder's pride.”
- Indian Queen, Act III, Sc. I. 11. Snowdon's shaggy side. “Snowdon was a name given by the Saxons to that mountainous tract, which the Welsh themselves call Craigian-eryri; it included all the highlands of Carnarvonshire and Merionethshire, as far east as the river Conway. ...' (Author's note.)
13. Stout Glo'ster. Gilbert de Clare, surnamed the Red, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford, son-in-law to King Edward.” (Author's note.)
14. Mortimer. “Edmond de Mortimer, Lord of Wigmore. They both were Lords-Marchers, whose lands lay on the borders of Wales, and probably accompanied the king in this expedition.” (Author's note.)
19. Loose his beard, and hoary hair. “The image was taken from a well-known picture of Raphael, representing the Supreme Being in the vision of Ezekiel. There are two of these paintings (both believed original), one at Florence, the other at Paris." (Author's note.)
20. Streamed, like a meteor, to the troubled air. Gray here quotes from Milton: “Shone, like a meteor, streaming to the wind."
- Paradise Lost, Bk. I, 1. 537. 28. To high-born Hoel's harp, or soft Llewellyn's lay. Hoel, son of Owen Gwynedd, prince of North Wales, a noted bard and warrior. Llewellyn. A French poet and soldier, slain in the wars with King Edward I.
29. Cadwallo's tongue. Cadwallo, a Welsh bard; none of his writings have been preserved.
31. Urien. Also a Welsh bard whose works have been lost.
33. Modred. No bard by this name is known to history. 34. Plinlimmon. A mountain in Wales.
35. Arvon's shore they lie. “The shores of Carnarvonshire opposite to the isle of Anglesey.” (Author's note.)
38. The famished eagle screams. Cambden and others observe, that eagles used annually to build their ærie among the rocks of Snowdon, which from thence (as some think) were named by the Welsh Craigian-eryri, or the crags of the eagles. At this day (I am told) the highest point of Snowdon is called the eagle's nest. That bird is certainly no stranger to this island, as the Scots, and the people of Cumberland, Westmoreland, etc., can testify; it even has built its nest in the Peak of Derbyshire.” (Author's note.)
41. Dear as the ruddy drops that warm my heart. Gray adds this quotation from Shakespeare:
“As dear to me as are the ruddy drops,
- Julius Cæsar, Act II, Sc. I, 11. 289–290. 47. With me in dreadful harmony they join. “See the Norwegian Ode (The Fatal Sisters), that follows." (Author's note.)
49–100. Weave the warp, and weave the woof, etc. These lines are sung in unison by the bard who has been speaking and the spirits of the dead singers referred to earlier in the ode.
54–56. When Severn shall reëcho with affright, etc. “Edward the Second, cruelly butchered in Berkley-Castle." (Author's note.) For a thorough understanding of the historical allusions which appear so frequently in the poem, the student should consult an English history.
57. She-wolf of France. "Isabel of France, Edward the Second's adulterous Queen." (Author's note.)
59–60. Who o'er thy country hangs, etc. “ Triumphs of Edward the Third in France.” (Author's note.)
61. Amazement. Confusion.
64. Low on his funeral couch he lies. “Death of that king, abandoned by his children, and even robbed in his last moments by his courtiers and his mistress.” (Author's note.)
67. Is the sable warrior fled? “Edward the Black Prince, dead some time before his father.” (Author's note.)
71. Fair laughs the morn. * Magnificence of Richard the Second's reign. See Froissart, and other contemporary writers.” (Author's note.)
77. Fill high the sparkling bowl. “Richard the Second (as we are told by Archbishop Scroop, and the confederate Lords in their manifesto, by Thomas of Walsingham, and all the older Writers) was starved to death. The story of his assassination by Sir Piers of Exon, is of much later date.” (Author's note.)
83. Heard ye the din of battle bray? “Ruinous civil wars of York and Lancaster.” (Author's note.)
87. Ye towers of Julius. “Henry the Sixth, George Duke of Clarence, Edward the Fifth, Richard Duke of York, etc., believed to be murdered secretly in the Tower of London. The oldest part of that structure is vulgarly attributed to Julius Cæsar.” (Author's note.)
89. Revere his consort's faith, his father's fame. Consort. 'Margaret of Anjou, a woman of heroic spirit, who struggled hard to save her Husband and her Crown.” Father. 'Henry the Fifth.” (Author's notes.)
90. Meek usurper's holy head. “Henry the Sixth very near being canonized. The line of Lancaster had no right of inheritance to the Crown." (Author's note.)
91–92. Above, below, the rose of snow, etc. "The white and red roses, devices of York and Lancaster.” (Author's
note.) The two Houses were united by the marriage of Henry VII of Lancaster and Elizabeth of York.
93. The bristled boar. “The silver Boar was the badge of Richard the Third; whence he was usually known in his own time by the name of the Boar." (Author's note.)
99. Half of thy heart we consecrate. “Eleanor of Castile died a few years after the conquest of Wales. The heroic proof she gave of her affection for her Lord is well known. The monuments of his regret and sorrow for the loss of her, are still to be seen at Northampton, Geddington, Waltham, and other places." (Author's note.)
“The heroic proof of her affection” given by Eleanor, wife of Edward the First, was exhibited on an occasion when the king was wounded with a poisoned dagger; she applied her lips to the wound and sucked the poison from it, thus probably saving his life. Tennyson alludes to the incident:
“Or her who knew that love can vanquish death,
Who kneeling with one arm about her king
- A Dream of Fair Women, II. 268,272.
109. Long-lost Arthur. “It was the common belief of the Welsh nation, that King Arthur was still alive in Fairy Land, and should return again to reign over Britain." (Author's note.)
110. Ye genuine kings. “Both Merlin and Taliessin had prophesied that the Welsh should regain their sovereignty over this island; which seemed to be accomplished in the House of Tudor.” (Author's note.)
115. In the midst a form divine. Queen Elizabeth.
116. Briton-line. The Welsh were the original Britons, and in the person of Elizabeth, who was part Welsh, the bard saw his race once more on the English throne.