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English Department

English 201 (On-line) - Lecture

Thomas Gray

Spring 1998

Poetry of Transition
Thomas Gray
William Collins
Christopher Smart
Questions for Discussion

Poetry of Transition

After the intense burst of creative energy from about 1700-1745, which, in literature, is represented by Swift, Pope, Johnson, Addison and Steele, the earliest novelists Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, and even the popular dramatists of the age, there still was some half-century of Eighteenth-century literature to be written! Since we often date the Romantic period from 1780 (taking into account Blake), or 1789 (the beginning of the French Revolution), or 1798 (publication of Lyrical Ballads), you can see there were several years yet until the next "period".

And there was a lot of writing. Much of it was prose, which placed a special burden on the poets. But poets there were, and some very fine ones. One way to view the literary history is to think of a "transitional period" of, roughly, 1745-1785. Some literary historians call this the "age of sensibility", which might make more sense if you realize that it is the period which Jane Austen is writing about, even if she is writing and publishing a generation later (1811-1818).

The concentration on "sense" during the 17th century, following from the work of Newton and others, led to the balanced, rational, decorous forms we have just been reading. The poetics of "sensibility" involve a move inward - writers are more introspective, thinking of their own thoughts and feelings as possible subject matter for their work. Contrast this with, say, Pope, who writes about others, and adds the further detachment of satire. The middle of the century saw writers become fascinated by the morbid, the macabre, and the Gothic: death, suicide, melancholia, and graves become popular motifs. At the same time, there is a continuing interest in the "picturesque" in natural landscape and in gardens and parks, and the beginnings of an interest in the common folk and rural life.

Thomas Gray

Gray was largely a recluse in adult life as a professor at Cambridge University, and his poems illustrate the strain of melancholia common during the time.

His "Ode on a Distant Prospect" is occasioned by a view near Eton School, still a private school today, and situated near the town of Windsor with its royal castle. As a poem of return to a childhood site, it anticpates, in some ways, Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey". Note, though, Gray's continuing archaic diction and syntax: he strives to sound "poetic" in the tradition which has preceded him. And see how, exactly halfway through the poem, the tone shifts abruptly to one of mortality, death, and despair.

Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" was a very popluar poem during the latter part of the century. Here we see the rural, rustic setting, which sparks some of the most poignant observations of the poem; the graveyard, with the graves and their epitaphs acting as "annals" of the village; and the curious ending, with the quoted speech immediately followed by the italicized "epitaph".

William Collins

Collins was ignored during his lifetime as a writer whose poetic style was obscure. Later generations of readers (including Robert Browning during the 19th century) appreciated his poetic intensity and his view of poetry as something sacred. In his "Ode to Evening", notice the irregular rhyme pattern, certainly a break from the perfect heroic couplets of the Neo-Classicals. The poem draws on the conventions of the pastoral (as did "Lycidas", and as will many more poems this semester), and it is alive with sounds: bat wings, beetle chirps, hums, etc.

Christopher Smart

Smart was another poet largely overlooked by his contemporaries. As the Norton headnote points out, his religious fervour, which led him to spontaneous public prayer, did not help. He spent several years in a madhouse, during which time he kept a detailed notebook, which we know as Jubilate Agno ("rejoice in the lamb") and which was not published until 1939. Some 19th century readers read his Songs and Hymns, but his reputation took off in the 1920's, and the Jubilate helped to solidify that reputation.

Smart writes of the divine in ordinary things, and thus anticipates, in some respects, William Blake. The Jubilate is a series of parallel verses, one beginning "Let...", followed by another beginning "For...". Note the reliance on certain "divine" numbers (7, 10, 7 again).

Questions for Discussion

Write your responses and either e-mail me at, or try the class newsgroup. Post your responses early in the week, then log-on later to see what others have to say.

  1. How does the fact that the "Ode on a Distant Prospect" poem is set at a school affect the meaning of the piece?
  2. Are you convinced that "My Cat Jeoffry" is poetry? good poetry? why?

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