Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College

Thomas Gray

Edited by Jack Lynch

The adult poet stands on the hill at Windsor Castle and looks down on Eton College, where he had been a student. (Though it’s called a “College,” Eton students are between thirteen and eighteen years old.) As he watches the children playing on the banks of the River Thames he imagines the suffering and misery they’ll someday face, and he considers whether he should tell them what’s in store. In the end he decides they’ll all eventually face the miseries of adulthood, so it’s better now simply to leave them in their innocence — “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

Gray’s language is self-consciously poetic and his contorted syntax is demanding. When he asks “Father Thames,” a personification of the river,

Who foremost now delight to cleave
With pliant arm thy glassy wave?
it’s an exceedingly literary way to ask, “Who likes swimming the most?” Sentences often stretch over many lines, and Latinate inversions often put adjectives after nouns and subjects after verbs. This passage, for instance —

And ye, that from the stately brow
Of Windsor’s heights th’ expanse below
Of grove, of lawn, of mead survey,

— makes more sense in modern word order, “And you that survey [look over] the expanse of grove, lawn, and mead from the stately brow of Windsor’s heights.” It’s a short poem, so work through it patiently and make as much sense as you can.

on a
Distant Prospect
Eton College

Ye distant spires, ye antique tow’rs, medieval church spires
That crown the wat’ry glade,
Where grateful Science still adores pleasing knowledge
Her Henry’s holy Shade; Henry VI founded Eton
And ye, that from the stately brow
Of Windsor’s heights th’ expanse below Windsor Castle near Eton College
Of grove, of lawn, of mead survey, meadow — look over
Whose turf, whose shade, whose flowr’s among
Wanders the hoary Thames along white River Thames
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, strong winds
A momentary bliss bestow,
As waving fresh their gladsome wing, gladdening
My weary soul they seem to soothe,
And, redolent of joy and youth, aromatic
To breathe a second spring.

Say, Father Thames, for thou hast seen
Full many a sprightly race
Disporting on thy margent green playing on your banks
The paths of pleasure trace,
Who foremost now delight to cleave cut through
With pliant arm thy glassy wave? bent
The captive linnet which enthrall? small bird
What idle progeny succeed descendants
To chase the rolling circle’s speed,
Or urge the flying ball? propel

While some on earnest business bent
Their murm’ring labours ply
’Gainst graver hours, that bring constraint before more serious times
To sweeten liberty:
Some bold adventurers disdain
The limits of their little reign,
And unknown regions dare descry: seek out
Still as they run they look behind,
They hear a voice in ev’ry 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, vigorous
Wild wit, invention ever-new, intelligence — imagination
And lively cheer 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,
not thinking
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! sinister followers
Ah, show them where in ambush stand
To seize their prey the murth’rous band! murderous gang
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, festering
That inly gnaws the secret heart, inwardly
And Envy wan, and faded Care, pale
Grim-visag’d comfortless Despair, grim-faced
And Sorrow’s piercing dart. arrow

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’ alter’d eye,
That mocks the tear it forc’d to flow;
And keen Remorse with blood defil’d, sharp — poisoned
And moody Madness laughing wild
Amid severest woe.

Lo, in the vale of years beneath
A griesly troop are seen, grim
The painful family of Death,
More hideous than their Queen:
This racks the joints, this fires the veins, tortures
That ev’ry labouring sinew strains,
Those in the deeper vitals rage: vital organs
Lo, Poverty, to fill the band, troupe
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.