The Task, by William Cowper

Book 2.

The Timepiece.

Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness,

Some boundless contiguity of shade,

Where rumour of oppression and deceit,

Of unsuccessful or successful war,

Might never reach me more! My ear is pained,

My soul is sick with every day’s report

Of wrong and outrage with which earth is filled.

There is no flesh in man’s obdurate heart,

It does not feel for man. The natural bond

Of brotherhood is severed as the flax

That falls asunder at the touch of fire.

He finds his fellow guilty of a skin

Not coloured like his own, and having power

To enforce the wrong, for such a worthy cause

Dooms and devotes him as his lawful prey.

Lands intersected by a narrow frith

Abhor each other. Mountains interposed

Make enemies of nations, who had else

Like kindred drops been mingled into one.

Thus man devotes his brother, and destroys;

And worse than all, and most to be deplored,

As human nature’s broadest, foulest blot,

Chains him, and tasks him, and exacts his sweat

With stripes, that mercy, with a bleeding heart,

Weeps when she sees inflicted on a beast.

Then what is man? And what man, seeing this,

And having human feelings, does not blush

And hang his head, to think himself a man?

I would not have a slave to till my ground,

To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,

And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth

That sinews bought and sold have ever earned.

No: dear as freedom is, and in my heart’s

Just estimation prized above all price,

I had much rather be myself the slave

And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him.

We have no slaves at home—then why abroad?

And they themselves, once ferried o’er the wave

That parts us, are emancipate and loosed.

Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs

Receive our air, that moment they are free,

They touch our country and their shackles fall.

That’s noble, and bespeaks a nation proud

And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then,

And let it circulate through every vein

Of all your empire; that where Britain’s power

Is felt, mankind may feel her mercy too.

Sure there is need of social intercourse,

Benevolence and peace and mutual aid,

Between the nations, in a world that seems

To toll the death-bell to its own decease;

And by the voice of all its elements

To preach the general doom. When were the winds

Let slip with such a warrant to destroy?

When did the waves so haughtily o’erleap

Their ancient barriers, deluging the dry?

Fires from beneath and meteors from above,

Portentous, unexampled, unexplained,

Have kindled beacons in the skies, and the old

And crazy earth has had her shaking fits

More frequent, and foregone her usual rest.

Is it a time to wrangle, when the props

And pillars of our planet seem to fail,

And nature with a dim and sickly eye

To wait the close of all? But grant her end

More distant, and that prophecy demands

A longer respite, unaccomplished yet;

Still they are frowning signals, and bespeak

Displeasure in His breast who smites the earth

Or heals it, makes it languish or rejoice.

And ’tis but seemly, that, where all deserve

And stand exposed by common peccancy

To what no few have felt, there should be peace,

And brethren in calamity should love.

Alas for Sicily, rude fragments now

Lie scattered where the shapely column stood.

Her palaces are dust. In all her streets

The voice of singing and the sprightly chord

Are silent. Revelry and dance and show

Suffer a syncope and solemn pause,

While God performs, upon the trembling stage

Of His own works, His dreadful part alone.

How does the earth receive Him?—With what signs

Of gratulation and delight, her King?

Pours she not all her choicest fruits abroad,

Her sweetest flowers, her aromatic gums,

Disclosing paradise where’er He treads?

She quakes at His approach. Her hollow womb,

Conceiving thunders, through a thousand deeps

And fiery caverns roars beneath His foot.

The hills move lightly and the mountains smoke,

For He has touched them. From the extremest point

Of elevation down into the abyss,

His wrath is busy and His frown is felt.

The rocks fall headlong and the valleys rise,

The rivers die into offensive pools,

And, charged with putrid verdure, breathe a gross

And mortal nuisance into all the air.

What solid was, by transformation strange

Grows fluid, and the fixed and rooted earth

Tormented into billows, heaves and swells,

Or with vortiginous and hideous whirl

Sucks down its prey insatiable. Immense

The tumult and the overthrow, the pangs

And agonies of human and of brute

Multitudes, fugitive on every side,

And fugitive in vain. The sylvan scene

Migrates uplifted, and, with all its soil

Alighting in far-distant fields, finds out

A new possessor, and survives the change.

Ocean has caught the frenzy, and upwrought

To an enormous and o’erbearing height,

Not by a mighty wind, but by that voice

Which winds and waves obey, invades the shore

Resistless. Never such a sudden flood,

Upridged so high, and sent on such a charge,

Possessed an inland scene. Where now the throng

That pressed the beach and hasty to depart

Looked to the sea for safety? They are gone,

Gone with the refluent wave into the deep,

A prince with half his people. Ancient towers,

And roofs embattled high, the gloomy scenes

Where beauty oft and lettered worth consume

Life in the unproductive shades of death,

Fall prone: the pale inhabitants come forth,

And, happy in their unforeseen release

From all the rigours of restraint, enjoy

The terrors of the day that sets them free.

Who then, that has thee, would not hold thee fast,

Freedom! whom they that lose thee so regret,

That even a judgment, making way for thee,

Seems in their eyes a mercy, for thy sake.

Such evil sin hath wrought; and such a flame

Kindled in heaven, that it burns down to earth,

And, in the furious inquest that it makes

On God’s behalf, lays waste His fairest works.

The very elements, though each be meant

The minister of man to serve his wants,

Conspire against him. With his breath he draws

A plague into his blood; and cannot use

Life’s necessary means, but he must die.

Storms rise to o’erwhelm him: or, if stormy winds

Rise not, the waters of the deep shall rise,

And, needing none assistance of the storm,

Shall roll themselves ashore, and reach him there.

The earth shall shake him out of all his holds,

Or make his house his grave; nor so content,

Shall counterfeit the motions of the flood,

And drown him in her dry and dusty gulfs.

What then—were they the wicked above all,

And we the righteous, whose fast-anchored isle

Moved not, while theirs was rocked like a light skiff,

The sport of every wave? No: none are clear,

And none than we more guilty. But where all

Stand chargeable with guilt, and to the shafts

Of wrath obnoxious, God may choose His mark,

May punish, if He please, the less, to warn

The more malignant. If He spared not them,

Tremble and be amazed at thine escape,

Far guiltier England, lest He spare not thee!

Happy the man who sees a God employed

In all the good and ill that chequer life!

Resolving all events, with their effects

And manifold results, into the will

And arbitration wise of the Supreme.

Did not His eye rule all things, and intend

The least of our concerns (since from the least

The greatest oft originate), could chance

Find place in His dominion, or dispose

One lawless particle to thwart His plan,

Then God might be surprised, and unforeseen

Contingence might alarm Him, and disturb

The smooth and equal course of His affairs.

This truth, philosophy, though eagle-eyed

In nature’s tendencies, oft overlooks;

And, having found His instrument, forgets

Or disregards, or, more presumptuous still,

Denies the power that wields it. God proclaims

His hot displeasure against foolish men

That live an Atheist life: involves the heaven

In tempests, quits His grasp upon the winds

And gives them all their fury; bids a plague

Kindle a fiery boil upon the skin,

And putrefy the breath of blooming health.

He calls for Famine, and the meagre fiend

Blows mildew from between his shrivelled lips,

And taints the golden ear. He springs His mines,

And desolates a nation at a blast.

Forth steps the spruce philosopher, and tells

Of homogeneal and discordant springs

And principles; of causes how they work

By necessary laws their sure effects;

Of action and reaction. He has found

The source of the disease that nature feels,

And bids the world take heart and banish fear.

Thou fool! will thy discovery of the cause

Suspend the effect, or heal it? Has not God

Still wrought by means since first He made the world,

And did He not of old employ His means

To drown it? What is His creation less

Than a capacious reservoir of means

Formed for His use, and ready at His will?

Go, dress thine eyes with eye-salve, ask of Him,

Or ask of whomsoever He has taught,

And learn, though late, the genuine cause of all.

England, with all thy faults, I love thee still—

My country! and while yet a nook is left,

Where English minds and manners may be found,

Shall be constrained to love thee. Though thy clime

Be fickle, and thy year most part deformed

With dripping rains, or withered by a frost,

I would not yet exchange thy sullen skies

And fields without a flower, for warmer France

With all her vines; nor for Ausonia’s groves

Of golden fruitage, and her myrtle bowers.

To shake thy senate, and from heights sublime

Of patriot eloquence to flash down fire

Upon thy foes, was never meant my task;

But I can feel thy fortune, and partake

Thy joys and sorrows with as true a heart

As any thunderer there. And I can feel

Thy follies too, and with a just disdain

Frown at effeminates, whose very looks

Reflect dishonour on the land I love.

How, in the name of soldiership and sense,

Should England prosper, when such things, as smooth

And tender as a girl, all essenced o’er

With odours, and as profligate as sweet,

Who sell their laurel for a myrtle wreath,

And love when they should fight; when such as these

Presume to lay their hand upon the ark

Of her magnificent and awful cause?

Time was when it was praise and boast enough

In every clime, and travel where we might,

That we were born her children. Praise enough

To fill the ambition of a private man,

That Chatham’s language was his mother tongue,

And Wolfe’s great name compatriot with his own.

Farewell those honours, and farewell with them

The hope of such hereafter. They have fallen

Each in his field of glory; one in arms,

And one in council;—Wolfe upon the lap

Of smiling victory that moment won,

And Chatham, heart-sick of his country’s shame.

They made us many soldiers. Chatham, still

Consulting England’s happiness at home,

Secured it by an unforgiving frown

If any wronged her. Wolfe, where’er he fought,

Put so much of his heart into his act,

That his example had a magnet’s force,

And all were swift to follow whom all loved.

Those suns are set. Oh, rise some other such!

Or all that we have left is empty talk

Of old achievements, and despair of new.

Now hoist the sail, and let the streamers float

Upon the wanton breezes. Strew the deck

With lavender, and sprinkle liquid sweets,

That no rude savour maritime invade

The nose of nice nobility. Breathe soft,

Ye clarionets, and softer still, ye flutes,

That winds and waters lulled by magic sounds

May bear us smoothly to the Gallic shore.

True, we have lost an empire—let it pass.

True, we may thank the perfidy of France

That picked the jewel out of England’s crown,

With all the cunning of an envious shrew.

And let that pass—’twas but a trick of state.

A brave man knows no malice, but at once

Forgets in peace the injuries of war,

And gives his direst foe a friend’s embrace.

And shamed as we have been, to the very beard

Braved and defied, and in our own sea proved

Too weak for those decisive blows that once

Insured us mastery there, we yet retain

Some small pre-eminence, we justly boast

At least superior jockeyship, and claim

The honours of the turf as all our own.

Go then, well worthy of the praise ye seek,

And show the shame ye might conceal at home,

In foreign eyes!—be grooms, and win the plate,

Where once your nobler fathers won a crown!—

’Tis generous to communicate your skill

To those that need it. Folly is soon learned,

And, under such preceptors, who can fail?

There is a pleasure in poetic pains

Which only poets know. The shifts and turns,

The expedients and inventions multiform

To which the mind resorts, in chase of terms

Though apt, yet coy, and difficult to win—

To arrest the fleeting images that fill

The mirror of the mind, and hold them fast,

And force them sit, till he has pencilled off

A faithful likeness of the forms he views;

Then to dispose his copies with such art

That each may find its most propitious light,

And shine by situation, hardly less

Than by the labour and the skill it cost,

Are occupations of the poet’s mind

So pleasing, and that steal away the thought

With such address from themes of sad import,

That, lost in his own musings, happy man!

He feels the anxieties of life, denied

Their wonted entertainment, all retire.

Such joys has he that sings. But ah! not such,

Or seldom such, the hearers of his song.

Fastidious, or else listless, or perhaps

Aware of nothing arduous in a task

They never undertook, they little note

His dangers or escapes, and haply find

There least amusement where he found the most.

But is amusement all? studious of song

And yet ambitious not to sing in vain,

I would not trifle merely, though the world

Be loudest in their praise who do no more.

Yet what can satire, whether grave or gay?

It may correct a foible, may chastise

The freaks of fashion, regulate the dress,

Retrench a sword-blade, or displace a patch;

But where are its sublimer trophies found?

What vice has it subdued? whose heart reclaimed

By rigour, or whom laughed into reform?

Alas, Leviathan is not so tamed.

Laughed at, he laughs again; and, stricken hard,

Turns to the stroke his adamantine scales,

That fear no discipline of human hands.

The pulpit therefore—and I name it, filled

With solemn awe, that bids me well beware

With what intent I touch that holy thing—

The pulpit, when the satirist has at last,

Strutting and vapouring in an empty school,

Spent all his force, and made no proselyte—

I say the pulpit, in the sober use

Of its legitimate peculiar powers,

Must stand acknowledged, while the world shall stand,

The most important and effectual guard,

Support, and ornament of virtue’s cause.

There stands the messenger of truth; there stands

The legate of the skies; his theme divine,

His office sacred, his credentials clear.

By him, the violated Law speaks out

Its thunders, and by him, in strains as sweet

As angels use, the Gospel whispers peace.

He stablishes the strong, restores the weak,

Reclaims the wanderer, binds the broken heart,

And, armed himself in panoply complete

Of heavenly temper, furnishes with arms

Bright as his own, and trains, by every rule

Of holy discipline, to glorious war,

The sacramental host of God’s elect.

Are all such teachers? would to heaven all were!

But hark—the Doctor’s voice—fast wedged between

Two empirics he stands, and with swollen cheeks

Inspires the news, his trumpet. Keener far

Than all invective is his bold harangue,

While through that public organ of report

He hails the clergy, and, defying shame,

Announces to the world his own and theirs,

He teaches those to read whom schools dismissed,

And colleges, untaught; sells accents, tone,

And emphasis in score, and gives to prayer

The adagio and andante it demands.

He grinds divinity of other days

Down into modern use; transforms old print

To zigzag manuscript, and cheats the eyes

Of gallery critics by a thousand arts.—

Are there who purchase of the Doctor’s ware?

Oh name it not in Gath!—it cannot be,

That grave and learned Clerks should need such aid.

He doubtless is in sport, and does but droll,

Assuming thus a rank unknown before,

Grand caterer and dry-nurse of the Church.

I venerate the man whose heart is warm,

Whose hands are pure, whose doctrine and whose life,

Coincident, exhibit lucid proof

That he is honest in the sacred cause.

To such I render more than mere respect,

Whose actions say that they respect themselves.

But, loose in morals, and in manners vain,

In conversation frivolous, in dress

Extreme, at once rapacious and profuse,

Frequent in park with lady at his side,

Ambling and prattling scandal as he goes,

But rare at home, and never at his books

Or with his pen, save when he scrawls a card;

Constant at routs, familiar with a round

Of ladyships, a stranger to the poor;

Ambitions of preferment for its gold,

And well prepared by ignorance and sloth,

By infidelity and love o’ the world,

To make God’s work a sinecure; a slave

To his own pleasures and his patron’s pride.—

From such apostles, O ye mitred heads,

Preserve the Church! and lay not careless hands

On skulls that cannot teach, and will not learn.

Would I describe a preacher, such as Paul,

Were he on earth, would hear, approve, and own,

Paul should himself direct me. I would trace

His master-strokes, and draw from his design.

I would express him simple, grave, sincere;

In doctrine uncorrupt; in language plain,

And plain in manner; decent, solemn, chaste,

And natural in gesture; much impressed

Himself, as conscious of his awful charge,

And anxious mainly that the flock he feeds

May feel it too; affectionate in look

And tender in address, as well becomes

A messenger of grace to guilty men.

Behold the picture!—Is it like?—Like whom?

The things that mount the rostrum with a skip,

And then skip down again; pronounce a text,

Cry—Hem; and reading what they never wrote,

Just fifteen minutes, huddle up their work,

And with a well-bred whisper close the scene.

In man or woman, but far most in man,

And most of all in man that ministers

And serves the altar, in my soul I loathe

All affectation. ’Tis my perfect scorn;

Object of my implacable disgust.

What!—will a man play tricks, will he indulge

A silly fond conceit of his fair form

And just proportion, fashionable mien,

And pretty face, in presence of his God?

Or will he seek to dazzle me with tropes,

As with the diamond on his lily hand,

And play his brilliant parts before my eyes,

When I am hungry for the Bread of Life?

He mocks his Maker, prostitutes and shames

His noble office, and, instead of truth,

Displaying his own beauty, starves his flock!

Therefore, avaunt, all attitude and stare

And start theatric, practised at the glass.

I seek divine simplicity in him

Who handles things divine; and all beside,

Though learned with labour, and though much admired

By curious eyes and judgments ill-informed,

To me is odious as the nasal twang

Heard at conventicle, where worthy men,

Misled by custom, strain celestial themes

Through the prest nostril, spectacle-bestrid.

Some, decent in demeanour while they preach,

That task performed, relapse into themselves,

And having spoken wisely, at the close

Grow wanton, and give proof to every eye—

Whoe’er was edified themselves were not.

Forth comes the pocket mirror. First we stroke

An eyebrow; next compose a straggling lock;

Then with an air, most gracefully performed,

Fall back into our seat; extend an arm,

And lay it at its ease with gentle care,

With handkerchief in hand, depending low:

The better hand, more busy, gives the nose

Its bergamot, or aids the indebted eye

With opera glass to watch the moving scene,

And recognise the slow-retiring fair.

Now this is fulsome, and offends me more

Than in a Churchman slovenly neglect

And rustic coarseness would. A heavenly mind

May be indifferent to her house of clay,

And slight the hovel as beneath her care.

But how a body so fantastic, trim,

And quaint in its deportment and attire,

Can lodge a heavenly mind—demands a doubt.

He that negotiates between God and man,

As God’s ambassador, the grand concerns

Of judgment and of mercy, should beware

Of lightness in his speech. ’Tis pitiful

To court a grin, when you should woo a soul;

To break a jest, when pity would inspire

Pathetic exhortation; and to address

The skittish fancy with facetious tales,

When sent with God’s commission to the heart.

So did not Paul. Direct me to a quip

Or merry turn in all he ever wrote,

And I consent you take it for your text,

Your only one, till sides and benches fail.

No: he was serious in a serious cause,

And understood too well the weighty terms

That he had ta’en in charge. He would not stoop

To conquer those by jocular exploits,

Whom truth and soberness assailed in vain.

Oh, popular applause! what heart of man

Is proof against thy sweet seducing charms?

The wisest and the best feel urgent need

Of all their caution in thy gentlest gales;

But swelled into a gust—who then, alas!

With all his canvas set, and inexpert,

And therefore heedless, can withstand thy power?

Praise from the riveled lips of toothless, bald

Decrepitude, and in the looks of lean

And craving poverty, and in the bow

Respectful of the smutched artificer,

Is oft too welcome, and may much disturb

The bias of the purpose. How much more,

Poured forth by beauty splendid and polite,

In language soft as adoration breathes?

Ah, spare your idol! think him human still;

Charms he may have, but he has frailties too;

Dote not too much, nor spoil what ye admire.

All truth is from the sempiternal source

Of light divine. But Egypt, Greece, and Rome

Drew from the stream below. More favoured, we

Drink, when we choose it, at the fountain head.

To them it flowed much mingled and defiled

With hurtful error, prejudice, and dreams

Illusive of philosophy, so called,

But falsely. Sages after sages strove,

In vain, to filter off a crystal draught

Pure from the lees, which often more enhanced

The thirst than slaked it, and not seldom bred

Intoxication and delirium wild.

In vain they pushed inquiry to the birth

And spring-time of the world; asked, Whence is man?

Why formed at all? and wherefore as he is?

Where must he find his Maker? With what rites

Adore Him? Will He hear, accept, and bless?

Or does He sit regardless of His works?

Has man within him an immortal seed?

Or does the tomb take all? If he survive

His ashes, where? and in what weal or woe?

Knots worthy of solution, which alone

A Deity could solve. Their answers vague,

And all at random, fabulous and dark,

Left them as dark themselves. Their rules of life,

Defective and unsanctioned, proved too weak

To bind the roving appetite, and lead

Blind nature to a God not yet revealed.

’Tis Revelation satisfies all doubts,

Explains all mysteries, except her own,

And so illuminates the path of life,

That fools discover it, and stray no more.

Now tell me, dignified and sapient sir,

My man of morals, nurtured in the shades

Of Academus, is this false or true?

Is Christ the abler teacher, or the schools?

If Christ, then why resort at every turn

To Athens or to Rome for wisdom short

Of man’s occasions, when in Him reside

Grace, knowledge, comfort, an unfathomed store?

How oft when Paul has served us with a text,

Has Epictetus, Plato, Tully, preached!

Men that, if now alive, would sit content

And humble learners of a Saviour’s worth,

Preach it who might. Such was their love of truth,

Their thirst of knowledge, and their candour too.

And thus it is. The pastor, either vain

By nature, or by flattery made so, taught

To gaze at his own splendour, and to exalt

Absurdly, not his office, but himself;

Or unenlightened, and too proud to learn,

Or vicious, and not therefore apt to teach,

Perverting often, by the stress of lewd

And loose example, whom he should instruct,

Exposes and holds up to broad disgrace

The noblest function, and discredits much

The brightest truths that man has ever seen.

For ghostly counsel, if it either fall

Below the exigence, or be not backed

With show of love, at least with hopeful proof

Of some sincerity on the giver’s part;

Or be dishonoured in the exterior form

And mode of its conveyance, by such tricks

As move derision, or by foppish airs

And histrionic mummery, that let down

The pulpit to the level of the stage;

Drops from the lips a disregarded thing.

The weak perhaps are moved, but are not taught,

While prejudice in men of stronger minds

Takes deeper root, confirmed by what they see.

A relaxation of religion’s hold

Upon the roving and untutored heart

Soon follows, and the curb of conscience snapt,

The laity run wild.—But do they now?

Note their extravagance, and be convinced.

As nations, ignorant of God, contrive

A wooden one, so we, no longer taught

By monitors that Mother Church supplies,

Now make our own. Posterity will ask

(If e’er posterity sees verse of mine),

Some fifty or a hundred lustrums hence,

What was a monitor in George’s days?

My very gentle reader, yet unborn,

Of whom I needs must augur better things,

Since Heaven would sure grow weary of a world

Productive only of a race like us,

A monitor is wood—plank shaven thin.

We wear it at our backs. There, closely braced

And neatly fitted, it compresses hard

The prominent and most unsightly bones,

And binds the shoulders flat. We prove its use

Sovereign and most effectual to secure

A form, not now gymnastic as of yore,

From rickets and distortion, else, our lot.

But thus admonished we can walk erect,

One proof at least of manhood; while the friend

Sticks close, a Mentor worthy of his charge.

Our habits costlier than Lucullus wore,

And, by caprice as multiplied as his,

Just please us while the fashion is at full,

But change with every moon. The sycophant,

That waits to dress us, arbitrates their date,

Surveys his fair reversion with keen eye;

Finds one ill made, another obsolete,

This fits not nicely, that is ill conceived;

And, making prize of all that he condemns,

With our expenditure defrays his own.

Variety’s the very spice of life,

That gives it all its flavour. We have run

Through every change that fancy, at the loom

Exhausted, has had genius to supply,

And, studious of mutation still, discard

A real elegance, a little used,

For monstrous novelty and strange disguise.

We sacrifice to dress, till household joys

And comforts cease. Dress drains our cellar dry,

And keeps our larder lean; puts out our fires,

And introduces hunger, frost, and woe,

Where peace and hospitality might reign.

What man that lives, and that knows how to live,

Would fail to exhibit at the public shows

A form as splendid as the proudest there,

Though appetite raise outcries at the cost?

A man o’ the town dines late, but soon enough,

With reasonable forecast and despatch,

To ensure a side-box station at half-price.

You think, perhaps, so delicate his dress,

His daily fare as delicate. Alas!

He picks clean teeth, and, busy as he seems

With an old tavern quill, is hungry yet.

The rout is folly’s circle which she draws

With magic wand. So potent is the spell,

That none decoyed into that fatal ring,

Unless by Heaven’s peculiar grace, escape.

There we grow early gray, but never wise;

There form connections, and acquire no friend;

Solicit pleasure hopeless of success;

Waste youth in occupations only fit

For second childhood, and devote old age

To sports which only childhood could excuse.

There they are happiest who dissemble best

Their weariness; and they the most polite,

Who squander time and treasure with a smile,

Though at their own destruction. She that asks

Her dear five hundred friends, contemns them all,

And hates their coming. They (what can they less?)

Make just reprisals, and, with cringe and shrug

And bow obsequious, hide their hate of her.

All catch the frenzy, downward from her Grace,

Whose flambeaux flash against the morning skies,

And gild our chamber ceilings as they pass,

To her who, frugal only that her thrift

May feed excesses she can ill afford,

Is hackneyed home unlackeyed; who, in haste

Alighting, turns the key in her own door,

And, at the watchman’s lantern borrowing light,

Finds a cold bed her only comfort left.

Wives beggar husbands, husbands starve their wives,

On Fortune’s velvet altar offering up

Their last poor pittance—Fortune, most severe

Of goddesses yet known, and costlier far

Than all that held their routs in Juno’s heaven.—

So fare we in this prison-house the world.

And ’tis a fearful spectacle to see

So many maniacs dancing in their chains.

They gaze upon the links that hold them fast

With eyes of anguish, execrate their lot,

Then shake them in despair, and dance again.

Now basket up the family of plagues

That waste our vitals. Peculation, sale

Of honour, perjury, corruption, frauds

By forgery, by subterfuge of law,

By tricks and lies, as numerous and as keen

As the necessities their authors feel;

Then cast them, closely bundled, every brat

At the right door. Profusion is its sire.

Profusion unrestrained, with all that’s base

In character, has littered all the land,

And bred within the memory of no few

A priesthood such as Baal’s was of old,

A people such as never was till now.

It is a hungry vice:—it eats up all

That gives society its beauty, strength,

Convenience, and security, and use;

Makes men mere vermin, worthy to be trapped

And gibbeted, as fast as catchpole claws

Can seize the slippery prey; unties the knot

Of union, and converts the sacred band

That holds mankind together to a scourge.

Profusion, deluging a state with lusts

Of grossest nature and of worst effects,

Prepares it for its ruin; hardens, blinds,

And warps the consciences of public men

Till they can laugh at virtue; mock the fools

That trust them; and, in the end, disclose a face

That would have shocked credulity herself,

Unmasked, vouchsafing this their sole excuse;—

Since all alike are selfish, why not they?

This does Profusion, and the accursed cause

Of such deep mischief has itself a cause.

In colleges and halls, in ancient days,

When learning, virtue, piety, and truth

Were precious, and inculcated with care,

There dwelt a sage called Discipline. His head,

Not yet by time completely silvered o’er,

Bespoke him past the bounds of freakish youth,

But strong for service still, and unimpaired.

His eye was meek and gentle, and a smile

Played on his lips, and in his speech was heard

Paternal sweetness, dignity, and love.

The occupation dearest to his heart

Was to encourage goodness. He would stroke

The head of modest and ingenuous worth,

That blushed at its own praise, and press the youth

Close to his side that pleased him. Learning grew

Beneath his care, a thriving, vigorous plant;

The mind was well informed, the passions held

Subordinate, and diligence was choice.

If e’er it chanced, as sometimes chance it must,

That one among so many overleaped

The limits of control, his gentle eye

Grew stern, and darted a severe rebuke;

His frown was full of terror, and his voice

Shook the delinquent with such fits of awe

As left him not, till penitence had won

Lost favour back again, and closed the breach.

But Discipline, a faithful servant long,

Declined at length into the vale of years;

A palsy struck his arm, his sparkling eye

Was quenched in rheums of age, his voice unstrung

Grew tremulous, and moved derision more

Than reverence in perverse, rebellious youth.

So colleges and halls neglected much

Their good old friend, and Discipline at length,

O’erlooked and unemployed, fell sick and died.

Then study languished, emulation slept,

And virtue fled. The schools became a scene

Of solemn farce, where ignorance in stilts,

His cap well lined with logic not his own,

With parrot tongue performed the scholar’s part,

Proceeding soon a graduated dunce.

Then compromise had place, and scrutiny

Became stone-blind, precedence went in truck,

And he was competent whose purse was so.

A dissolution of all bonds ensued,

The curbs invented for the mulish mouth

Of headstrong youth were broken; bars and bolts

Grew rusty by disuse, and massy gates

Forgot their office, opening with a touch;

Till gowns at length are found mere masquerade;

The tasselled cap and the spruce band a jest,

A mockery of the world. What need of these

For gamesters, jockeys, brothellers impure,

Spendthrifts and booted sportsmen, oftener seen

With belted waist, and pointers at their heels,

Than in the bounds of duty? What was learned,

If aught was learned in childhood, is forgot,

And such expense as pinches parents blue

And mortifies the liberal hand of love,

Is squandered in pursuit of idle sports

And vicious pleasures; buys the boy a name,

That sits a stigma on his father’s house,

And cleaves through life inseparably close

To him that wears it. What can after-games

Of riper joys, and commerce with the world,

The lewd vain world that must receive him soon,

Add to such erudition thus acquired,

Where science and where virtue are professed?

They may confirm his habits, rivet fast

His folly, but to spoil him is a task

That bids defiance to the united powers

Of fashion, dissipation, taverns, stews.

Now, blame we most the nurselings, or the nurse?

The children crooked and twisted and deformed

Through want of care, or her whose winking eye

And slumbering oscitancy mars the brood?

The nurse no doubt. Regardless of her charge,

She needs herself correction; needs to learn

That it is dangerous sporting with the world,

With things so sacred as a nation’s trust;

The nurture of her youth, her dearest pledge.

All are not such. I had a brother once—

Peace to the memory of a man of worth,

A man of letters and of manners too—

Of manners sweet as virtue always wears,

When gay good-nature dresses her in smiles.

He graced a college in which order yet

Was sacred, and was honoured, loved, and wept,

By more than one, themselves conspicuous there.

Some minds are tempered happily, and mixt

With such ingredients of good sense and taste

Of what is excellent in man, they thirst

With such a zeal to be what they approve,

That no restraints can circumscribe them more

Than they themselves by choice, for wisdom’s sake.

Nor can example hurt them. What they see

Of vice in others but enhancing more

The charms of virtue in their just esteem.

If such escape contagion, and emerge

Pure, from so foul a pool, to shine abroad,

And give the world their talents and themselves,

Small thanks to those whose negligence or sloth

Exposed their inexperience to the snare,

And left them to an undirected choice.

See, then, the quiver broken and decayed,

In which are kept our arrows. Rusting there

In wild disorder and unfit for use,

What wonder if discharged into the world

They shame their shooters with a random flight,

Their points obtuse and feathers drunk with wine.

Well may the Church wage unsuccessful war

With such artillery armed. Vice parries wide

The undreaded volley with a sword of straw,

And stands an impudent and fearless mark.

Have we not tracked the felon home, and found

His birthplace and his dam? The country mourns—

Mourns, because every plague that can infest

Society, that saps and worms the base

Of the edifice that Policy has raised,

Swarms in all quarters; meets the eye, the ear,

And suffocates the breath at every turn.

Profusion breeds them. And the cause itself

Of that calamitous mischief has been found,

Found, too, where most offensive, in the skirts

Of the robed pedagogue. Else, let the arraigned

Stand up unconscious and refute the charge.

So, when the Jewish leader stretched his arm

And waved his rod divine, a race obscene,

Spawned in the muddy beds of Nile, came forth

Polluting Egypt. Gardens, fields, and plains

Were covered with the pest. The streets were filled;

The croaking nuisance lurked in every nook,

Nor palaces nor even chambers ’scaped,

And the land stank, so numerous was the fry.

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cowper/william/task/book2.html

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52