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IV. Stanzas 12-17. THEIR SECLUDED LIFE, NOT THEIR NATIVE POWERS,
EXPLAINS THE FACT THAT THEIR VIRTUES REMAINED
V. Stanzas 17-20. THIS SECLUSION LIKEWISE CIRCUMSCRIBED THEIR POS
SIBILITIES FOR WRONG-DOING.
VI. Stanzas 20-24. YET EVEN THE OBSCURE ARE HERE REMEMBERED IN THE HOMELY EPITAPHS ON SIMPLE TOMB-STONES. VII. Stanzas 24-end. THE NAMELESS RURAL POET WHO IS WRITING THESE THOUGHTS FORESEES THE STORY OF HIS OWN DEATH AND HIS OWN EPITAPH.
1 parting: departing.
2 Why is wind here preferable to winds?
4-12 Enumerate each detail that here contributes to the sense of evening. What is the relationship of the noise to the silence?
13 elms and yew-trees are common in churchyards.
20 lowly bed: Explain. Does it allude to their couch or their grave?
20-24 This is the most intimate of the domestic details.
22 ply her evening care: What employment is it likely Gray had in mind?
26 glebe: Consult the dictionary.
30 What part of speech is obscure?
33 How do people now show their boast of heraldry?
35 Awaits: Many editors print await, but Gray doubtless wrote awaits. Many interpret the awaits by taking hour as the subject. This is unnecessary, as the four items in lines 33 and 34 may be thought of as coalescing into one idea-assumed superiority. Hour would then be taken as the object of the verb awaits.
39, 40 The most noteworthy cathedral is of course Westminster, but there are scores of others that may have been in the poet's mind.
39 fretted: Explain.
41 storied urn: an urn with an inscription upon it. animated: lifelike.
42 mansion is used here in its radical sense. Explain. 43 provoke is also used in its radical sense.
46 pregnant with celestial fire: richly endowed in mind and spirit. Hence capable of being rulers (1. 47) or poets (1. 48). 49, 50 They had no opportunity for securing an education. 50 unroll: Early learning was preserved on scrolls. 52 genial: life-giving.
57 Hampden: John Hampden, a cousin of Cromwell. He refused to pay the ship-money demanded by Charles I without the consent of Parliament.
60 Cromwell: Until Carlyle's Life of Cromwell appeared, Cromwell was generally regarded as guilty of his country's blood. 61-65 Th' applause. . . lot forbad. Write this out in simple prose and be sure that your syntax is correct.
What is the subject of circumscribed?
67 wade thro'... throne: another allusion to Cromwell.
69 Their lot made it unnecessary to hide truths of which they were conscious. In contrast with persons who saliend
sake kept certain truths hidden, these country folk freely avowed what they felt.
70 ingenuous: Find out the meaning of this word and then interpret the line.
71, 72 It was formerly customary for literary men to be supported by rich patrons. In return for this homage a poet would often be guilty of giving his patron insincere praise. 73 Upon what is this line dependent? Is it participial? Is it an adverbial phrase after stray? Or would you say it modified wishes?
81 unletter'd Muse: Explain.
84 Is this line grammatically correct?
85, 86 Paraphrased these lines might read: For who would willingly allow his life (pleasing anxious being) to be wholly forgotten (become a prey to dumb forgetfulness)?
90 pious: The word signifies here family devotion rather than religious devotion.
93 thee: either Gray or- as seems more likely—the imagined poet who is writing these lines. If it is the latter, Gray unconsciously identifies himself with the youthful poet. See note to ll. 116-128.
112 This line has the specific touch of romanticism, rather than the general and indefinite mention of classicism. 111 Another: What does this modify? 112 lawn: a field or meadow not an artificial plot of ground. 115 for thou canst read: Nowadays when practically every one can read, this parenthesis attracts rather too much attention to itself. It is perhaps the one line in the poem that seems to call insistently for revision. 116-128 The words of the epitaph justify the preferred interpre
tation given in the note to I. 93. Gray was known to fame if not to fortune. From your knowledge of Gray's life, indicate the items that apply and those that do not apply. 120 melancholy: pensiveness rather than sadness. 121 Large was his bounty: He gave freely of his spiritual self. 124 He gain'd from Heaven... a friend: He acquired the power to commune with Heaven and from this communing received friendly aid.
128 bosom: in apposition with abode (1. 126).
ON A DISTANT PROSPECT OF ETON COLLEGE
While Cambridge was for the most part the residence of Gray, it was Stoke Pogis and the country roundabout that perhaps seemed most like home; for it was this community that furnished him all the domestic life he ever knew association with his mother and his mother's sister.
Stoke Pogis is only a short distance from Eton, and Eton is just across the river from Windsor Castle. The scenes here described, then, are not merely the views which a single visit may have inspired; they are views which youthful familiarity had impressed and which the recurring visits of
later years had pleasurably renewed. Gray was himself an Eton boy who there absorbed the "grateful Science" which the school offered.
1 antique towers: The first building was erected in 1441. 4 Henry's holy shade: The college was founded by King Henry VI in 1440. In Hall's Chronicles we read: "King Henry the Sixth was of a liberal mind, and especially to such as loved good learning; wherefore he first holpe his young scholars to attain to discipline, and for them he founded a solemn school at Eton, a town next unto Winsor, in the which he hath stationed an honest college of sad priests, with a great number of children, which he there, of his cost, frankly and freely taught the rudimentes and rules of grammar."
18 weary soul: In Gray's temperament was a deep vein of sadness that was continually coming to the surface. In the epitaph which he wrote for his mother he speaks of having had the misfortune to survive her.
21-50 This is a happy picture of school-boy life, and as James Thorne remarks, "" one need not be an Etonian to enjoy the Playing Fields of Eton."
22 race: generation.
25-30 To what several sports does the poet here allude? 51-100 This is another passage which one may cite in proof of
Gray's misanthropy. It must be admitted, in spite of a modern dislike for over-indulged personification, that the general effect here is vividly portrayed.
61 These: this group of boys. 71 this: this particular boy.
82 griesly: horrible.
83 painful family: various diseases. 84 queen: death herself.
HYMN TO ADVERSITY
This hymn is conceived in a loftier ethical tone than the other poems of Gray and makes a more definite appeal to noble and moral action. In its serious personal request for purer living it reminds us of Wordsworth's Ode to Duty.
The serious tone is effectively deepened by the meter, particularly the lengthened final line of each stanza. This fortunate choice at once stamps Gray as an artist in the realm of poetry.
7 purple tyrants: tyrants clothed in royal purple. 30-32 Supply the predicate for Charity and Pity. 33 thy suppliant: the poet, himself. Cf. 1. 47. 35 Gorgon: death-dealing.
36 vengeful band: the Eumenides or the Furies
stern and inexorable beings, who, in the conception of the ancient Greeks, inflicted vengeance upon wrongdoers.
LYRICS BY COWPER
LOSS OF THE ROYAL GEORGE
Palgrave's note to this poem reads: " The Royal George, of 108 guns, whilst undergoing a partial careening at Spithead, was overset about 10 A.M., August 29, 1782. The total loss was believed to be nearly 1000 souls. This little poem might be called one of our trial pieces, in regard to taste. The reader who feels the vigor of description and the force of pathos underlying Cowper's bare and truly Greek simplicity of phrase, may assure himself se valde profecisse (that he has made good progress)."
14 Kempenfelt: Richard Kempenfelt (1718-1782) was at the time of this catastrophe a rear-admiral under Lord Howe.
TO A YOUNG LADY
These lines are addressed to Miss Shuttleworth, Mrs. Unwin's sister. The Unwins were friends of Cowper with whom he was on most intimate terms. (See note on the sonnet To Mary Unwin.)
The poem in an easy, agreeable swing, suggestive of the movement of the stream, pays a graceful token of reserved admiration and affection.
THE POPLAR FIELD
The poplars here lamented were at Lavenden Mill, near Olney. Mr. William Benham, in the Globe Edition of Cowper, tells us that trees have since grown up from the old roots, as the poet in 1. 16 forecasts.
The bit of moralizing with which the poem closes was natural to a writer of Cowper's cast of mind. His temperament was religious and contemplative.
In most editions there is printed under the title the phrase, WRITTEN IN A TIME OF AFFLICTION. The affliction referred to is the poet's second attack of insanity.
The shrubbery described was at Weston. Unfortunately it was, through a mistaken order of its owner, destroyed.
Few of Cowper's poems arouse more sympathy in the mind of the reader. We feel the trembling emotion of the poet as vividly as we see the alders quivering in the breeze. The despondency is somehow deepened, rather than relieved, by the joyous notes in the landscape.
THE SOLITUDE OF ALEXANDER SELKIRK
Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor, was born in 1676, and died in 1723. He is said to have gone to sea after a quarrel
with his family, and most of his life after this was spent in buccaneering exploits in the South Seas. His eccentricities may be surmised from the fact that he asked his comrades to put him off the ship and leave him on the island Juan Fernandez. But if Cowper's analysis of the exile's mind is correct the solitude finally grew most irksome. He is the supposed original of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. 28 Of a land, etc.: He did, however, return home, but is said to have developed after eight or nine months an intense longing to go back to his lonely island, and finally left home and died on shipboard.
TO MARY UNWIN
The Unwins play an important part in Cowper's life. In November, 1765, soon after Cowper had become acquainted with them, he was, at his earnest request, admitted as a lodger in their house in Huntingdon. In June, 1767, Mr. Unwin died, and when Mrs. Unwin a few months later took a house at Olney, Cowper joined her there. The intense religious life into which Cowper plunged brought on an attack of insanity, and during this malady he was tenderly cared for by Mrs. Unwin and other friends. There is said to have been a marriage engagement entered into before this, but Cowper's condition afterward made marriage impossible. His sincere feeling for her finds most tender record in this sonnet. At the time this tribute was written May, 1793 Mrs. Unwin had grown quite old and wellnigh helpless.
TO THE SAME
This poem was written in the autumn of 1793 a few months after the preceding and about two years before the poet left the house at Weston, where he and Mrs. Unwin had lived so many years. She, in the mean time, had grown more childish and exacting. In one of the poet's letters he tells his correspondent that Mrs. Unwin is at that moment sitting in the same room and that she breaks out at times into a senseless laugh, and at other times mumbles incoherently to herself. She would allow him to do little work, and whenever he read she insisted that he should read aloud to her. The only way he could perform any literary labor was to arise early before she was astir. Yet with all these annoyances Cowper continued to hold her in deep affection, all the while dimly conscious that her mental condition was hurrying him to final insanity. But he remembered that it was his distress that brought her low.
The poem is full of passionate regret, tempered with a warm appreciation for the association of the past.