Michael Wells

Marvell's "The Gallery" vs. Gray's "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College"

The text of Marvell's "The Gallery"
[I take this text from "Miscellaneous Poems by Andrew Marvell, Esq; Late Member of the Honourable House of Commons. London, Printed for Robert Boulter, at the Turks-Head in Cornhill. M.DC.LXXXI." as made available by Oxford University on-line. Note the variants from the Norton text, particularly those of spelling and capitalization.]
The text of Gray's "Ode"
[This link bring you to the University of Toronto editon of Representative Poems.]

Both of these poems examine what effect time has on an image. In "The Gallery" the narrator is inviting his love to look into his soul. He keeps images of her there, like an art collector keeps paintings on the walls of a gallery. As such, the narrator takes us on a tour of his gallery, his soul, methodically stopping to consider each painting. In "Ode" the speaker is recalling images of his former school Eton College, an all boys school on the river Thames in England. His recollections turn to pity and remorse as he drops the imagery of the school grounds and ultimately pummels the reader with grief.

The success of "The Gallery" can be largely attributed to an undeniable clarity in the structure of the poem. The poem consists of seven stanzas of eight lines apiece wherein each stanza has a particular, definable function. A consistent, predictable rhyme scheme fortifies the structure. Further, the gallery as a controlling presence has a built-in movement. In other words as the speaker walks us through the gallery, there is a natural movement from painting to painting which powers us through the poem.

The first stanza sets up the gallery-as-soul metaphor. The speaker is addressing his lover:

Clora, come view my soul, and tell
Whether I have contrived it well.
Now all its several lodgings lie
Composed into one gallery . . .
Speculations about the soul, or about what a poet means by soul, can be tricky business. There are times when "soul" is used in a specifically religious capacity and times when it is meant, in basic terms, to suggest one's essence or one's core. Marvell uses "soul" here more in terms of the latter (although we needn't strip it of obvious religious connotations). He is asking his love to come and view what is deep within him, even asking her to pass judgment upon it.

Stanzas 2-7, then, tell of the different images of the speaker's lover, or former lover. In the first painting, she is "in the dress/ Of an inhuman murderess."(9, 10) She is depicted as an expert and heartless killer, with all the appropriate weapons and tools. She is a skilled monster, an assassin. Among her weapons are: "Black eyes, red lips, and curled hair."(16) The eyes are cold, caulculating and inhuman. The red lips are the lips of sexual experience and sexual power. And the curled hair is the hair of a wilder sexuality--an absence of the purity and innocence suggested by straight hair.

But in the next painting (third stanza), she is a perfect creature of nature--sleeping like Aurora, the goddess of the dawn in Roman mythology. There is religious imagery here that is not as clear in the preceding sections. Marvell incorporates manna falling from the sky, wooing doves, and singing choires to evoke a state of heaven on earth, a state of natural purity and perfection. This imagery is not as stunning as that in the second or (as we will see) fourth stanzas, but it does serve to set up the two extremes of Clora which exist inside the speaker.

Marvell, by the middle of "The Gallery" has us fully into the flow of wandering about the gallery of his soul. "Ode" seems a far less organized recollection of the grounds of Eton College. In the first stanza, Gray gives us a respectful feel for the buildings and the land of the school. At the end of the stanza, Gray makes the river Thames an active player in the poem by personifying it. The river becomes the "hoary Thames."(9) Why does Gray personify the river? The school apparently sits against the river. A river is a symbol of time, of movement, of nature and stability--but mainly of perpetual life and cycles of nature. The Thames however, might have a whole set of significances particular to the England and Europe of Gray's day. Indeed it seems to have even been somewhat of a standard convention of the time to personify the river. But why in this particular poem? The way Gray uses it in "Ode" is in the tradition of respecting the mighty river and acknowledging that the river is far more powerful and enduring (in relation to the movement of time) than we could ever be as humans. The Thames was the same when the speaker was a student at Eton College as at the time the poem was written, and will presumably continue to hold Eton College in place for years to come. The river lends a natural flow into the poem thus giving it an underlying, pardon the word play, current.

Yet it is also problematic. Remember, in "The Gallery," how Marvel keeps us moving from painting to painting. In "Ode," the river is introduced, personified, and then abandonned as the speaker begins to pound us with grief in the second half of the poem. Why go to the trouble of personifying the river if it is not going to be maintained as a presence throughout the poem? Also, it is not a particularly carved image. As stated above, a river can mean so many things and as such it becomes distracting as a primary mover in the poem.

In the second stanza, we discover that the speaker was once a student at Eton College. We also get a characterization of the speaker-as-schoolboy:

Ah happy hills, ah pleasing shade,
Ah fields beloved in vain,
Where once my careless childhood strayed,
A stranger yet to pain!
Thus we feel the tone and the structure of the poem changing. The speaker is not an anonymous onlooker, but is someone who is thinking back on the school that he once attended. Something is weighing on the speaker. As he thinks of the ignorantly blissful students playing sports and outdoor games, we feel that he is all too quickly coming to a boil. This seems to be the structure of the poem: the progression from a cautious respect for the majesty of Eton College resting comfortably on the mighty Thames, to the boys playing unknowingly on said grounds, to the inevitable post-school man facing old age and a loss of wonder.

Meanwhile, Marvell is in control. His narrator is expanding on a painting, a version of his love. Here, in stanza four, she is "an enchantress" with powers of divination. This section is absolutely haunting. Gray alludes (as per footnote, p. 339, Norton) to the Roman practice of telling the future according to human entrails:

And by a light obscure, dost rave
Over his entrails, in the cave;
Divining thence, with horrid care,
How long thou shalt continue fair;
And (when informed) them throw'st away,
To be the greedy vulture's prey.
This might be the height of tension in the poem. We have already seen two very different images of Clora. Now the speaker gives us a third, unsettling, distortion. Here she is telling the future by sifting through her lover's guts. Once accomplished, she throws the remains to the vultures. This is a chilling representation of a cruel, and above all, powerful, "enchantress."

The turning point in "Ode" is not as convincing. We have the characterization of "the little victims" playing in line 52. Shortly thereafter, the onslaught begins. He sets up a new rhythm with a series of heavy hitting adjective/noun combinations. These emotional states of mind, or "forms" of being, are brought to life by means of the adjoining adjective in each case. Over the span of twenty-four lines, Gray includes: "black Misfortune," "fury Passions," "Disdainful Anger," "pallid Fear," "pining Love," "faded Care," and so on.

This technique has both an upside and a downside. Its success lies with the dramatic shift in the speaker's intensity. The poem shifts from the dreamy, respectful (although foreboding) voice in the description of the school and the students to the more intense abstract poundings of these adjective/noun combinations. By the senventh and eighth stanzas, the speaker has moved from remembering Eton College to the full range of undesirable, personified emotions which have plagued his years since those days of idyllic innocence. These are bitter lines:

Or pining love shall waste their youth,
Or Jealousy with rankling tooth
That inly gnaws the secret heart,
And Envy wan, and faded Care,
Grim-visaged comfortless Despair,
And Sorrow's piercing dart.
Certain combinations work very well. I especially enjoy "Grim-visaged comfortless Despair." It's rhythm has a jarring effect. I would scan it as GRIM-VISaged COMfortLESS desPAIR. It is also a fresher, more passionate image than some of the others. Indeed, this line feels like a beating. And "fury Passions" delivers a certain depth of meaning as we are reminded the the punishing winged furies from Greek and Roman Mythology.(61) But there is a downside to Gray's technique. Gray gets trapped in this pattern and some of the combinations end up souding forced and uninteresting--and this at a key point in the poem. Some of them are convincing and have a wonderful image as stated above. But "Disdainful Anger" is uninteresting and "hard Unkindness" seems like filler, to name two.(64,76)

Incidentally, I assume that the capitalization of these nouns is a convention of Gray's day. It does make the words stand out as definitive states of being, akin to Platonic "forms." Still, his success in moving into the world of forms is undermined by forced, unconvincing language.

On the other hand, Marvell clears his transitions without a fault. In the fifth stanza, we are directed to yet another image of Clora. This time she is, "like Venus in her pearly boat."(34) A picture of controlled calm with "halcyons, calming all that's nigh."(35) Marvell even engages our sense of smell with the reference to the waves bring "ambergris," a gray substance obtained from whales which is used to make fragraces. In just these few lines Marvell displays a consistency in his allusions to mythology, another contrasting image of Clora as benevolent goddess, and the convincing incorporation of the sense of smell.

These two poems have taken us in opposite directions. Gray's "Ode" has moved into a tour of personified grief and shows little hope of relenting. Marvell's speaker, however, has turned to one last image, one last imprint on his soul. This image stands as perhaps the most truthful. The final stanza reads:

But, of these pictures and the rest,
That at the entrance likes me best;
Where the same posture, and the look
Remains, with which I first was took:
A tender shepherdess, whose hair
Hangs loosely playing in the air,
Transplanting flowers from the green hill,
To crown her head, and bosom fill.
I find this to be delightful. Marvell has decided to finish up the tour with the painting at the entrance. This is the image of his lover when he first fell in love with her (there could be more meanings, I suppose, for "with which I first was took"--please correct me if I'm wrong). He recalls her hair flowing naturally, literally (I assume) gardening on a green hill. She is human here--although he does queen her. This is a viewpoint, which even after years of being processed within the speaker, has remained true to him. It is the photographic image of her exactly as she appeared to him at the instant of his love. The other images have suffered the ill effects of this processing. They are fictionalized versions of her after he has filtered his experiences through his mind and heart.

As we know, Gray finishes "Ode" quite differently:

Yet ah! why should they know heir fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.
The first three lines are a restatement of the theme of the naive schoolboys. But the last three give life to the futility of knowledge and the sadness of aging. Indeed, Gray goes out wimpering.

Note: I assume this is the same as Eton College that still exists today. Eton College is in the news recently as Lady Di is enrolling one of her sons (Prince William?). It is apparently the most presigious boys' school in England but is well known for a tradition of the violent hazings that the older boys inflict on the younger boys. I mention this because of the generalized bliss that Gray gave the boys in his poem. After all, high school is hell on earth for many kids, and certainly for kids under the gun at a competitive, and apparently violent, school like Eton. Just food for thought, a possible doorway into an another criticism of "Ode."

  • Return to index of papers