"Youth On The Prow, And Pleasure At The Helm"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: The bards were the ancient poets of the Celtic tribes. In battle they raised the war cry and sang war songs; in time of peace they chronicled their nation's history through their songs of heroes and important events. As an institution, the bard symbolized patriotic fervor and the national heritage. He was held in high esteem, particularly in Wales; and like other ancient institutions and customs of the Britons, was preserved with stubborn determination against efforts by the English to eliminate him. It is said that Edward I considered the bards of Wales to be stirrers-up of sedition, and that when his conquest of the country was complete he gathered up all the bards and had them hanged. Gray's poem is inspired by this account. In it an old bard stands on a high crag and watches the banners and lances of Edward's men as they march through his homeland, leaving a trail of blood and wreckage in their wake. Striking his lyre, this aged survivor of his nation's heritage calls upon the spirits of his dead brethren to assist him in laying a curse upon the king and his posterity. The bard is granted a vision, and before his death he sees the future and the long succession of misfortunes that Edward's line must endure. Edward II, cursed with an adulterous wife, will be murdered; Edward III's son, the Black Prince, will die an untimely death; Richard II, the first part of his reign full of promise, will die of starvation; there will be wars between the Houses of Lancaster and York; heirs to the throne will be secretly murdered in the Tower of London; and so on until at last the line dies out, to be replaced by the Tudors. Like most prophecies, the bard's is none too clear; and Gray has supplied copious footnotes so that his meaning will not be lost. Following is that stanza which describes the Black Prince's death and the deceptive early magnificance of Richard II's reign:

"Mighty Victor, mighty Lord,
Low on his funeral couch he lies!
No pitying heart, no eye, afford
A tear to grace his obsequies.
Is the sable Warrior fled?
Thy son is gone. He rests among the dead.
The swarm, that in thy noon-tide beam were born?
Gone to salute the rising morn.
Fair laughs the morn, and soft the zephyr blows,
While proudly riding o'er the azure realm
In gallant trim the gilded vessel goes;
Youth on the prow, and Pleasure at the helm;
Regardless of the sweeping whirlwind's sway,
That, hushed in grim repose, expects his evening prey."