Themes and Meanings
Two themes play through Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” The major theme is the inevitability of suffering, death, and unhappiness for humankind. Sad though the theme is, Gray tempers it with his own fatherlike concern in keeping this knowledge from the children. Because he knows that the “paradise” of their youth is brief, he tenderly allows them to enjoy it.
Related to this theme is a minor biblical one, the key to which is again paradise: the state of happiness before the Fall. As Gray watches the boys at Eton, he notes their health, hope, and joy. However, he reveals neither a desire to return to youth nor a disgust with adulthood. To Gray, the children are happy but deluded, and their delusions keep them happy until their growth to knowledge unveils the hardships and sadness of life. Both themes evolve from Gray’s philosophy of stoicism: that all life must be endured with fortitude, self-control, and restraint of feelings.
Gray’s concern with children, rural description, reflective imagination, and melancholy are tendencies that made him a forerunner of the English Romantic movement. Writing in the mid-eighteenth century, however, Gray was also one of the last English Augustan or neoclassic poets who used balanced poetic architecture, poetic diction and personification, and classical poetic types, and who tended toward the ethical and the didactic. Along with his great Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751), the Eton College ode reveals Thomas Gray’s poetry as an important, strong, and beautiful bridge between two very different periods of English literature.