The Carefree Childhood

and Austerity of Age in Gray’s "Eton College"

The "careless childhood" (13) of Thomas Gray’s "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" is one of diversion and disport, of "thoughtless day[s],…easy night[s]" (48), and plenty of movement. This carefree existence whose aphorism is activity is the lifestyle of choice for the young scholars of Eton College. However, though they long to remain children, as is the case for all of mankind, these youths are naturally subject to the "icy hand" (89) of age, of disease, and of emotion. Yet these boys play unaware of the "ministers of human fate" (56) that lurk all around them; they are oblivious to the "fury Passions" (61) and "vultures of the mind" (62) that prey upon all men alike. These young scholars continue in their games, in their fancies and fantasies of adventure and intrigue. They think not of the future "ills to come" (53), but rely solely on their "buxom health" (45) and "wild wit [and] invention ever-new" (46). Through corporeal metaphors and contrasting images of a stringent setting versus its wildly active characters, Gray underscores both the omnipresent schoolboy desire for a carefree, mobile life and the subsequent denial of that "gay hope" (41) which comes with the imminent torpor, rigidity, and disease of "slow-consuming Age" (90).

The overarching contrast between the ancient academy and the young, playful schoolboys serves to create an immediate separation between the carelessness of youth and the rigidity of age. Gray’s initial aged images of the "distant spires…[and] antique towers" (1) of Eton College serve to immediately focus reader attention on the foreboding school building which oversees the grounds like a doting parent. The building, "antique" and "stately" (5), along with "the hoary Thames" (9), act as the elderly figures in the ode, "survey[ing]… / th’ expanse below" (7, 6) with the wisdom and rigidity of age. Both the "stately" College and "Father Thames" (21) provide an excellent backdrop for the "sprightly race" (22) of wild school children, for they offer a stark contrast to the youths, "disporting on [the Thames’] margent green" (23). The school, an obvious icon of age and longstanding tradition, acts as a stringent symbol of rigidity. A decidedly stagnant building of stone, the College represents the foreboding presence of the "slow-consuming Age" that will eventually pluck the plucky penchant for mobility from each and every one of the schoolboys. As the primary image in the poem, it is clear that the "stately brow" (5) and aged torpor of the ominous stone structure preside over the boys and their play, as omnipresent and omnipotent as the impending "icy hand" of age.

Supplementary to the illustration of the academy, the image of "Father Thames" as the classic venerable sage also enhances the concept of the ubiquity of age. The "hoary Thames," which acts as a boundary on one side of the campus, "wanders…along / His silver-winding way" (9-10) as a sluggish, seemingly eternal elder slowly besieging the youths with his agedness. Though the river clearly moves meanderingly across the mead, contrasting the resolutely stationary college, it is nevertheless capable of subtly inundating the boys with the same ancient stringency. The river Thames serves to hem the children in, close them off from escape from the campus; it partners with the College in creating a foreboding sense that the children are absolutely incapable of escaping the imminence of age, for it clearly surrounds them on all sides. It is also clear that the Thames is, in fact, a primordial presence to the young school children, as it is referred to with epithets such as "hoary" and "Father," words used to describe one bent and worn by the process of age. The movement of the river, however, could possibly be misconstrued as movement that is still possible with age. Nevertheless, the circuitous movement of this antediluvian river is markedly different from the movement of a child; though the Thames is not completely stagnant, its movement is not the movement akin to a member of a "sprightly race." The river merely "wanders," ambling and winding slowly through the lea, clearly in marked contrast to the youths who are agile and energetic.

Contrary to the ancient Thames and austere institution, the schoolboys are wildly active, as is apparent in the verbs of motion with which they are continually described throughout the poem. This "sprightly race" of young men is first seen "disporting on [the] margent green" (23) of the river, and described later in the poem in even more "active" terms: these boys "delight to cleave" (25) the river’s waters, "enthrall…the captive linnet" (27), "chase the rolling circle" (29) and "urge the flying ball" (30). All of these verbs (cleave, enthrall, chase, urge) clearly present the boys as mobile youths bent on leading active existences, and emphasize their extreme proclivity for movement. Though these boys are later split into two separate, decidedly different groups, they all are nonetheless included in the aforementioned "sprightly race" whose delight it is to cleave and enthrall, to chase and to urge. All of the students at Eton College seem to desire the movement and carelessness of childhood, though they attempt to achieve freedom from the institution, and, subsequently, from age, through different means.

One faction of Eton scholars is a group of "bold adventurers" (35) who choose to discover the "unknown regions" (37) surrounding the College, "snatch[ing] a fearful joy" (40) as they tear away from "the limits of their little reign" (36). This group of students is decidedly active, as is apparent in the verbs used to describe them, as they literally run past the bounds of the academy, denying their studies and seizing a breathless excitement from their deviance. These children obviously have "no sense…of ills come" (53), as they break from the bounds imposed upon them by the aged institution. They try valiantly to escape from the hands of age and asceticism that envelop them by "disdain[ing] / the limits" (34-35) of the College’s campus, but are unable to break through the boundary lines of age. Due to the fact that "as they run they look behind" (38), it is clear that these young men are, in fact, slightly attuned to the fact that they are incapable of fully escaping that oft-remembered "icy hand" of Age. They look back to the overwhelmingly stalwart and rigid College as they sprint, exposing both the doubts and fears they have regarding their outward motion. These "bold adventurers" sense that the College still retains its authority over them, even during their rebellion against its boundaries, just as the "slow-consuming Age" it represents has power over them as well, despite their attempts to escape it.

Even those "on earnest business bent" (31) are focused on their studies not for their own personal enrichment, but due to the promise of a sweeter freedom on the playing field once they are finished with their schoolwork. These boys make up the other faction of scholars at Eton College, these clever young men who apply "their murm’ring labors / ‘Gainst graver hours, that bring constraint / To sweeten liberty" (32-34). These boys, though they are not described in such active terms as the adventurers are depicted, are cleverly aware that their liberty, or freedom, will be much more gratifying if they have nothing to do other than play. The "earnest businessmen" are equally bent on gamboling in the "happy hills [and] pleasing shade" (11) of the Eton College campus, but are secretly sentient of the rewards to be had after schoolwork is finished and one can frolic with a clear mind and with no "care beyond today" (54). This group, however, is subject to the omnipotence of the academy and age as well; they are unable to "sweeten liberty" with regard to aging. For, as they grow older, there cannot possibly be a final question or last paragraph as there can be in schoolwork; rather, there is simply cold-handed, "slow-consuming Age," from which there is no reprieve. This inability to truly achieve liberty is subtly implicit in this particular concept of "work before pleasure," in that there is a "work continuum" in an academy such as Eton College, i.e. there is not an actual end to the work, for the next day naturally bodes another assignment, another exam. Therefore, these young industrious boys may attempt to "bring constraint" upon themselves in order "to sweeten liberty," but they are clearly incapable of achieving the true liberty of the purely carefree lifestyle which they seek. For, as they attempt to attain liberty from their scholastic duties, they are still submissive to the aged institution, bound by age and strictness, and destined to have one assignment after another, to lose their childhoods slowly in a flutter of textbook pages.

Though it is clear that all these youths are desirous of the same active lifestyle and freedom from the confines of their antiquated College, they are nevertheless subject to the "fury Passions" and "vultures of the mind" which logically come hand in hand with the imminent process of aging. Though they long for movement, they are "condemned alike to groan" (92) as they grow older and slowly become decrepit. As the "vale of years" (81) stretches out before them, they will gradually become increasingly stagnant due to the cruel physical manifestations of emotion. The corporeal metaphors of "Pallid Fear" (63), "pining Love [that] shall waste their youth" (65), and "Jealousy… / That inly gnaws the secret heart" (66-67) are clearly representative of the stagnation that comes with age; they serve only to reduce the man to nothingness, to leave him in an unmoving, wasted state. The emotion of fear is characterized as "pallid," meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, as "wan, pale, as affected by sickness or passion." By investing fear with the ability to infect a man with a sallow pallor, Gray shows that these "fury Passions" are clearly able to cause physical harm and are inescapable as one ages. Likewise, love is obviously capable of wasting youth away; Jealousy "with rankling tooth" (66) festers inside the man, chewing idly at his heart. These, among others, are the corporeal symptoms of age; they are the effects of the more complex emotions characteristic to maturity. The schoolboys are unaware of these cruel emotions, "black Misfortune’s baleful train" (57), that act as metaphorical vultures, circling, scavenging, preying on the poor young man who spent his childhood "regardless of [his] doom" (51).

However, though Gray laments, "Ah, tell them, they are men" (60), seemingly in the hope that these youthful scholars may somehow better prepare themselves for these members of "the painful family of Death" (83), he still asserts that the Eton College boys should not attempt to "destroy their paradise" (98) with thoughts of the melancholic variety. Though "all are men" (91) and are therefore destined to be "numb[ed] / …[by] slow-consuming Age" (89-90), it would be equally lamentable, according to Gray, for the schoolboys to "know their fate" (95). The carefree childhood, then, is clearly optimal. However, whether the child is a "bold adventurer" or an "earnest businessman," he is still incapable of completely recognizing the fate which waits beyond the Thames’ "margent green," for his thoughts stray no further than the "rolling circle" and the "flying ball." And, with a "lively cheer of vigor" (47), he feels liberated, ready to play, to chase, to run, and to "disdain the limits" of the ominous "antique towers" of Eton College and its "slow-consuming Age."