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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2759

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;...

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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 lives of the insects as they frolic in the spring sun. The insects are a metaphor for the segment of humanity that, unlike the reclusive and scholarly poet, enjoys the sportive life of temporal pleasures. As the poet meditates on his sic transit theme, the insects are suddenly allowed to interrupt and “in accents low” answer the sober poet. They tell him that from their point of view it is he who is wasting his life: He is alone, without a beautiful female companion; he has hoarded no treasures to give him pleasure, and his being adds nothing to the beauty of the countryside. Moreover, the poet’s spring flees as quickly as that of the insects. Gray allows the poet no rebuttal to the insects’ argument; their last words, “We frolic, while ’tis May,” end the poem. Talking insects are unusual, but what they and the poet have to say is not. The figure of the poet as the detached observer who prefers to remain isolated from the affairs of humanity stretches back into antiquity. While “Ode on the Spring” is admittedly composed of highly conventional elements, it can be argued that the composition of those elements is unusually sophisticated and uniquely characteristic of Gray.

The persona in “Ode on the Spring” is very close to Gray himself: reclusive, scholarly, an observer more than a participant. The luxuriant language serves a double purpose. It creates an ideal nature, lavish and beautiful beyond reality, a nature before the fall in which the reader is not unduly shocked to find that humans can still talk to animals. Against this ideal, where beautiful May follows beautiful May without worry about time, is presented the fate of both the poet and the insects. Their concern, mortality, is very real; indeed, it is more real because it still exists despite the context of an unreal nature. The language, however, in addition to clarifying the external message of the reality of death, also satirizes. The poet, speaking in the first person, creates through his elaborate language this beautiful, ideal nature, although he would prefer to remain divorced from the mortal humanity he contrasts with his creation. He would be unique and pompously states,

With me the Muse shall sit, and think(At ease reclin’d in rustic state)How vain the ardours of the crowd,How low, how little are the Proud,How indigent the Great!

The Muse, however, refuses to cooperate, and the poet’s ideal nature with its ideal talking insects includes him with the rest of mortal humanity. Not only do his insects remind him that “On hasty wings thy youth is flown,” but they also challenge his very style of life and argue that contemplation and detachment are most wasteful of spring. Thus, “Ode on the Spring,” while conventional and luxuriant, as critics have said, is still a very skillful handling of conventions and an accomplished example of how poetic language can communicate more than one message simultaneously.

The news of West’s death motivated Gray to explore more deeply the theme of human mortality that “Ode on the Spring” had introduced. During the summer of 1742, a season of intense sorrow and intense creative energy for Gray, he produced two important poems: “Hymn to Adversity” and “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.”

“Hymn to Adversity”

“Hymn to Adversity” is less concerned with mortality than it is with the quality of existence. Like the spring ode, this poem is also voiced in the first person, but the element of parody is gone, and there is no reason to suspect that the voice in the poem is not that of Gray himself honestly attempting to cope with his own unhappiness. The theme is simple. Adversity visits everyone, but realizing this, humans can be led to forgiveness, generosity, and love for their fellows, with whom they are united by the common bond of affliction. The poet invites adversity to come to him, not in its more horrible form of disease, poverty, or death, but in the benign form of a teacher who can instruct him in what it means to be human. The critic and biographer of Gray, Morris Golden, has stated that to a modern reader “Hymn to Adversity” is perhaps “the chilliest poem written by Gray.” This seems to be an excellent description, for the piece represents precisely those poetic conventions that delighted eighteenth century audiences but that modern taste has discarded. The poem teaches a moral, an excellent Christian moral: Humanity should endure and strive to profit from whatever is given to it and not rage against fate. The message is clarified by an extensive use of personification. Adversity is a definite, intelligent, and feminine entity. She is even given family relationships; she is “Daughter of Jove,” sister and nurse to Virtue, companion of Wisdom (who dresses in sable), Melancholy (a silent maid), warm Charity, severe Justice, and weeping Pity. Her band includes screaming Horror, Despair, Disease, and Poverty; Laughter, Noise, and Joy flee from her frown. This is certainly an impressive cast for a poem of only forty-eight lines. While a modern reader might complain that personification can diminish the subtle ambiguities necessary for the reader’s creative participation in the poem, the neoclassical reader would applaud the clarity of the lesson. Even Johnson was so impressed by the “moral application” of the ideas found in “Hymn to Adversity” that he refused to mention his “slight objections”—unusual for Johnson. Of course, Johnson himself frequently employed personification, and he must have recognized that “Hymn to Adversity” is a thematic cousin to his own The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749).

“Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”

The most enduring accomplishment of that fruitful summer of 1742 was “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” The theme is still the same: mortality and its consequences. Here, however, the poet relates his observations of the landscape without remarking on the quality of lifestyles as he did in “Ode on the Spring” and without preaching the Christian lesson of “Hymn to Adversity.” In the Eton College ode, wisdom, the desired companion of Adversity in the hymn, is something that should not be courted but left to wait until its inevitable time. Likewise, happiness, which the poet of “Hymn to Adversity” made flee before the welcomed approach of Adversity, is here lamented: “And happiness too swiftly flies.” It is not surprising that, next to “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” the Eton College ode has survived as Gray’s most popular poem. It does not trouble the reader with pompous poets and talking insects, nor does it try to persuade the reader to enjoy the taste of bitter medicine. The poet who watches the children at play on the fields of Eton is surely no less lofty in his diction or elaborate in his constructions than the poets who sang of spring and adversity. The Eton poet, however, appears more natural in this elevated stance. In relation to the children he is observing, he really is a voice of wisdom, and it is clear that he takes no special pleasure in his relatively elevated state; he manages to avoid sounding pompous despite the baroque language. What does emerge is a sense of very deep and sincere sorrow, the more sincere to the reader familiar with Gray’s life when it is remembered that he had been a student at Eton, and the writing of this ode in 1742 marked the severing of the last tie with those innocent days. He had lost the friendship of one school friend, Walpole, and now the last Eton friend, West, was gone too. Johnson objected to this ode because the subject “suggests nothing to Gray that every beholder does not equally think and feel.” Actually, the same comment might be made to the poem’s credit, but what is missing, and what an eighteenth century moralist would have expected, is a clearer statement of the lesson suggested by the subject being described. Gray, however, seems too personally affected to allow his meditations on the Eton landscape to follow to the expected lesson of Christian optimism, and he abruptly cuts himself off and concludes with one of the most famous lines in English poetry: “No more; where ignorance is bliss,/ ’Tis folly to be wise.”

Viewed together, these three products of 1742, “Ode on the Spring,” “Hymn to Adversity,” and “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” make an interestingly unified trilogy. The spring ode introduces the two most obvious approaches to life: tranquil meditation and active pursuit of pleasure. No clear advantage is given to either, for one attitude is given to insects and the other to a pompous poet. “Hymn to Adversity” returns to explore in greater detail the life devoid of insect pleasures and steeled by trouble. In turn, the Eton ode focuses on the alternative, the life of innocent pleasure without the burdens of thought and hardship. None of these early works is distinguished by profundity or originality of thought, and while the adversity hymn and Eton ode do argue for particular lifestyles, clearly the trilogy of 1742 finally shows a Gray who has discovered no satisfactory answer to his questions.

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Gray’s concern for the questions of human mortality and the proper conduct of life continued beyond the very productive year 1742. The poems written at that traumatic time clarified some of the questions but ultimately resolved nothing for the poet. Four years later, after Gray had had the opportunity to recollect in tranquillity the problems that West’s death had forced on his attention, he returned to his theme in a poem that continues to be admired as a masterpiece of world poetry. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was probably begun in 1746, but like all of Gray’s efforts, it was carefully reworked many times, even after its first publication in 1751. Indeed, Gray allowed publication only after he learned that a copy of the poem had been obtained by the editors of the Magazine of Magazines, a journal of which Gray had a low opinion, and that that magazine was about to publish the verses without permission. Gray’s edition, published on February 15, 1751, by Robert Dodsley, beat the Magazine of Magazines by only one day. The poem was immediately popular; since the first hurried printing, it has gone through countless editions and numerous translations. In fact, some literary historians have claimed that it is the most famous poem in all English literature.

Like Gray’s earlier efforts, the elegy is a product of its author’s wide reading and knowledge of conventions. The poem is an excellent example of landscape poetry, a versified description of a rural scene incorporating the poet’s reflections on the moral significance of what is observed. More specifically, Gray’s elegy represents a then-popular species of landscape verse called graveyard poetry. These gloomy exercises, set in cemeteries and crypts, invariably reflected on the inevitability of death. While the ostensible purpose of the graveyard school was moral instruction, clearly some students of that school allowed sensational, grisly description to become an end in itself, with the moral lesson serving as little more than an excuse for cataloging every mortuary horror imaginable. Compared to such morbid works as James Hervey’s Meditations Among the Tombs (1745), a prose piece that went through several editions in the eighteenth century, Gray’s elegy is mild stuff indeed. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is genuinely concerned with mortality and the quality of life, and its gothic trappings exist only to establish the appropriate somber mood for the first-person ruminations of the poet. That mood owes much to the great care that Gray took with the sound of his poem. Onomatopoeia and alliteration are expertly employed with a diction that includes a great many long vowel sounds in order to communicate the mood of the poet. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” does not merely tell the reader about the dead; it allows each reader to share in the experience of thinking about them.

Again, those thoughts are not memorable for their originality; rather, the achievement of the poem is its sensitive collection of the reactions that thoughtful people have always had to the awareness of their mortality. “The ’Church yard’ abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo,” said Johnson. Perhaps the principal message of the poem is the effect of death as a reminder of the unity of the human species and, indeed, the unity of the species with all of nature. The social conditions that distinguish one person from another in life are, finally, superficial. Talent, sensitivity, love of knowledge, and of course death, are common to the human community and ignore the fleeting borders set up by temporal wealth and power. The poet is saddened that the poor are restricted in their ability to develop and share their talents, but finds comfort in the ultimate erasure of all differences by death.

“The Progress of Poesy” and “The Bard”

With “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Gray reached an understanding of the human condition, but he did not stoically accept the tragedy of poverty and stifled talent brought about by misuse of power. The old theme of the quality and style of life appears once more in the two great Pindaric odes, “The Progress of Poesy” and “The Bard.” Unlike the previous elegy, the Pindarics were written in anticipation of successful publication. Gray intended them as his crowning achievement and poured into them all his skill as a master of poetic diction and classical forms, together with all his vast knowledge of history. Unfortunately, even the well-educated poetry readers of the eighteenth century were unprepared for so learned a poet as Thomas Gray. The poems were greeted with charges of obscurity and unintelligibility, and in later editions, Gray grudgingly provided notes to explain the references and allusions.

Both odes deal with poetry. “The Progress of Poesy” glorifies the art and demonstrates that poetry supports and contributes to political liberty. When tyranny establishes itself, poetry and the beauty and order it creates leave, for oppression and beauty cannot coexist. “The Bard” is a specific example of the idea expressed in “The Progress of Poesy.” Here, the last Welsh bard to escape the purge ordered by the invading Edward I confronts the king with a historically accurate prophecy of the downfall of his royal line. The bard’s words, his poem, actually create a reality; the prophecy will come about, and then poetry will have destroyed tyranny. Gray composed this poem with considerable enthusiasm and later declared: “I felt myself the Bard.” The statement is significant in relation to the theme first introduced by “Ode on the Spring.” The noblest life, that of the creating bard who combats oppression and levels the social barriers in the community of humanity, was Gray’s own, and those carefully crafted poems that so elegantly explored what to do with life were themselves the best answer.

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