Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College

Eton College in the gateway to Orcus

by Gray

What has this poem got to do with Latin poetry? For one thing, it is pure carpe diem, as Gray, a Classical professor at Cambridge, would have been well aware. And where have we seen such personifications of human misfortunes before? Aeneas finds them, or something very like them, in the antechamber to Hades in Book VI of the Aeneid: another example of the pervading influence of Latin on European literature. The passage is below, followed by Gray’s Ode in full.

See the blog post, with an illustration by William Blake, here.

Vestibulum ante ipsum primisque in faucibus Orci
Luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae,
pallentesque habitant Morbi tristisque Senectus,
et Metus et malesuada Fames ac turpis Egestas,
terribiles visu formae, Letumque Labosque;
tum consanguineus Leti Sopor et mala mentis
Gaudia, mortiferumque adverso in limine Bellum,
ferreique Eumenidum thalami et Discordia demens
vipereum crinem vittis innexa cruentis.

Before the entrance, just where the jaws of Orcus open,
Grief and the vengeful cares have placed their lairs:
there live pale diseases, sad Age, and Fear,
Hunger, the mother of crime, loathsome Want,
horrible to see, and Death and Suffering: then Sleep,
Death’s brother, and the wicked joys of the mind,
and War the death-bringer on the threshold opposite,
the Furies’ iron cells and insane Strife, her snake-hair
twined with bloody bands.

Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College

Ye distant spires, ye antique tow’rs,
That crown the wat’ry 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 flowr’s 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 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 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 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,
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.

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’rous 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-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 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.

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 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.

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.