In the spring of 1742, Thomas Gray turned his attention from writing Latin verse to composing in English. His first effort, “Noontide,” later renamed “Ode on the Spring,” was included with a personal letter to West, his dear friend. The letter came back unopened, and soon Gray’s fear was confirmed; the companion of his Eton days had died. Ironically, that poem that West never saw dealt with the brevity of life. Certainly, Gray had reason to ruminate on such a theme; eleven of his siblings had died in infancy, leaving him the sole survivor. Now, the death of West intensified his feeling of loss. The purpose of mortal existence became the theme that Gray was to address from a variety of points of view in nearly all the major poems of his career.
“Ode on the Spring”
While “Ode on the Spring” is an early effort, it is not unaccomplished. Gray simply did not produce careless or unrefined poetry; he labored long and thoughtfully to achieve a precise result. Some critics, including the great Johnson, have attacked “Ode on the Spring.” In his Lives of the Poets (1779-1781), Johnson objects that “the language is too luxuriant, and the thoughts have nothing new,” and fundamentally, Johnson is correct. The language is indeed luxuriant, and the content is by no means original. The poem is largely descriptive of the Buckinghamshire country where the poet, seated under a tree near the water, considers the brief...
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