Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Returning to Eton: Writing History and Temporality in Thomas Gray's "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College"

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Returning to Eton: Writing History and Temporality in Thomas Gray's "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College"

Article excerpt

The speaker of Thomas Gray's "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" intends to write the history of his adult suffering, but his return to Eton reveals that the origin of such suffering is embedded within his past rather than being the product of maturity, thus upsetting a linear formation of his story:

Ah happy hills, ah pleasing shade,
Ah fields beloved in vain,
Where once my careless childhood strayed,
A stranger yet to pain! (11-14)

The speaker's painfully wistful tone in these lines betrays the complexity of his present understanding of temporality. He crafts his lament for a lost "childhood" from the perspective of his adult self, yet his assertion that the landscape of Eton was "beloved in vain," spoken in the past tense, suggests the complication of a decisive division between youth and maturity: in the past he was already loving the fields and hills in vain. He finds that he cannot reconcile what he remembers being and what he has become, performing what Paul Odney identifies in the Pindaric poems as competing "versions of the past" (248).

Indeed, different modes of constituting and writing history collide within the space and time of "Eton College." Returning to Eton instigates the speaker's historiographic endeavors as he attempts to reevaluate the origin and development of his personal history. The moral choice of the poem--whether or not to betray the suffering of adulthood to the college youths--becomes, for the speaker, indelibly linked to his ability to elucidate his relationship to his past, present, and future. The speaker initially conceives of Eton as directing the narration of his own ontological progression along the lines of the classical exemplar model of history, with the collegiate institution governing subjectivity and temporality. Shifting his gaze from Eton to Eton's natural landscape, though, introduces into the speaker's consciousness different modes of constituting history beyond that of the exemplar, such as natural laws and empirical inquiry. Moving from meditations on the college itself to the college's surroundings produces the speaker's phenomenological anxiety, since the speaker's imagined relationship with the college promulgates his relationship with his past and his understanding of his futurity. The speaker finds each mode of writing history insufficient for expressing the capaciousness of his relationship with Eton College. These conflicting and inoperable modes of writing history dismantle his capacity to conceive himself as existing in historical time and, accordingly, to imagine himself as an agent of history, either of continuity or of change.

Such a reading upsets a teleological view of eighteenth-century poetry, affirming David Fairer's conviction that mid-eighteenth-century poets engage with what he terms the "retrospect, a looking back which becomes an attempt to recover the past" ("Recovery" 147). Rather than placing the work of such poets as Gray and Thomas Warton in a relationship with the Romantics coming later in the century (and thus utilizing a forward-looking gaze), Fairer locates poetic interest in the historical and literary past. He dismisses the efficacy of the term "pre-romanticism" to describe mid-eighteenth-century poetry because this language indicates prematurity, denigrating the body of work as incapable of attaining the full potential of poetic composition assumed by the Romantics (a term, he reminds us, the Victorians later imposed on the eighteenth century). Likewise, I would suggest that categorizing Gray's poetry as a failed precursor or as an inanimate incubator for later texts limits scholarly appreciation for the capaciousness of his historical thinking, reinforcing, rather than troubling, Gray's persona as "the pensive poet" (Sharp 24), concerned only with other-worldly ideas, and removed from the high political debates of the Augustans.

But if we position Gray as embedded in the socio-political and economic concerns of the period, as Suvir Kaul and Henry Weinfield ask us to do, then we find his work interweaving complex and often conflicting modes of constituting subjectivity and temporality that complicate eighteenth-century history writing. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.