23 pages 46 minutes read

Thomas Gray

The Progress of Poesy: A Pindaric Ode

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1757

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Thomas Gray, a poet and historian, is perhaps best remembered as the author of 1751’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Though Gray published only 13 poems prior to his death in 1771, he was an immensely popular poet during his life, appealing to both literary critics and common readers. Gray declined the position of Poet Laureate in 1757, the same year “The Progress of Poesy” was published.

Progress of Poesy is a strong example of the Pindaric Ode. The form, one of the most difficult poetic forms in English, emphasizes the speaker’s individual emotions and passions. Gray’s mastery of classical forms, such as the ode and the elegy, set him apart from his contemporaries. Along with poets like Oliver Goldsmith and Christopher Smart, Gray came to be known as a “Graveyard poet,” a group of late 18th century poets that focus on death and human mortality. Because of the intensity of their emotional range, the “Graveyard poets” foreshadow the later Romantic movement. In “The Progress of Poesy”, however, Gray looks both backward and forward, emulating Greek poetic rhythms in English and using them to breathe new life into ancient ideas of art and cultural development.

Poet Biography

Thomas Gray was born December 26, 1716, in Cornhill, London. Gray was the fifth of twelve children born to Phillip Gray, a scrivener, and Dorothy Antrobus, a hatter. Gray was the only child of the marriage to survive past infancy. Phillip was given to violence, and often abused Dorothy. Dorothy temporarily left Phillip to escape his violent outbursts, taking Gray with her. Phillip threatened to wreak vengeance on Dorothy and manipulated her into returning to the marriage.

Gray’s mother paid for his early education. In 1727, he began attending Eton College where two of his maternal uncles taught. Gray, a weak child, enjoyed his time at Eton College and made friends with Horace Walpole, Richard West, and Thomas Ashton—all of whom would go on to become important scholars and public figures. In 1742, at the age of 26, Gray wrote the nostalgic "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" to celebrate and remember his time there.

In 1734, Gray enrolled at Cambridge University. Though three of the four aforementioned friends attended Cambridge University together—West attended Oxford University, instead—Gray had trouble transitioning to his new life in Cambridge. Around this time, Gray also began to write poetry, composing short works in Latin. Gray’s academic work, however, was unremarkable, and he left Cambridge in 1738 without a degree and with the intention of studying law. Instead, Gray and Walpole traveled continental Europe together, returning in 1741. In 1743, Gray obtained a bachelor’s degree in civil law.

Gray began seriously pursuing poetry in 1742, shortly after West’s death. Gray moved to the city of Cambridge, where he embarked on a lifelong self-directed study of literature. Gray soon earned a reputation as one of the strongest literary minds, despite his few publications. That reputation solidified in 1751, with the publication of An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard. The poem, Gray’s most well-known, immediately established him as a public figure and one of England’s greatest poets.

Gray, famously self-critical, was embarrassed by the popular success of his Elegy. In 1757, Walpole published Gray’s The Progress of Posey and The Bard, works that were much more dense and difficult for the popular reader to understand. Despite these difficulties, the poems were well-received and coincided with the offer of Poet Laureateship, which Gray declined. Gray’s self-criticism and fear of failure meant that he only published 13 poems before his death in 1771. Gray lies beside his mother in the churchyard of St Giles' church.

Poem Text

I.1.

        Awake, Æolian lyre, awake,

And give to rapture all thy trembling strings.

From Helicon's harmonious springs

A thousand rills their mazy progress take:

The laughing flowers, that round them blow,

Drink life and fragrance as they flow.

Now the rich stream of music winds along

Deep, majestic, smooth, and strong,

Thro' verdant vales, and Ceres' golden reign:

Now rolling down the steep amain,

Headlong, impetuous, see it pour:

The rocks and nodding groves rebellow to the roar.

I.2.

        Oh! Sovereign of the willing soul,

Parent of sweet and solemn-breathing airs,

Enchanting shell! the sullen Cares

And frantic Passions hear thy soft control.

On Thracia's hills the Lord of War,

Has curb'd the fury of his car,

And dropp'd his thirsty lance at thy command.

Perching on the sceptred hand

Of Jove, thy magic lulls the feather'd king

With ruffled plumes and flagging wing:

Quench'd in dark clouds of slumber lie

The terror of his beak, and light'nings of his eye.

I.3.

        Thee the voice, the dance, obey,

Temper'd to thy warbled lay.

O'er Idalia's velvet-green

The rosy-crowned Loves are seen

On Cytherea's day

With antic Sports and blue-ey'd Pleasures,

Frisking light in frolic measures;

Now pursuing, now retreating,

Now in circling troops they meet:

To brisk notes in cadence beating

Glance their many-twinkling feet.

Slow melting strains their Queen's approach declare:

Where'er she turns the Graces homage pay.

With arms sublime, that float upon the air,

In gliding state she wins her easy way:

O'er her warm cheek and rising bosom move

The bloom of young Desire and purple light of Love.

II.1.

        Man's feeble race what ills await,

Labour, and Penury, the racks of Pain,

Disease, and Sorrow's weeping train,

And Death, sad refuge from the storms of Fate!

The fond complaint, my song, disprove,

And justify the laws of Jove.

Say, has he giv'n in vain the heav'nly Muse?

Night, and all her sickly dews,

Her spectres wan, and birds of boding cry,

He gives to range the dreary sky:

Till down the eastern cliffs afar

Hyperion's march they spy, and glitt'ring shafts of war.

II.2.

        In climes beyond the solar road,

Where shaggy forms o'er ice-built mountains roam,

The Muse has broke the twilight-gloom

To cheer the shiv'ring native's dull abode.

And oft, beneath the od'rous shade

Of Chili's boundless forests laid,

She deigns to hear the savage youth repeat

In loose numbers wildly sweet

Their feather-cinctur'd chiefs, and dusky loves.

Her track, where'er the goddess roves,

Glory pursue, and generous Shame,

Th' unconquerable Mind, and Freedom's holy flame.

II.3.

        Woods, that wave o'er Delphi's steep,

Isles, that crown th' Ægean deep,

Fields, that cool Ilissus laves,

Or where Mæander's amber waves

In ling'ring Lab'rinths creep,

How do your tuneful echoes languish,

Mute, but to the voice of Anguish?

Where each old poetic mountain

Inspiration breath'd around:

Ev'ry shade and hallow'd Fountain

Murmur'd deep a solemn sound:

Till the sad Nine in Greece's evil hour

Left their Parnassus for the Latian plains.

Alike they scorn the pomp of tyrant Power,

And coward Vice, that revels in her chains.

When Latium had her lofty spirit lost,

They sought, O Albion! next thy sea-encircled coast.

III.1.

        Far from the sun and summer-gale,

In thy green lap was Nature's darling laid,

What time, where lucid Avon stray'd,

To him the mighty Mother did unveil

Her awful face: the dauntless child

Stretch'd forth his little arms, and smiled.

This pencil take (she said) whose colours clear

Richly paint the vernal year:

Thine too these golden keys, immortal boy!

This can unlock the gates of Joy;

Of Horror that, and thrilling Fears,

Or ope the sacred source of sympathetic tears.

III.2.

        Nor second he, that rode sublime

Upon the seraph-wings of Ecstasy,

The secrets of th' Abyss to spy.

He pass'd the flaming bounds of Place and Time:

The living throne, the sapphire-blaze,

Where angels tremble, while they gaze,

He saw; but blasted with excess of light,

Clos'd his eyes in endless night.

Behold, where Dryden's less presumptuous car,

Wide o'er the fields of Glory bear

Two coursers of ethereal race,

With necks in thunder cloth'd, and long-resounding pace.

III.3.

        Hark, his hands thy lyre explore!

Bright-eyed Fancy hovering o'er

Scatters from her pictur'd urn

Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.

But ah! 'tis heard no more—

O lyre divine, what daring spirit

Wakes thee now? tho' he inherit

Nor the pride, nor ample pinion,

That the Theban Eagle bear,

Sailing with supreme dominion

Thro' the azure deep of air:

Yet oft before his infant eyes would run

Such forms, as glitter in the Muse's ray

With orient hues, unborrow'd of the Sun:

Yet shall he mount, and keep his distant way

Beyond the limits of a vulgar fate,

Beneath the good how far—but far above the great.

Gray, Thomas. “The Progress of Poesy: A Pindaric Ode.” 1757. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

“The Progress of Poesy” is a brief retelling of poetry’s history. Proceeding in rough chronological order, the poem’s speaker begins with the ancient Greeks, continues to the Roman era, and concludes with their contemporary England. The words and images that the speaker uses to map this progress result in frequent detours and obscure images.

The poem begins in ancient Greece, where the speaker instructs the “Aeolean lyre” to “awake” and to play its song (Line 1). The speaker envisions the “rich stream of music” (Line 7) making a “mazy progress” (Line 4) through the natural world. In the second stanza, the speaker invokes the Muses, calling them “Sov’reign of the willing soul” (Line 13) and the genesis of the lyre’s music. The speaker presents this divinely inspired music as having unique qualities. It is able to control “frantic Passions” (Line 16) and quell even the anger of the gods. Both Mars, “the Lord of War” (Line 17), and Jove’s “feather’d” (Line 21) scepter are shown to be calmed by the music. The third stanza shifts to an emphasis on dance. Small Cupid figures, “rosy-crowned Loves” (Line 28), dance to the “frolic measures” of the lyre’s song (Line 31). The speaker describes their circular dance until Venus, their queen, approaches and “wins her easy way” (Line 39).

The fourth stanza, the first of the poem’s second section, the antistrophe, turns from the Gods to “Man’s feeble race” (Line 42). The speaker relates the “Labour, and Penury, the racks of Pain” (Line 43) that await mortal beings but offers the Muses as a way to “justify the laws of Jove” and to mitigate human suffering (Line 47). In the fifth stanza, the speaker surveys exotic locales, such as the north, “Where shaggy forms o’er ice-built mountains roam” (Line 54). The Muses visit these locations, too, where they provide comfort from the harsh elements. The sixth stanza returns to Greece and does a similar survey of the lands where the Muses live. The speaker sees that song and the poetic voice are “Mute, but to the voice of anguish” (Line 72). The Muses then leave Greece for Rome, the “Latain plans” (Line 78) and eventually England.

The poem’s third and final section, the epode, begins in England. Venus, the “mighty mother” (Line 86), reveals her beautiful face to a child and give him a pencil with which to “unlock the gates of joy” (Line 92). The child takes up the art of poetry, following the likes of the poet John Dryden and his “less presumptuous car” (Line 104). Dryden, of the previous generation of poets to Gray, rides behind two divine horses. The speaker, in the last stanza, returns to the lyre, placing it in the child’s hands to “explore” (Line 107). The speaker wonders what “daring spirit” (112) is capable of continuing the poetic tradition before placing his faith in the young boy.

blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
Unlock IconUnlock all 23 pages of this Study Guide
Plus, gain access to 8,000+ more expert-written Study Guides.
Including features:
+ Mobile App
+ Printable PDF
+ Literary AI Tools