1742
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

An Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.

An Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.

Thomas Gray


A descriptive ode written by Thomas Gray at Stoke in 1742 and published in 1747. Its catalogue of allegorical figures recalls some of the darker passages in The Faerie Queene while the foreshortened allegory in which they are presented is typical of lyric adaptation of Spenser by eighteenth-century poets. The line "Grim visag'd, comfortless despair" in the catalogue of grim passions recalls Spenser's famous lines in Mother Hubberds Tale: "To eat thy Heart through comfortless Despairs; | To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to ronne...." While this ode was enormously popular it inspired comparatively few imitations and none were very successful. The original publication was anonymous.

Richard Hurd to William Mason: "Your new Canon of Criticism is very ingenious, and, to say the truth, shrewdly urg'd against the Authenticity of the Ode on Eaton. Yet 'tis confidently giv'n out here to be Mr. Grey's, and perhaps it may save the honour of your new-invented rule, if we suppose it printed, with the consent indeed of Mr. G., but not under his direction. And this, it seems, was the case; for it was the force of friendly importunity, we are told, that drew it from him. And, to shew how little He interested Himself in it's fame, He ev'n suffer'd it to pass with ill-plac'd Capitals and wooden Ornaments. I remember to have just seen it at the Coffee-House, and, if I might presume to criticise so delicate an Author, should pronounce it to be a common thought, indifferently executed" 1747; in Correspondence of Hurd and Mason (1932) 7.

Norton Nicholls: "Spencer was among his favourite poets, and he told me he never sat down to compose poetry without reading Spencer for a considerable time previously" Reminiscences of Thomas Gray (1805); in Correspondence of Gray, ed. Toynbee (1971) 3:1290.

Thomas James Mathias: "Mr. Nicholls once asked Mr. Gray if he recollected, when he first felt in himself the strong predilection to poetry, and he replied, 'I believe it was when I began at Eton to read Virgil for my own amusement, and not in school hours as a task.' The author of the Fairy Queen was one of his most favourite poets; and it is a notice worthy of all acceptation among the higher votaries of the divine art, when they are assured, that Mr. Gray never sate down to compose any poetry without previously, and for a considerable time, reading the works of Spenser" Works of Gray, ed. Mathias (1814) 2:593.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth: "Gray, the author of this poem, means to express the pleasure, which he felt, after he had grown up to be a man, in seeing Eton College, where he had been at school, and where he had been happy; he addresses himself to the spires and towers of Eton and Windsor (which is close to Eton) as if they were animated beings, and tells them that he feels the fragrant wind that breathes from them revive his spirits like spring, when flowers perfume the air; he tells these spires, and towers, and groves, and streams, that he loved them whilst in his childhood, he strayed among them before he was exposed to the cares of manhood; — the following words and phrases may be thus explained. 'Antique' — ancient, which were built a great while ago — the word antique is employed instead of ancient, because it is a word less frequently used in conversation, and is therefore more proper for creating respect than a word in common use. 'Crown' — Kings wear crowns as a mark of their high rank — to crown, therefore, means metaphorically to adorn and dignify. 'Glade' — is an opening between woods; the glades near Windsor are frequently overflowed by the Thames, and are, therefore, called watery glades..." Readings in Poetry (1816) 21-22.

Charles Lamb to Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "I am perfecting myself in the Ode to Eton College, against Thursday, that I may not appear unclassic. I have just discovered that it is much better than the Elegy" 1826; in Letters, ed. Thomas Noon Talfourd (1837) 2:208.

John Wilson: "SHEPHERD. That's Gray — and Gray was the best poet that ever belonged to a college — but — NORTH. All great (except one) and most good poets have belonged to colleges. SHEPHERD. Humph. But a line comes soon after that is the key to that stanza — 'My weary soul they seem to soothe!' Gray was na an auld man — far frae it — when he wrott that beautiful Odd — but he was fu' o' sensibility and genius — and after a lapse o' years, when he beheld again the bits o' bright and bauld leeving images glancin' athwart the green — a' the Eton College callants in full cry — his heart amaist dee'd within him at the sicht and the soun' — for his pulse, as he pat his finger to his wrist, beat fent and intermittent, in comparison, and nae wunner that he shou'd fa' intil a dooble delusion about their happiness and his ain meesery. And sae the poem's coloured throughout wi' a pensive spirit o' regret, in some places wi' the gloom o' melancholy, and in ane or two amaist black wi' despair. It's a fine picture o' passion, sir, and true to nature in every touch. Yet frae beginnin' to end, in the eye o' reason and faith, and religion, it's a' ae lee. Fawse, surely, a' thae forebodings o' a fatal futurity! For love, joy, and bliss are not banished frae this life; and in writing that verra poem, manna the state o' Gray's sowle hae been itself divine?" Blackwood's Magazine (November 1831) in Noctes Ambrosianae (1857) 4:433-34.

Henry Francis Cary: "No wonder he should describe so well what he saw, for he seems to have been present at life rather as a spectator than an actor" ca. 1830; in Memoir (1847) 2:293.

J. W. Croker: "It may be here observed that no poet has, in proportion to the quantity of his works, furnished so many expressions which, by their felicity, have become proverbial, as Gray. He has written little, but his lines are in every mouth, and fall from every pen" Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. Croker (1831) 2:391n.

Edward S. Creasy: "Johnson, who criticises Gray in more than even his usual spirit of sullen sarcasm, condemns this ODE wholesale, and says of it, that 'the 'Prospect of Eton College' suggests nothing to Gray which every beholder does not equally think and feel.' It is strange that Johnson should not have perceived that in saying this he was in fact pronouncing the highest eulogium on the Ode: especially as in another part of his Life of Gray he has the good sense to adduce as a convincing proof of the excellence of some of the stanzas in 'The Elegy,' the fact that 'he who reads them persuades himself that he has always felt them.' Perhaps 'every beholder' (or at least every Etonian beholder) may at the 'Prospect of Eton College' 'equally think and feel' what Gray did, but who before Gray ever expressed those thoughts and feelings? and who, since Gray, has not experienced them the more vividly and the more pleasingly, by reason of the beauty and truthfulness with which Gray has expressed them?" Memoirs of Eminent Etonians (1850) 309.

Leigh Hunt: "It is full of thought, tenderness, and music, and should make the writer beloved of all persons of reflection, especially those who know what it is to visit the scenes of their school-days. They may not all regard them in the same melancholy light; but the melancholy light will cross them, and then Gray's lines will fall in upon the reflection, at once like a bitter and a balm" Selections from English Authors, in Works (1854) 3:136.

Edmund Gosse: "In 1747 he published, in pamphlet form, his Eton College ode, which attracted no attention whatsoever. About this time Gray wrote that delicious trifle, The Ode on the Death of a favourite Cat. Next year he formed the acquaintance of William Mason, then a scholar of St. John's, his imitator and future biographer, and from this time forward Gray never again endured the same solitary wretchedness that he had first suffered at Cambridge" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 236-37.

William Minto: "In the Eton College, again, the change from emotion to emotion, the balance of the parts, the pathetic humour of the conclusion, which recalls and binds together and suffuses the whole, must strike everybody who reflects for a moment on the construction of the poem. The effect of the whole, and of each part as contributing to the whole, has been elaborately calculated — elaborately, and yet with such vividness of emotional insight that there is no trace of labour. Stanza follows stanza as if by spontaneous growth, and the concluding reflection arises as if by irresistible suggestion" Literature of the Georgian Era (1894) 82-83.

Ralph Straus: "the Eton Ode was published alone as an experiment, and Dodsley was probably hardly surprised at its complete failure. In a matter of this sort he was too good a tradesman to allow his private opinion of the Ode to have undue weight. To educate the public up to new trends of thought, to remove the absurd necessity for a false classicism, might have appealed to his imagination — it probably did — but there was his business to think of, and although he made the experiment with the Eton Ode, the two others which Walpole had given him remained unprinted until the appearance of the Miscellany. Gray himself seems to have been rather surprised that the first Ode should have been issued alone. Writing to Walpole in November of this year [1747], he says: 'As to my Eton Ode, Mr. Dodsley is padrone. The second (On the Spring) you had, I supposed you do not think worth giving him: otherwise, to me it seems not worse than the former. He might have Selima (On the Death of a Favourite Cat) too, unless she be of too little importance for his patriot-collection.' The failure of the Eton Ode must have deterred Dodsley from giving separate publication to the other two, but it is curious to note in what a short time Gray's poetry became popular throughout the country" Robert Dodsley (1910) 154.

Oliver Elton: "Gray is looking through darkened glasses at the playing-field, and arranges his theme like a tragedy, which is bright at the beginning but, as Dante says, 'in exitu foetida et horribilis.' The overture is a mixture of his most natural and tender writing with what seems a painful dose of 'poetic diction'; but the 'idle progeny' and the 'rolling circle's speed' should be read as playful not as pedantic phrases. Then come the foreboded horrors; and if, when we hear that 'all' are 'condemned to groan,' we are tempted to say, 'What, all?' still the pageant of Infamy, Falsehood, Unkindness, and Remorse reminds us, in its power of concentration, of Spenser" Survey of English Literature 1730-1780 (1928) 2:62.

Arthur Johnston: "As a poet, Gray was not influenced by Spenser. He is Spenserian (and Miltonic) in believing that 'the language of the age is never the language of poetry,' but his diction is never Spenserian.... Very occasionally, in a passage involving personification or allegory, one might suspect a Spenserian debt; but in the 'fury Passions' section of the 'Ode on ... Eton College' (61 ff), for example, his debt is more immediately to Thomson's Spring and ultimately to the Aeneid (6.273-81), and possibly to Dryden, Pope, and Statius" Spenser Encyclopedia (1990) 340.

In November 1787 Gray's poem was performed at the Royalty Theatre "with new Airs and Chorusses composed by Mr. Reeve" — see the advertisements in the Morning Chronicle. A Latin translation appears in the European Magazine 25 (June 1784) 416; a French translation signed "Fayolle" in the New Times (11 February 1820).



Ye distant Spires, ye antique Towers,
That crown the watry Glade,
Where grateful Science still adores
Her Henry's holy Shade;
And ye that from the stately Brow
Of Windsor's Heights th' Expanse below
Of Grove, of Lawn, of Mead survey,
Whose Turf, whose Shade, whose Flowers among
Wanders the hoary Thames along
His silver-winding Way.

Ah happy Hills, ah pleasing Shade,
Ah Fields belov'd in vain,
Where once my careless Childhood stray'd,
A Stranger yet to Pain!
I feel the Gales, that from ye blow,
A momentary Bliss bestow,
As waving fresh their gladsome Wing,
My weary Soul they seem to sooth,
And, redolent of Joy and Youth,
To breathe a second Spring.

Say, Father Thames, for thou hast seen
Full many a sprightly Race
Disporting on thy Margent green
The Paths of Pleasure trace,
Who foremost now delight to cleave,
With pliant Arm thy glassy Wave?
The captive Linnet which enthrall?
What idle Progeny succeed
To chase the rolling Circle's Speed,
Or urge the flying Ball?

While some on earnest Business bent
Their murm'ring Labours ply,
'Gainst graver Hours, that bring Constraint
To sweeten Liberty;
Some bold Adventurers disdain
The Limits of their little Reign,
And unknown Regions dare descry:
Still as they run they look behind,
They hear a Voice in every Wind,
And snatch a fearful Joy.

Gay Hope is theirs by Fancy fed,
Less pleasing when possest;
The Tear forgot as soon as shed,
The Sunshine of the Breast,
Theirs buxom Health of rosy Hue,
Wild Wit, Invention ever-new,
And lively Chear of Vigour born;
The thoughtless Day, the easy Night,
The Spirits pure, the Slumbers light,
That fly th' Approach of Morn.

Alas, regardless of their Doom,
The little Victims play!
No Sense have they of Ills to come,
Nor Care beyond to-day:
Yet see, how all around 'em wait
The Ministers of human Fate,
And black Misfortune's baleful Train!
Ah, shew them where in Ambush stand,
To seize their Prey the murth'rous Band!
Ah, tell them they are Men!

These shall the Fury Passions tear,
The Vulturs of the Mind,
Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear,
And Shame that sculks behind;
Or pining Love shall waste their Youth,
Or Jealousy with rankling Tooth,
That inly gnaws the secret Heart,
And Envy wan, and faded Care,
Grim-visag'd comfortless Despair,
And Sorrow's piercing Dart.

Ambition This shall tempt to rise,
Then whirl the Wretch from high,
To bitter Scorn a sacrifice,
And grinning Infamy:
The Stings of Falshood Those shall try,
And hard Unkindness' alter'd Eye,
That mocks the Tear it forc'd to flow;
And keen Remorse with Blood defil'd,
And moody Madness laughing wild
Amid severest Woe.

Lo, in the Vale of Years beneath,
A griesly Troop are seen,
The painful Family of Death,
More hideous than their Queen:
This racks the Joints, this fires the Veins,
That every labouring Sinew strains,
Those in the deeper Vitals rage:
Lo, Poverty, to fill the Band,
That numbs the Soul with icy Hand,
And slow-consuming Age.

To each his Suff'rings: all are Men,
Condemn'd alike to groan,
The Tender for another's pain;
Th' Unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! Why should they know their Fate?
Since Sorrow never comes too late,
And Happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their Paradise.
No more; where Ignorance is Bliss,
'Tis Folly to be wise.

[pp. 3-8]