‘Ode on the Spring’ belongs to the first period of Gray’s poetic career. It was written in 1742 and to that year also belong the Hymn to Adversity and the Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College. Most probably Gray derived the inspiration for writing this ode from James Thomson’s poem called Seasons. In ‘Ode on the Spring’, written during this first period (1742-50) of Gray’s poetic career, signs of Gray’s romantic temper are already in evidence. For instance, ‘Ode on the Spring’ is characterized by several romantic qualities though it also bears the eighteenth-century stamp in the form of personifications (some of which are absolutely needless), the use of what came to be known as “poetic diction” (which was subsequently rejected by the romantic poets), and a lot of moralizing.
Analysis of Ode on the Spring
Lo! where the rosy-bosom’d Hours,
Fair Venus’ train appear,
Disclose the long-expecting flowers,
And wake the purple year!
The Attic warbler pours her throat,
Responsive to the cuckoo’s note,
The untaught harmony of spring:
While whisp’ring pleasure as they fly,
Cool zephyrs thro’ the clear blue sky
Their gather’d fragrance fling.
Behold! The Hours, which have a rosy complexion and which attend upon the beautiful goddess called Venus (the goddess of beauty and love), have appeared on the scene and are bringing into view the buds which have long been expecting to open into flowers. These Hours represent the pretty colours of that time of the year when the year seems to have awakened from its sleep.
It is the season of spring which has arrived. The nightingale, which has a long history going back to the ancient times in Greece, is singing in a rich voice; and it is singing in response to the singing of the cuckoo. Both these birds sing spontaneously, and their singing is part of the music of this season.
While the birds are singing, cool winds blow through the blue sky which is free from clouds in this season; and these winds seem to be producing joyous sounds as they blow. The winds are also scattering the sweetness which they have gathered from the blooming flowers.
This stanza is marked by both neo-classical characteristics and the romantic temper of the poet. The time of spring is personified as the “rosy-bosom’d Hours” which are regarded as the attendants of Venus. The winds and the breezes have been personified as Zephyrs (that is, the followers of Zephyrus, the god of winds).
The nightingale is described as “the Attic warbler”, and this is an example of poetic diction. The romantic temper of the writer is seen in his interest in, and his keen observation of, natural phenomena and natural processes.
Nature emerged as a new theme in the poetry of Gray and others of the same group of poets who are regarded as the harbingers of the Romantic movement, though these poets could not get completely free of the prevailing neo-classical style of writing of which Alexander Pope was the principal representative.
Where’er the oak’s thick branches stretch
A broader, browner shade;
Where’er the rude and moss-grown beech
O’er-canopies the glade,
Beside some water’s rushy brink
With me the Muse shall sit, and think
(At ease reclin’d in rustic state)
How vain the ardour of the crowd,
How low, how little are the proud,
How indigent the great!
At places an oak tree spreads its thick branches, casting on the ground below a shade which is larger and browner in colour than the branches themselves. At other places the beech tree, which has a rough and uneven trunk with the green moss growing upon it, seems to serve as an overhead covering for the open space in the valley. Amid this scene, I would sit down on the bank of a river or a brook by the side of which grows a kind of grass called “rush”; and by my side would sit the goddess who presides over the writing of poetry.
Together we (I and the Muse) would sit comfortably in a leaning posture and the rural style. Together we would meditate upon the futility of all the noisy endeavours of the city crowds, and we would also meditate upon the smallness and insignificance of the people in the city who feel proud of themselves, and upon the extreme poverty of those persons who think themselves to be very rich and exalted.
Still is the toiling hand of Care:
The panting herds repose:
Yet hark, how thro’ the peopled air
The busy murmur glows!
The insect youth are on the wing,
Eager to taste the honied spring,
And float amid the liquid noon:
Some lightly o’er the current skim,
Some show their gaily-gilded trim
Quick-glancing to the sun.
The shepherd, who busily and anxiously looks after the welfare of his sheep and who has to work very hard, is resting at this time and is therefore making no movements or noise. The sheep, which had been running about breathlessly during the day, are also now at rest.
(Or, the sheep which were breathless on account of the heat are now peaceful). And yet the silence is not absolute or complete. Certain sounds are audible. In fact, the air seems to be thick with sounds which indicate some kind of activity, though these sounds are low.
The sounds are coming from the insects which are passing through the prime of their existence, and which are fluttering their wings as they fly about through the air. These insects are eager to taste the sweetness of the flowers which bloom during this season (namely spring). These insects fly in a leisurely manner on the surface of some brook at noon-time.
Some of these insects fly lightly over the flowing water of the brook and they almost touch the surface in the course of their flight, while others are making a display of their bright colours and their neat wings. The insects cast quick glances upwards to look at the sun.
To Contemplation’s sober eye
Such is the race of man:
And they that creep, and they that fly,
Shall end where they began.
Alike the busy and the gay
But flutter thro’ life’s little day,
In fortune’s varying colours drest:
Brush’d by the hand of rough Mischance,
Or chill’d by age, their airy dance
They leave, in dust to rest.
To the eyes of a serious-minded and contemplative on-looker, such also is the fast journey of a human being through life. The insects, both those which crawl on the ground and those which fly through the air, shall end their existence in the same way as they began. The insects of either kinds, whether they are busy or whether they are carefree, spend their short existence, merely fluttering their wings, regardless of every other consideration. They are all dressed in the different colours with which Fate has endowed them. Some of these insects shall get killed by an accidental blow from someone, and some of them shall die a natural death in due course. These flying insects would ultimately cease their movements through the air and would end their existence to rest on the ground below where they would mingle with the dust.
Methinks I hear in accents low
The sportive kind reply:
Poor moralist! and what art thou?
A solitary fly!
Thy joys no glitt’ring female meets,
No hive hast thou of hoarded sweets,
No painted plumage to display:
On hasty wings thy youth is flown;
Thy sun is set, thy spring is gone
We frolic, while ’tis May.
I think I hear, in low voices, a reply to what I have said. I hear a reply from the creatures belonging to the playful race of insects and worms. This is what they have to say me in their reply: “You are a miserable preacher delivering sermons to others. What are you yourself? You are no better than a lonely fly. You have no woman, dressed in bright and shinning garments or wearing jewellery, to keep you company and to serve as a source of pleasure to you. You possess no storehouse full of accumulated pleasures from which you can draw any happiness at your will. You have no gaudy garments or showy equipment to display. Your youthful years have already passed, and they have passed in a hurried manner. The years of your prime are over, and thus the spring of your life has already ended while we are still enjoying our spring and are flying about merrily.
The poem, ‘Ode on the Spring’ by Thomas Gray, has a lyrical quality in which the neo-classical poetry of the eighteenth century was sadly wanting, and which appeared chiefly in the work of Thomas Gray and a few others who are regarded as the pioneers of the Romantic movement in English poetry. If this poem is judged as an ode, we have to note the fact that it does not conform to any ancient classical pattern or form of the ode, somewhat akin to the odes of the ancient classical poet Horace who wrote regular odes, very unlike the Pindaric ones. (An ode by Horace is written in uniform stanzas, each of the same length and each observing the same rhyme-scheme). Each stanza in this poem consists of ten lines and the rhyme-scheme in all the stanzas is the same. Thus, this Ode is different from “The Progress of Poesy and The Bard” which are Pindaric odes by Gray. You can read more poetry by Thomas Gray here.
There is an undercurrent of melancholy in this poem, and this is a romantic feature. The personal element appears in the lines where Gray imagines himself as sitting in the company of the Muse by the riverside, but here again, we have the neo-classical tendency to moralize upon a situation or to draw a moral from what is being observed. The personal element is more particularly to be found in the final stanza where Gray speaks of himself as a solitary man having no worldly possessions to display, with his youth already “Flown”.
It is Gray’s interest in, and close observation of, natural objects, natural scenery, natural phenomena, and natural processes that are the most prominent romantic feature of this poem. We have several pictures of Nature that bear witness not only to Gray’s interest in Nature but also to his talent for vivid imagery. Indeed, the pictorial quality and the imagery of Nature are the most attractive features of this poem.