The images of water in An Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College carry the reader throughout the entire poem. The opening scene describes the river Thames as a distinct part of the college surroundings, and as a symbol of the children's innocence at their young age. The river in the poem is a very natural, pure, flowing image of water, as is a shed tear used to show how the innocence of childhood never exits the body, but is engraved inside. The tear is an image of the innocence yearning to escape and express itself, but it is up to the children as young men and grown adults to accept the innocence as part of their childhood past. The last form of water presented in the poem is ice, contrasting the natural state of a river or tear, ice is solid. Obviously, not as flowing as a river, nor as personal as a tear, the ice represents what happens to the innocence in death, which comes to all people. This death is not only of the physical body, being cold and stiff, but the innocence of the childhood being long forgotten. In Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, these images of water represent the innocence of childhood as it is affected by age, experience, and eventually death.
The river Thames is the first image of water used in the poem to describe the pure, innocent state of the children at the college. In the opening of the poem, the river Thames is seen as part of the children's surroundings as well as their father figure, but most importantly as a part of themselves. The poem begins: "Ye distant spires, ye antique towers,/ That crown the wat'ry glade" (1-2), and from the beginning the water is very important to the setting. In only the second line of the poem, the river is mentioned. The college and the water together are the first objects observed. In later lines, there is more detail of the river's significance: "whose flowers among/ Wanders the hoary Thames along/ His silver-winding way" (8-10), and the river is vital to the school's atmosphere, which is part of the children's atmosphere, as lines that follow express. The river is seen as a father figure in the children's lives who looks after them: "Say, Father Thames, for thou hast seen/ Full many a sprightly race/ Disporting on thy margent green/ The paths of pleasure trace" (22-25). The image of water as a river is a very natural state, for rivers are not man made, but one of the purest forms of nature. The river is a symbol of water, of nature, and of a father or caretaker as well. The text suggests that the river is the caretaker of the land, through the figure of the father, but the land is the college, and the college is filled with children. As a symbol of nature as well as a parental unit, the river could represent mother nature, but in the poem is literally referred to as Father Thames. Looking after the children of the college as they grow up, the father figure of the water represents the children's family, their care, and all that encompasses the innocence of their childhood. The river has seen many generations grow up, as the text suggested in lines 22-25. As a caretaker, the river becomes part of the children's lives, and represents all that is good and pure to them at a young age. The river's fatherly innocence was a place where children would relax as well as live without worries of their future. The simple joys of children would be to place their arm in the rolling river: "Who foremost now delight to cleave/ With pliant arm thy glassy wave?" (26-7), and not only feeling the water with their touch, but playing games near by where the Father Thames could view them. The children would play games: "What idle progency succeed/ To chase the rolling circle's speed,/ Or urge the flying ball?" (29-31). The innocence of the children the flowing river, which is a part of each one of their lives, a memory. The one who keeps an eye on the children at all times, while they delight themselves in their blissful, innocent play is a natural, flowing river, which makes them feel safe. They enjoy the presence of the water, with emotions that are simple and positive, caring and delightful; all in play. But this happiness is only a childhood innocence, and is only so deep. The children begin to grow up, and their lives change with age and experience, leaving part of themselves behind.
As the children age and become teenagers, they are not satisfied in the pleasures that playing ball down by the river once gave them, but instead have aspirations of some larger goal or better event just out of their reach, away from the school, but more importantly, away from the river. The image of water now changes from a river to a tear, yet still representing the innocence of the children. The aged youth are not patient: "Gay hope is theirs by fancy fed,/ Less pleasing when possessed;/ The tear forgot as soon as shed,/ The sunshine of the breast" (41-44). In these lines, the youth have a hope in a future they know not of. The passage indicates that this hope even if acquired, would not satisfy the youth. The forgotten tear represents the feelings and emotions inside the youth that want to emerge, but are ignored by the young men. These young men begin to feel these emotions inside them, but then dismiss them as quickly as they are recognized. The emotions inside them are the memories of innocence attempting to not be lost and forgotten. The image of water, now in the form of a tear is not being accepted, when it escapes the body and exits out of the eye, but ignored. The innocent love that was given to them at a young age through playing ball or resting down by the river is now inside them trying to come out and remind them of their forgotten joys, yet they simply rub their eyes and move on. The innocence is forgotten and replaced with a hope that something somewhere is better or more gratifying. The speaker, who is looking back at his life, believes there is no such place. Even though the images of water through tears try to remind the now adolescence of the pleasant river, it is no use. The young men will not listen to their hearts, which seem to be speaking through the tears rolling down their cheeks. The water now coming from their eyes as a tear, Gray writes is: "forgot as soon as shed" (43), creating an unnatural event, from a very natural image of a tear. The images of water are so well represented that this opposition to the bliss that the college and the river seemed to attain is disturbing. The water at the college represented a very peaceful, beautiful place, but once gone, is forgotten. Tears, as rivers, are natural and flow as do children age. The river flows by the college, the tears run down the cheeks of men, and the children grow older, and begin to experience life.
While they age, the young men begin to experience life, with true feelings and emotions, unlike what is experienced at the river. As children, the only emotions they felt were delight, bliss, and joy, but as they grow, new emotions are recognized. These emotions that shape a person are called experiences of adolescence becoming men. They begin to deal with different passions including fear, anger, jealousy, envy, sorrow, shame and love in lines 60-70 of the poem. This forces the ambitious little kids who grew up to be young men and now are near adulthood to be faced with blame. The life that was once about hope and happiness is now filled with corruption of innocence, a society that Gray claims: "mocks the tear it forced to flow" (77). Here the youth, now men who have experienced life's emotions, are not forgetting the innocent tear, but mocking it. The age and experience of their life is mocking their entire past. The water is still a form of childhood innocence attempting to show his face, but instead of being ignored, he is being scorned. The innocence is seen as something to be ashamed of. The image of water shows how one eye's shed tear represents the coming of age of a young man, who once was comforted by the bosom of mother nature's river, and is now excusing his innocence at the swipe of his hand. There is an even larger opposition here, not simply a person who ignores their tears, but a persecuted man who will never accept the innocence of his past. Tears, or innocence, are no longer part of the ideal vocabulary, but only to be mocked, scorned or made fun of. The same children that were playing near the river, are now being held down for showing emotions that tie them to their past. A tear shed is not a sweet, forgotten moment, nor a memory of nature or innocence, but a symbol of dishonor. The water that flows is mocked as if childish, and by childish is meant something similar to immature than innocent. The images that gave the youth the most bliss, are now no part of the men's lives. Through age and experience, the children never become men who are in touch with their innocence, for the river that looked after them is seen as a joke. Eventually the water is not flowing by the college or down a cheek, but is frozen by their continual avoidance of their own lives. They seem to be running from the college and the flowing river, as far away as possible, ending up so far from the natural state of water, that they freeze into an icy form known as death.
The children age and experience life, but in the end death cannot be avoided, for it is where all men go: "Lo, in the vale of years beneath/ A grisly troop are seen,/ The painful family of Death" (81-3), Gray goes on, "Lo, Poverty, to fill the band,/ That numbs the soul with icy hand,/ And slow-consuming Age" (88-90). In death, the flowing river is nowhere to be found, neither are the tears in eyes shed. The speaker mentions that poverty fills the band, meaning the band of experiences such as jealousy and envy. Poverty is the last of these experiences. The band along with death numbs the soul. Wealth is an experience that affects the men's lives drastically. The emotions that go along with the exchange of currency are all but simple, pure and wholesome, for at a college there are no poor; all play by the river. Death numbs the soul not with the flowing, rapid, winding, silver river of innocence, nor the warm, salty, shed tear of memory, but with a stiff and stark, cold and solid ice. A solid is not a liquid, which cannot be tampered with or rearranged, but it is an absolute, an ending. The icy hand of death ends the beautiful, innocent images of water. The children's end is not a pretty heaven, nor is there some moral to be found. The forward progress of the children's life ends with a negative outlook, and the innocence of childhood found in peace by placing their arm in the river cannot be found in an icy hand that murders a spirit. The image of ice is not a happy or delightful one for adults, but the children had endless possibilities with the innocent river, the young men growing up are those that struggle the most with a tear full of memories.
The children's lives and eventual death does not have a moral lesson. The images of water show how age and experience affect our past, develop our present, and produce our future. Gray does not offer much hope of a better future, nor does he mention heaven as an option after death. When the children finally die as men like everybody else, the water that gave them the most joy in their youth is not with them. The water that they cried, and ignored, and scorned growing up leaves them. The only form of water left in the poem is the cold, hard ice that is found in death. They created their own destiny, and this was it. Images of water explain how life is broken up into different stages, where decisions must be made. From a flowing river to an icy hand, every one of life's stages affects the child growing old and eventually dying.
Gray, Thomas. "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College." The Longman Anthology of British Literature Vol 1C. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Inc., 1999. 2682-2684.