(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2759 words.)