Thomas Gray – “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”

Thomas Gray spent probably the happiest years of his life at Eton, where he made lifelong friends, including Horace Walpole (who, some claim, was also his lover). It’s therefore not surprising that he wrote a poem inspired by the view of his old school, but the poem is not very successful in my opinion, hovering between misery and unintended ridiculousness. It starts with the apostrophes to the spires of Eton and Windsor (located opposite Eton) and the landscape around them, which evokes so many happy memories for the poet. The unintended ridiculousness starts when the poet invokes Father Thames, asking him to tell him which boys now pursue the same pastimes as he and his friends did. Gray’s Latinate diction was probably admired in his lifetime, but for a modern reader like me, asking “who foremost now delight to cleave/with pliant arm thy glassy wave” instead of “who likes to swim?” seems a bit of an overkill. The lives of children are depicted in this somewhat idealized way, where all sorrows are small and soon forgotten. Then Gray shifts gear, calling children “little victims” who play “regardless of their doom” and writes a long list of various bad things, all of them capitalized, which are going to happen to the boys when they grow up: Misfortune, Fear, Shame etc. ending with “the painful family of Death”, or various physical torments accompanying it and Death itself. The poem ends with the conclusion that it’s just as well the boys don’t know yet what is going to happen to them, because “ignorance is bliss”.

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