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Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College
A Poem by Thomas Gray (1716-1771) 
Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting
Tone, Point of View
End Rhyme
Meter
Summary
Text and Notes
Theme
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Gray's Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
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Type of Work

.......“Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” is an ode, a lyric poem that develops its theme with dignified language. Thomas Gray wrote the poem in 1742, and R. Dodsley published it in London in 1747.

Setting

.......The scene is set in England at Eton College, a prestigious private boarding school for boys aged 13 to 18. King Henry VI founded the school in 1440 as The King's College of Our Lady of Eton Beside Windsor. Its enrollment has grown from 70 at its founding to more than 1,000 today. The school is in the county of Berkshire in the town of Eton, across the Thames River from the borough of Windsor. Eton is about 21 miles west of London. 

Tone and Point of View

.......The tone of the poem is dignified and somewhat nostalgic. The speaker uses first-person point of view from the perspective of a worldly-wise former Eton student as he considers the harsh realities that the now-carefree young Etonians will one day face. 

End Rhyme

The rhyme scheme of the poem is ababccdeed, as the following stanza demonstrates:

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 cheer of vigour born;
The thoughtless day, the easy night,
The spirits pure, the slumbers light,
        That fly th' approach of morn.
Meter

.......Gray uses iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter in the ode. The first four lines of the poem demonstrate the pattern.

....1.................2..................3..................4
Ye DIS..|..tant SPIRES,..|..ye AN..|..tique TOW'RS,

..........1.................2.................3
That CROWN..|..the WA..|..t'ry GLADE,

..........1..................2...............3.....................4
Where GRATE..|..ful SCI..|..ence STILL..|..a..DORES

.....1...............2................3
Her HEN..|..ry's HO..|..ly SHADE;

Summary

.......Standing at a distance--measured in years as well as feet--the speaker observes Eton College, its grounds, and its environs, which include Windsor Castle across the Thames River. It was in these environs that the speaker spent his "careless childhood" (line 13), he says, without worry or care--a "stranger yet to pain" (line 14). 
.......The sight gladdens him, as if he is about to return to his youth to enjoy a "second spring" (line 20). Addressing the Thames as if it were a person, the speaker asks which young fellows now swim in the river ("cleave . . . thy glassy wave"), which ones keep captured linnets (birds of the finch family), and which ones chase rolling hoops or play a game of ball.
.......Of course, some of the boys are hard at work with their studies; others--"bold adventurers" who spurn any limits on their time--run forth to discover new amusements. Half the fun is in anticipating these amusements. Such boys take advantage of their robust health, their clever wit, and their imagination to bring cheer to their lives. 
.......Are they concerned about the problems and difficulties they will face in everyday adult life? Not at all. They give their attention to the here and now, to the joy of the moment. 
.......Meanwhile, around them, "black Misfortune" (line 57) and other ministers of human fate wait for them--wait to stir in them anger, fear, shame, "pining love" (line 65), jealousy, envy, despair, and sorrow. Some will rise with their ambitions only to fall in scorn and infamy. The death of loved ones, poverty, aging--these too they will come to know. How swiftly happiness passes. But for now, let them remain oblivious of their coming trials, the speaker says. After all, "where ignorance is bliss / 'tis folly to be wise" (lines 99-100).

Text
Ye distant spires, ye antique1 tow'rs,
     That crown the wat'ry glade,2
Where grateful Science still adores
Her Henry's3holy Shade;4
And ye, that from the stately brow
Of Windsor's heights5 th' expanse below
      Of grove, of lawn, of mead6 survey,
Whose turf, whose shade, whose flowr's among
Wanders the hoary7 Thames along
His silver-winding8 way..........................................10

Ah, happy hills, ah, pleasing shade,
     Ah, fields belov'd in vain,9
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 soothe,
And, redolent of joy and youth,
       To breathe a second spring....................................20

Say, Father Thames, for thou hast seen 
         Full many a sprightly race
Disporting on thy margent10 green
       The paths of pleasure trace,
Who foremost now delight to cleave11
With pliant arm thy glassy wave?
The captive linnet which enthrall?12
What idle progeny13 succeed
To chase the rolling circle's14 speed,
Or urge the flying ball?15........................................30

While some on earnest business bent
     Their murm'ring labours ply16
'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 ev'ry wind,
      And snatch a fearful joy..........................................40

Gay hope is theirs by fancy fed,
       Less pleasing when possest;17
The tear forgot as soon as shed,
        The sunshine of the breast:
Theirs buxom18 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 th' approach of morn...................................50

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, show them where in ambush stand
To seize their prey the murth'rous19 band!
Ah, tell them they are men!.....................................60

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-visag'd comfortless Despair,
       And Sorrow's piercing dart......................................70

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,
And moody Madness laughing wild
       Amid severest woe.................................................80

Lo, in the vale of years beneath20
A griesly21 troop are seen,
The painful family of Death,22
       More hideous than their Queen:23
This racks the joints, this fires the veins,
That ev'ry 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........................................90

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..................................................100

Notes

1....antique: Ancient.
2....wat'ry glade: Open space; meadow. The nearness of the glade to the river made it watery.
3....Henry: King Henry VI (1422-1471). Henry established Eton College in 1440 as the King's College of Our Lady of Eton Beside Windsor, providing scholarships for deserving boys who enrolled. Henry also founded Cambridge University's King's College to enable Eton boys to continue their education. Both Eton and King's College continue operation today as two of England's most respected educational institutions.
4....holy Shade: Allusion to the piety of Henry VI, a devout Catholic.
5....stately . . . heights: Allusion to Windsor Castle, residence of English royalty, across the Thames River from Eton. Windsor Castle is in the town of Windsor, 22 miles west of London.
6....mead: Meadow.
7....hoary: Old, ancient; gray-haired. The speaker looks upon the Thames River as an old man. 
8....silver-winding: The Thames, as a hoary old man (note 7), has silver hair that makes him easy to see as he flows past Eton.
9....belov'd in vain: This phrase occurs in the John Dryden and Samuel Garth translation of the third book of Ovid's Metamorphoses in the "Story of Narcissus," in which love is not returned.
10..margent: Edge; bank.
11..cleave: Pierce; divide; cut through. (The reference here is to the stroke of a swimmer.)
12..The . . . enthrall: Which of the boys are the ones who enthrall the linnet? (A linnet is a bird in the finch family.)
13..progeny: Children; offspring.
14..circle: Hoop.
15..urge . . . ball: Reference to a game in which a ball is struck. (The game could be trap-ball, in which a player hits a tiny wooden ball with a small bat.)
16..murm'ring labours play: Murmuring, reciting, or whispering while studying.
17..possest: Possessed. 
18..buxom: Robust.
19..murth'rous: Murderous.
20..beneath: later; to come.
21..griesly: grisly (terrible, horrible).
22..family of death: Illnesses; afflictions; infirmities.
23..Queen: Queen of death.


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Theme

.......As the speaker observes students at his old school, he recalls the days when he was in their place as an exuberant youth taking pleasure in the moment. Seeing the young fellows soothes his soul (line 18), makes him feel young again. But as an adult who has lived long in the world, he knows the tribulations that await the boys, including "black Misfortune's baleful train!" Anger, fear, shame, envy, disease, and so on will be upon them in the not too distant future. Consequently, in a statement of the theme, the speaker concludes in the last two lines that "where ignorance is bliss, / 'Tis folly to be wise."

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)

Alliteration

Where grateful Science still adores (line 3)
Her Henry's holy Shade; (line 4)
His silver-winding way (line 10)
My weary soul they seem to soothe (line 18)
And unknown regions dare descry (line 37)
The spirits pure, the slumbers light (line 49)
Anaphora
Ye distant spires, ye antique tow'rs (line 1)

Of grove, of lawn, of mead survey,
Whose turf, whose shade, whose flowr's among (lines 7 and 8)

Ah, happy hills, ah, pleasing shade,
Ah, fields belov'd in vain (lines 11-12)

This racks the joints, this fires the veins (line 94)

Apostrophe
The speaker addresses the spires and towers (line 1)
The speaker address the hills, the shade and the fields (lines 11-12)
The speaker addresses the Thames River (line 21)
Metaphor
And ye, that from the stately brow
Of Windsor's heights (lines 5-6)
Comparison of upper façade of Windsor Castle to a forehead (brow)

I feel the gales, that from ye blow,
A momentary bliss bestow,
As waving fresh their gladsome wing (lines 15-17)
Comparison of gales to birds flapping their wings

Oxymoron
fearful joy (line 40)
Personification
grateful Science still adores (line 3)

Say, Father Thames, for thou hast seen 
Full many a sprightly race
Disporting on thy margent green (lines 21-23)

The spirits pure, the slumbers light (line 49)

grinning Infamy (line 74)

And hard Unkindness' alter'd eye,
That mocks the tear it forc'd to flow (lines 76-77)

moody Madness laughing wild (79)
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Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write an essay that compares and contrasts "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" and another famous Gray poem, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."
  • Who are/were among the famous graduates of Eton? 
  • Make a list of lines in the poem in which Gray uses anastrophe, a rhetorical device which inverts the normal word order, as in a man forgotten (instead of a forgotten man). 
  • Write a poem of ten lines that imitates the rhyme scheme of "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College." 

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