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

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1147 words.)

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