I have read Gray’s “Ode” many times and it has never failed to astonish me. It begins conventionally enough with a description of Eton seen from afar. “Happy” are the hills, “pleasing” is the shade. We anticipate an idealized evocation of the life of boys on the playing fields of Eton (where, 70 years later, the Duke of Wellington would say that the battle of Waterloo was won). But even as Gray summons up the image of the boys at their games, we get hints that Eton remembered is what Frost called a “momentary stay against confusion.” The boys “snatch a fearful joy,” we learn in the fourth stanza. The fifth stanza states the enviable condition of youth: “the tear forgot as soon as shed.” But nothing prepares us for the change in intensity signaled by the opening of stanza six: “Alas, regardless of their doom,/ The little victims play.” At the sound of the words doom and victim, the reader is in the position of a batter who had expected a fast ball and looks in amazement and dismay as an off-speed pitch curves over the heart of the plate.
Click here for the full post.