“Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”: An Overlooked Poetic Masterpiece

What makes them great.
Jan. 22 2013 9:19 AM

“Where Ignorance Is Bliss, Tis Folly To Be Wise”

David Lehman on why Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” is an overlooked poetic masterpiece.

Portrait of the poet Thomas Gray.
Portrait of Thomas Gray

Painted by John Giles Eccardt.

Favorite examples of poetic endings include the interrogatives of Shelley (“If winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”) and Yeats (“How come we know the dancer from the dance?”), the declarative Milton (“They also serve who only stand and wait”), the ecstatic Coleridge (“For he on honeydew hath fed/ and drunk the milk of paradise”), the reiterated premonitions of Robert Frost (“And miles to go before I sleep”).

In this company belongs Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” (written in 1742, published five years later), an overlooked masterpiece from the most underrated century of English verse. Gray’s ode ends, “Where ignorance is bliss,/ Tis folly to be wise,” an assertion that has attained the status of a proverb and can be discussed for many fruitful hours on its own or in relation to the Garden of Eden in Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis.

In his Short History of English Literature, George Saintsbury says Gray was “probably the best-read man of letters of his time in Europe.” What he lacked in originality and inspiration he made up for in fastidious craftsmanship. His poetic output was small but choice. He subscribed to the idea, popular in the century of Alexander Pope, that excellence of expression trumped originality of concept. Gray felt, too, that true poetry was incompatible with the discourse of the tribe, and it is his artificial diction that earned him an attack from Wordsworth in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth quoted the whole of Gray's sonnet mourning the death of his friend Richard West saying that only five lines were worth keeping. Gray’s best-known poem remains his “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” which even Samuel Johnson, no fan of the poet, praised: “The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.”

The “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” in its general contours, is a romantic poem of return, with some similarities to Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.”  In both poems the poet returns to a place after an interval of years; he feels the change as a loss; he recollects the past and looks to the future. Wordsworth’s poem travels from melancholy at the passing of youth to the compensations of maturity. But Gray’s poem is more radical, the poet less willing to talk himself out of his gloom.

I have read Gray’s “Ode” many times and it has never failed to astonish me. It begins conventionally enough with a description of Eton seen from afar. “Happy” are the hills, “pleasing” is the shade. We anticipate an idealized evocation of the life of boys on the playing fields of Eton (where, 70 years later, the Duke of Wellington would say that the battle of Waterloo was won). But even as Gray summons up the image of the boys at their games, we get hints that Eton remembered is what Frost called a “momentary stay against confusion.” The boys “snatch a fearful joy,” we learn in the fourth stanza. The fifth stanza states the enviable condition of youth: “the tear forgot as soon as shed.” But nothing prepares us for the change in intensity signaled by the opening of stanza six: “Alas, regardless of their doom,/ The little victims play.” At the sound of the words doom and victim, the reader is in the position of a batter who had expected a fast ball and looks in amazement and dismay as an off-speed pitch curves over the heart of the plate.

There follows an unrelenting list of pains, grievances, ailments, and sufferings—a catalogue without parallel in English lyric poetry. The vision of the life of man is grim, as grim as in Hobbes (“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”), but the writing is so controlled and has such authority that one finds it delicious despite the dispiriting content. The balanced clauses reveal a subtlety of distinction—between, for example, the tender-hearted who feels “another’s pain” while “the unfeeling” is mired in his own.

Do we agree with Gray’s conclusion? Do we want to know the doctor’s bad news? Do we cherish our illusions rather than choose what Freud prescribes as “an education in reality”? Would Eve and Adam have been “wise” to reject the fruits of knowledge? These are different questions—not variants of the same question—and their urgency speaks to the epigrammatic power of what Gray wrote.

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear David Lehman read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

"Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College"

By Thomas Gray

Ye distant spires, ye antique towers,
That crown the watery glade,
Where grateful Science still adores
Her Henry's holy Shade;
And ye, that from the stately brow
Of Windsor's heights the 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 beloved in vain,
Where once my careless childhood strayed,
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 soothe,
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 murmuring 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 possessed;
The tear forgot as soon as shed,
The sunshine of the breast:
Their buxom health of rosy hue,
Wild wit, invention ever-new,
And lively cheer of vigour born;
The thoughtless day, the easy night,
The spirits pure, the slumbers light,
That fly the approach of morn.

Alas, regardless of their doom,
The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond today:
Yet see how all around 'em wait
The ministers of human fate,
And black Misfortune's baleful train!
Ah, show them where in ambush stand
To seize their prey the murtherous band!
Ah, tell them, they are men!

These shall the fury Passions tear,
The vultures of the mind,
Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear,And Shame that skulks 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-visaged 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 Falsehood those shall try,
And hard Unkindness' altered eye,
That mocks the tear it forced to flow;
And keen Remorse with blood defiled,
And moody Madness laughing wild
Amid severest woe.

Lo, in the vale of years beneath
A grisly 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 sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another's pain,
The 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.

David Lehman is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry. He won the 2010 Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP for his book A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs. He teaches in the graduate writing program at the New School in New York City.

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