Thursday, 17 December 2015

Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, by Thomas Gray

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Thomas Gray (1716-71) is remembered mostly for his celebrated “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, but it would be a mistake to think of him as a poetic “one hit wonder”. He was the best-known poet of his age and was offered the post of Poet Laureate, which he declined.

Stylistically, his poetry forms a bridge between the Augustan neoclassicism of Alexander Pope and the Romanticism of William Wordsworth, and elements of both approaches can be seen in his poetry. This is certainly true of his 1742 poem (published in 1747), “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”.

Gray had been a pupil at Eton from 1727 to 1734, so he was therefore writing about his old school a few years after leaving it. Eton, founded in 1440, is what is confusingly known as a “public school”, which means that it is not owned privately, but it charges very high fees and is regarded as one of the top elite schools in the country, having turned out nineteen British Prime Ministers and countless leaders in many areas of civic life. Thomas Gray can therefore be regarded as having been highly privileged to be a former pupil.

The poem

Ye distant spires, ye antique tow'rs,
         That crown the wat'ry glade,
Where grateful Science still adores
         Her Henry's holy Shade;
And ye, that from the stately brow
Of Windsor's heights th' expanse below
         Of grove, of lawn, of mead survey,
Whose turf, whose shade, whose flowr's among
Wanders the hoary Thames along
         His silver-winding way.

Ah, happy hills, ah, pleasing shade,
         Ah, fields belov'd in vain,
Where once my careless childhood stray'd,
         A stranger yet to pain!
I feel the gales, that from ye blow,
A momentary bliss bestow,
         As waving fresh their gladsome wing,
My weary soul they seem to soothe,
And, redolent of joy and youth,
         To breathe a second spring.

Say, Father Thames, for thou hast seen
         Full many a sprightly race
Disporting on thy margent green
         The paths of pleasure trace,
Who foremost now delight to cleave
With pliant arm thy glassy wave?
         The captive linnet which enthrall?
What idle progeny succeed
To chase the rolling circle's speed,
         Or urge the flying ball?

While some on earnest business bent
         Their murm'ring labours ply
'Gainst graver hours, that bring constraint
         To sweeten liberty:
Some bold adventurers disdain
The limits of their little reign,
         And unknown regions dare descry:
Still as they run they look behind,
They hear a voice in ev'ry wind,
         And snatch a fearful joy.

Gay hope is theirs by fancy fed,
         Less pleasing when possest;
The tear forgot as soon as shed,
         The sunshine of the breast:
Theirs buxom health of rosy hue,
Wild wit, invention ever-new,
         And lively cheer of vigour born;
The thoughtless day, the easy night,
The spirits pure, the slumbers light,
         That fly th' approach of morn.

Alas, regardless of their doom,
         The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come,
         Nor care beyond to-day:
Yet see how all around 'em wait
The ministers of human fate,
         And black Misfortune's baleful train!
Ah, show them where in ambush stand
To seize their prey the murth'rous band!
         Ah, tell them they are men!

These shall the fury Passions tear,
         The vultures of the mind
Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear,
         And Shame that skulks behind;
Or pining Love shall waste their youth,
Or Jealousy with rankling tooth,
         That inly gnaws the secret heart,
And Envy wan, and faded Care,
Grim-visag'd comfortless Despair,
         And Sorrow's piercing dart.

Ambition this shall tempt to rise,
         Then whirl the wretch from high,
To bitter Scorn a sacrifice,
         And grinning Infamy.
The stings of Falsehood those shall try,
And hard Unkindness' alter'd eye,
         That mocks the tear it forc'd to flow;
And keen Remorse with blood defil'd,
And moody Madness laughing wild
         Amid severest woe.

Lo, in the vale of years beneath
         A griesly troop are seen,
The painful family of Death,
         More hideous than their Queen:
This racks the joints, this fires the veins,
That ev'ry labouring sinew strains,
         Those in the deeper vitals rage:
Lo, Poverty, to fill the band,
That numbs the soul with icy hand,
         And slow-consuming Age.

To each his suff'rings: all are men,
         Condemn'd alike to groan,
The tender for another's pain;
         Th' unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
         And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
       'Tis folly to be wise.


The poem comprises ten stanzas, each of ten lines. The poem takes the general form of a Horatian ode, which means that it follows the classically formal pattern as used by the Roman poet Horace rather than the Greek form associated with Pindar, but with a typically 18th century adaptation to a 10-line format, often referred to as the “English ode”. The odes by Horace tended to be more personal in tone than those by Pindar, and the choice of the Horatian pattern by Gray seems to reflect that approach. The rhyme scheme used by Gray is ABABCCDEED, which is a variant in the typical English ode pattern of ABABCDECDE.

The prospect, which takes in both Eton and Windsor, would have been seen by Thomas Gray as he walked from Stoke Poges, several miles to the north. His uncle and aunt lived there, and the village is notable for being the location of the “country churchyard” of his more famous “Elegy”. Eton lies on the north bank of the River Thames with Windsor on the much steeper south bank, on top of which stands the famous Windsor Castle. A walk from Stoke Poges would be less rewarding today, given that the industrial town of Slough (famously decried by John Betjeman) has grown across the most direct route.

The prospect is distant in both space and time, although, as mentioned above, the poem was not written all that many years after Gray had left the school. However, much had happened in the meantime to throw a gulf between the past and the present. Gray had become good friends with three other Etonians who went on to make names for themselves, but he had since fallen out with. Horace Walpole (politician and novelist), and the poet Richard West had died shortly before the Ode was written.

The tone of the poem therefore suggests that the past is much further back than it actually was, and that is mainly because Gray is adopting the Augustan habit of generalising from the particular. Although the prospect clearly brought back actual memories, Gray does not specify these, preferring to focus on archetypes of Etonians and speculating on their future lives.

The poem splits into two even parts, with the first fifty lines concentrating on the past and the present, with the boys at school devoting all their energies to play and study and paying little heed to the future, and the second half dealing with that future and the pain and suffering that it is likely to bring.

The poem begins with a look at the distant past, using suitable archaic language to do so: “Ye distant spires, ye antique towers” and with a reference to the school’s founder in “Henry’s holy shade” (King Henry VI was thought by some to be qualified for sainthood). There is a good deal of fanciful and overblown language here, not untypical of 18th century poets; it might be noted, for example, that Eton College has no spires and only one tower!

The first three stanzas contain a lot of personification, with “happy hills”, gales (i.e. breezes) that “A momentary bliss bestow” and a direct address to “Father Thames”, on whose banks the boys chase hoops and play football and on whose “glassy wave” they row.

The general impression of these opening stanzas is that schooldays are a blissful time in which there is little to worry about (“The spirits pure, the slumbers light”) and, even if there are occasional problems, “The tear [is] forgot as soon as shed”.

However, once Eton is left behind, the world outside will heap multifarious troubles on its former inmates. This is made clear from the often-quoted couplet that begins the sixth stanza: “Alas! Regardless of their doom, / The little victims play”. Gray really goes to town on the horrors that lie in wait to be delivered by “The ministers of human fate, / And black Misfortune’s baleful train!”

These include “the fury Passions”, “Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear”, “pining Love, “Envy wan, and faded Care”, and a whole lot more, all of which are due to fall upon them simply to “tell them they are men”. As well as all these woes, disease will bring its own misfortunes, which are summed up as “The painful family of Death”. Then there is “Poverty … That numbs the soul with icy hand, / and slow-consuming Age”.

In other words, mankind is condemned to suffer, and all must “groan”, which is quite neatly expressed as “The tender for another’s pain, / Th’unfeeling for his own”.  However, the final point made by the Ode is that there is no reason why the boys at Eton should be told about this, and they should be allowed to stay in a state of innocence for as long as possible; “why should they know their fate”, as Gray puts it.

The poem ends with another couplet that has entered the common stock of English quotations, although most people who use it have no idea from whence it came: “where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise”. This is often misinterpreted as stating that it is a good thing to be uneducated, but that is not what Gray means by “ignorance”. Instead, he is summarising everything that has gone before in this poem to say that misfortunes will come in their own good time and it would be cruel to inflict them on young people before they are ready to bear them.

To a modern reader this sounds like a social message that seems to be a commentary on the abuse of children, and if the reader wants to take the poem as having that meaning, they are welcome to do so, although it is unlikely that Gray had that thought in mind; he was, after all, writing about boys at Eton College rather than the victims of child labour. This was 1742 and the Industrial Revolution had barely got under way.

Thomas Gray’s thoughts were surely elsewhere when he was writing this poem. The diction of the Ode seems to derive from poets of an earlier age, particularly John Milton, of whom Gray was a great admirer. The Ode can be read as a version of Paradise Lost, minus the angels and much else besides. The first half of the poem is therefore representative of innocence and Paradise, but the Fall comes when school is left behind and the boy becomes a man.

Gray emphasises the contrast between Paradise and Fall, or Innocence and Experience, by making the boys very young (“the little victims”) and the prospect distant and (mostly) open-air. The latter contrast panders to the 18th century notion that everything in the countryside was good but everything urban was bad, hence the delight of rich female aristocrats to be painted as shepherdesses.

There is a lot of artificiality in this poem, both in the diction and the sentiments expressed. There are, however, both echoes of Milton and foretastes of Blake, both of whom dealt with the innocence/experience theme more convincingly than Gray. As mentioned earlier, Gray is a transitional figure in the history of English poetry, and “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” is a poem that illustrates that transition as neatly as any.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

(Introduction and Discussion section © John Welford)

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