Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College

by Thomas Gray
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The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800

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The three elements of the title prepare the reader to understand the poem. First, it is an ode, a lyric poem on a serious subject conveyed in dignified language. Second, it focuses on “a distant prospect.” This distance is both in place—Thomas Gray’s view of Eton, his old school, from across the Thames River—and in time—the years since the poet’s graduation from Eton. Furthermore, the prospect is a literal view of the campus as well as an imaginative vision of what the future will hold for the boys now on the campus. Third, Eton College refers not only to Gray’s school but also to one of England’s oldest and greatest preparatory schools for boys, the alma mater of many of England’s leaders and writers.

The epigraph “I am a man, reason enough for being miserable,” a quotation from the Greek playwright Menander, crisply states the poem’s theme: the ultimate trouble and unhappiness of human life. Gray’s use of an ancient quotation also suggests the timelessness of the theme.

The Eton College ode represents, for Gray, a homecoming to his old school as he reflects on his time there as a boy and on what the future will bring to the present students.

In the opening stanza, Gray, standing alone, describes the campus—its spires and towers, Windsor Castle in the background, the surrounding groves, lawns, and meadows, and the shade trees and flowers along the winding Thames River. His references to Henry (King Henry VI, founder of the school in 1440), whose “shade” (or spirit) presides, and to the “shade” of the old trees affirm the harmony of history and nature at the school—and they hint at the “shade” of death that awaits everyone.

Stanza 2 conveys a refreshing wistfulness as Gray remembers the playing fields, “beloved in vain,” on which he showed little athletic promise and observes “careless childhood” now at play. His memories of youth are “gales” that bring a fleeting joy, a “momentary bliss” to him.

The third and fourth stanzas show Gray apostrophizing (directly addressing) Father Thames, spirit of the river and rural nature, who has seen centuries of boys (“a sprightly race”) at the school. Poetic diction (language that seems either artificial or archaic) marks these stanzas as Gray depicts the boys’ activities: “Disporting on thy margent green” (playing on the green riverbanks), cleaving “thy glassy wave” (swimming in the river), chasing “the rolling circle’s speed” (chasing a hoop), and urging “the flying ball” (playing cricket). All of the boys find their playtime more sweet because school rules and study are the “graver hours” that limit their fun. Other boys explore the campus and even wander, against the rules, off school grounds. Aware of their disobedience, they imagine that the wind reprimands them, tempering their forbidden joy with fear.

In stanza 5, Gray reflects that hope is driven only by unrealistic imagination: “Gay hope is theirs by fancy fed.” Because he sees typical childhood as a blend of brief disappointments, enthusiasm, health, wit and invention, and vigor, its days are carefree, its nights restful, its mornings bright. Gray thinks that children imagine, unrealistically, that their good times will last forever.

However, in line 51 of the sixth stanza, the very middle of the poem, the ode’s tone and direction change. The nostalgic tone of the first part becomes melancholy; the childlike hope of the fifth stanza now becomes doom: “Alas, regardless of their doom,/ The little victims play!” Now, instead of describing the boys’ joyful present, Gray foresees their fateful future. Because they are “regardless of their doom,” he wishes to “tell them they are men,” that is, that they are subject to all the troubles and mortality of human beings.

Stanzas 7 through 9 are a catalog of the troubles of adult life. Furthermore, because Gray thinks them to be typical, he personifies (depicts an abstraction as human) them. Stanzas 7 and 8 reveal these “fury Passions” that accompany adulthood, including “Shame that skulks,” “pining Love,” “Grim-visaged comfortless Despair,” “The stings of Falsehood,” and “moody Madness laughing wild.”

The ninth stanza presents “A grisly troop . . ./ The painful family of Death” whose “hideousqueen” is Persephone, Greek goddess of death and the underworld. This “death” group consists of racking pain, numbing poverty, and degenerative aging, all personifications of human mortality.

Gray’s conclusion in the final stanza is that while suffering is the human lot, there is no point in preaching that lesson to children, for such a “Thought would destroy their paradise.” Rather, “where ignorance is bliss,/ Tis folly to be wise.”

The paradox of “foolish wisdom” shows both Gray’s insight and virtue, for if he knows that happiness is fleeting and cannot be realized, then letting the boys enjoy their brief “paradise” is, indeed, the virtue of kindness.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347

The poem’s ten stanzas, each consisting of ten alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines, is a fine version of the Horatian ode, developed by the Roman poet Horace, which is noted for its restraint and the regular similarity of its stanzas in length, meter, and rhyme.

Gray’s Eton College ode is constructed in a perfect symmetry with an exact balance between the first fifty lines and the last fifty lines. This symmetry is seen in the contrasts between each part that, together, unify the poem: the joys of youth versus the ills of age, childlike innocence versus adult experience, hope versus despair, the Thames valley versus the “vale of years,” wit versus madness, health versus sickness, Gray’s past (and the boys’ present) versus Gray’s present (and the boys’ future), a tone of wistfulness versus one of melancholy doom, boys at play versus a man in reflection. A further symmetry is evident in the end rhymes of the fifth and sixth verses that link the two parts of each stanza.

Assonance (repeated vowel sounds) is a device that enhances the ode’s tone, particularly the number of long, low “o” and “a” vowels that echo the nostalgia of the poem’s first half and the melancholy of the second.

Two other devices, thought to be old-fashioned, are explainable. The first, poetic diction, was, in Gray’s time, considered proper for the ode, which demanded elevated, traditional words. According to eighteenth century reasoning, since a poem is artificial—a work of art and not of nature—its proper diction should likewise be artificial. Thus, phrases such as “margent green,” “enthrall,” and “the rolling circle’s speed” are the proper materials with which to build a well-constructed ode. Another device, personification, also seems dated, but, in the eighteenth century, it was valued as a way to express a universal truth. Gray’s personifications are not flat; rather, he brings them to life with telling verbs or modifiers: “Shame that skulks,” “grinning Infamy,” and “moody Madness laughing wild.” These and others grant a vividness to his generalizations.