The poem, ‘Hymn to Adversity’, written in 1742, like the ‘Ode on Spring‘ and the ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’, belongs to the first period of Gray’s poetic career. The word “hymn” means a song in praise of God; but here this word has been used to mean a song in praise of Adversity which has been personified, and to which the poet has attributed certain divine qualities. Adversity is here regarded as a daughter of Jove (or Jupiter) who was, in ancient classical mythology, the supreme god. This poem, written in praise of Adversity looks forward to a similar poem written by Wordsworth. The poem by Wordsworth is entitled “Ode to Duty”.
Wordsworth too has personified Duty in his poem and has treated Duty as an awful power which can exert its influence upon all kinds of human beings and direct their thoughts and actions into the right channels in order to compel them to perform their duties scrupulously and efficiently. It is said that Gray’s tone of bitterness in his poem was caused by his quarrel with Robert Walpole who had been a friend of his.
While the first four stanzas of this poem are impersonal and objective, the last two stanzas are personal and subjective. In other words, in the first four stanzas the poet describes how Adversity deals with, or should deal with, the other people, while in the last two stanzas he describes the manner in which Adversity should deal with him.
He wants that Adversity should treat him gently and mildly, meaning that his circumstances in life should not become so adverse or unfavourable as to make him feel miserable. The underlying idea of the poem, of course, is the same as in Shakespeare’s famous dictum: “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” The poem is Gray’s tribute, couched in rhetorical and eloquent words, to Adversity.
Hymn to Adversity Analysis
Daughter of JOVE, relentless Power,
Thou Tamer of the human breast,
Whose iron scourge and tort’ring hour
The Bad affright, afflict the Best!
Bound in thy adamantine chain
The Proud are taught to taste of pain,
And purple Tyrants vainly groan
With pangs unfelt before, unpitied and alone.
Adversity is the daughter of the supreme god Jove (or Jupiter). She has the power to subdue the human heart and the human mind. She wields her authority in a merciless manner, frightening the evil-minded persons and not sparing even the noblest persons when these persons happen to commit any misdeeds. She inflicts a severe punishment upon the evil-doers. She subjects the proud people to such acute pain that they are cured of their sin of pride. She inflicts such punishment upon cruel dictators and despots that they cry out with pain which they have to endure without being pitied by anyone.
When first thy Sire to send on earth
Virtue, his darling Child, design’d,
To thee he gave the heav’nly Birth,
And bad to form her infant mind.
Stern rugged Nurse! thy rigid lore
With patience many a year she bore:
What sorrow was, thou bad’st her know,
And from her own she learn’d to melt at other’s woe.
Virtue is also a daughter of Jove; but she was sent down from heaven to the earth later than Adversity; and Jove at that time directed Adversity to rear Virtue and mould the character of Virtue so as to make sure that Virtue would learn what sorrow was and on what occasions Virtue should feel sympathy towards persons in distress. Adversity was also directed by her father, Jove, to perform her functions scrupulously. The main idea in this stanza is that virtuous persons are taught by their adverse circumstances to endure those circumstances patiently, and to accept without grumbling the misfortunes which have befallen them.
Scared at thy frown terrific, fly
Self-pleasing Folly’s idle brood,
Wild Laughter, Noise, and thoughtless Joy,
And leave us leisure to be good.
Light they disperse, and with them go
The summer Friend, the flatt’ring Foe;
By vain Prosperity received,
To her they vow their truth, and are again believed.
Idlers and other shallow-minded persons take to their heels as soon as Adversity appears before them with a frown on her forehead. Persons who laugh in an uncivilized manner, persons who make unnecessary noise, and persons who look joyous and jubilant without any reason feel scared when they see a look of disapproval on the face of Adversity. And they then run away helter skelter. When they go away, some others go away too.
The others are the fair-weather friends and the flattering enemies; and they all go to prosperous individuals to whom they swear their loyalty. The idea here is that foolish, shallow-minded, and unthinking persons are unable to face their adverse circumstances. In other words, when such persons are faced with adverse circumstances, they learn nothing. They then seek the protection of rich and prosperous individuals, assuring those prosperous individuals that they would serve them and remain loyal to them.
Wisdom in sable garb array’d
Immers’d in rapt’rous thought profound,
And Melancholy, silent maid
With leaden eye, that loves the ground,
Still on thy solemn steps attend:
Warm Charity, the gen’ral friend,
With Justice to herself severe,
And Pity, dropping soft the sadly-pleasing tear.
Adversity is attended by wise persons clothed in unostentious garments and absorbed in their philosophical thoughts which are a source of joy to them. Adversity is also attended by melancholy persons whose eyes are devoid of lustre, and who keep looking down at the ground because of their state of joylessness. Other attendants of Adversity are charitable persons, justice-minded persons, and sympathetic persons who are moved to tears by the sight of misery and woe. In this stanza, another class of human being are described, and their attributes specified.
Wise persons, melancholy persons, charitable persons, just persons, and sympathetic persons, who are presented to us here, offer a strong contrast to the kind of human beings depicted in the preceding stanza. These persons try to keep company with Adversity. In other words, these persons show their true characteristics in times of adversity. Here also the attributes of the various persons have been specified in words and phrases which are most appropriate and most effective though some readers may insist that the language used here, as well as in the rest of the poem, is a specimen of the eighteen-century poetic diction. As for us, we find the choice of words and their arrangement to be most satisfactory.
Oh, gently on thy Suppliant’s head,
Dread Goddess, lay thy chast’ning hand!
Not in thy Gorgon terrors clad,
Nor circled with the vengeful Band
(As by the Impious thou art seen)
With thund’ring voice, and threat’ning mien,
With screaming Horror’s funeral cry,
Despair, and fell Disease, and ghastly Poverty.
The poet now becomes personal and seeks the patronage of Adversity. In other words, the poet would like to be guided in the course of his life by Adversity; but he does not want that Adversity should appear before him in her dreadful, awful, and awe-inspiring shape.
He certainly wants Adversity to punish him and chastise him in order to reform him and direct his energies into the right channels; but he does not want to be confronted with the fierce attendants of Adversity. These fierce attendants should confine their wrath to the impious persons only.
What the poet here means to say is that his circumstances in life should never become so adverse and so hostile as to make him feel wretched and miserable. Wretchedness and misery should be the fate only of impious persons who have become hardened sinners and not of the humble persons like him who err and do wrong only occasionally.
Thomas Gray here introduces himself into the poem; and this personal element is one of the romantic features manifesting themselves in Gray’s poetry. This subjectivity was something alien to the strictly neo-classical poetry of the time; and Gray, like several other poet of that time, shows his romantic tendency by revealing himself and giving expression to his own state of mind and his own moods. “Thy chastening hand”, “thy Gorgon terrors”, “the vengeful band”, “threatening mien” and “ghastly Poverty” are examples of Gray’s careful choice of words and his phrase-making talent. This kind of vocabulary shows Gray as a scholarly poet.
Thy form benign, oh Goddess, wear,
Thy milder influence impart,
Thy philosophic Train be there
To soften, not to wound my heart,
The gen’rous spark extinct revive,
Teach me to love and to forgive,
Exact my own defects to scan,
What others are, to feel, and know myself a Man.
Continuing his train of thoughts from the preceding stanza, the poet now appeals to Adversity to adopt a kind, mild, and benevolent attitude towards him, and to exercise her influence upon him gently. He further appeals to this goddess to come to him, not in her monstrous shape, and not with her fierce-looking and frightful attendants, but with her philosophical attendants who can soften his heart but not hurt or lacerate it.
The poet entreats Adversity o bring back to life those generous impulses which he originally possessed but which have been crushed and obliterated by the evil influences of this world. He also entreats Adversity to teach him to love and forgive others, and to examine his own defects of character closely so that he may learn how others should be treated, and how he can develop his own potential as a man.
In this stanza, the poet expresses his desire to be reformed gently by Adversity whose function, as decided by Jove, is to bring about an improvement in the character and the conduct of all human beings on this earth. Adversity can prove herself to be a very merciless and cruel power in the case of impious human beings, but she can also exercise her wholesome influence gently and mildly on those who have not become hardened sinners. The poet wishes Adversity to reform him by gentle and mild means, thus seeking from her a preferential treatment.
What the poet here means to say is that his circumstances in life should not become so antagonistic and so hostile as to cause him too much agony and pain. He cannot, of course, hope his life to become a bed of roses, and he cannot expect the journey of his life to become an easy and smooth affair.
He has his faults and his defects, and he does want to be rid of those faults and defects by the adverse circumstances of life. He doesn’t pray for an altogether trouble-free life; but at the same time he does not want too much suffering in his life. And we feel that this is a perfectly legitimate wish.