by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-1680)
Were I (who to my cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man)
A spirit free to choose, for my own share,
What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I’d be a dog, a monkey or a bear,
Or anything but that vain animal
Who is so proud of being rational.
The senses are too gross, and he’ll contrive
A sixth, to contradict the other five,
And before certain instinct, will prefer
Reason, which fifty times for one does err;
Reason, an ignis fatuus in the mind,
Which, leaving light of nature, sense, behind,
Pathless and dangerous wandering ways it takes
Through error’s fenny bogs and thorny brakes;
Whilst the misguided follower climbs with pain
Mountains of whimseys, heaped in his own brain;
Stumbling from thought to thought, falls headlong down
Into doubt’s boundless sea, where, like to drown,
Books bear him up a while, and make him try
To swim with bladders of philosophy;
In hopes still to o’ertake th’ escaping light,
The vapor dances in his dazzling sight
Till, spent, it leaves him to eternal night.
Then old age and experience, hand in hand,
Lead him to death, and make him understand,
After a search so painful and so long,
That all his life he has been in the wrong.
Huddled in dirt the reasoning engine lies,
Who was proud, so witty, and so wise.
Pride drew him in, as cheats their bubbles catch,
And made him venture to be made a wretch.
His wisdom did his happiness destroy,
Aiming to know that world he should enjoy.
And wit was his vain, frivolous pretense
Of pleasing others at his own expense,
For wits are treated just like common whores:
First they’re enjoyed, and then kicked out of doors.
The pleasure past, a threatening doubt remains
That frights th’ enjoyer with succeeding pains.
Women and men of wit are dangerous tools,
And ever fatal to admiring fools:
Pleasure allures, and when the fops escape,
‘Tis not that they’re belov’d, but fortunate,
And therefore, that they fear at heart, they hate.
But now, methinks, some formal band and beard
Takes me to task. Come on, sir; I’m prepared.
“Then, by your favor, anything that’s writ
Against this gibing, jingling knack called wit
Likes me abundantly; but you take care
Upon this point, not to be too severe.
Perhaps my muse were fitter for this part,
For I profess I can be very smart
On wit, which I abhor with all my heart.
I long to lash it in some sharp essay,
But your grand indiscretion bids me stay
And turns my tide of ink another way.
“What rage ferments in your degenerate mind
To make you rail at reason and mankind?
Blest, glorious man! to whom alone kind heaven
An everlasting soul has freely given,
Whom his great Maker took such care to make
That from himself he did the image take
And this fair frame in shining reason dressed
To dignify his nature above beast;
Reason, by whose aspiring influence
We take a flight beyond material sense
Dive into mysteries, then soaring pierce
The flaming limits of the universe,
Search heaven and hell, find out what’s acted there,
And give the world true grounds of hope and fear.”
Hold, mighty man, I cry, all this we know
From the pathetic pen of Ingelo,
From Patrick’s Pilgrim, Sibbes’ soliloquies,
And ’tis this very reason I despise:
This supernatural gift, that makes a mite
Think he’s the image of the infinite,
Comparing his short life, void of all rest,
To the eternal and the ever blest;
This busy, puzzling stirrer-up of doubt
That frames deep mysteries, then finds ’em out,
Filling with frantic crowds of thinking fools
Those reverend bedlams, colleges and schools;
Borne on whose wings, each heavy sot can pierce
The limits of the boundless universe;
So charming ointments make an old witch fly
And bear a crippled carcass through the sky.
‘Tis this exalted power, whose business lies
In nonsense and impossibilities,
This made a whimsical philosopher
Before the spacious world, his tub prefer,
And we have modern cloisterd coxcombs who
Retire to think, ’cause they have nought to do.
But thoughts are given for action’s government;
Where action ceases, thought’s impertinent.
Our sphere of action is life’s happiness,
And he who thinks beyond, thinks like an ass.
Thus, whilst against false reasoning I inveigh,
I own right reason, which I would obey:
That reason which distinguishes by sense
And gives us rules of good and ill from thence,
That bounds desires with a reforming will
To keep ’em more in vigour, not to kill.
Your reason hinders, mine helps to enjoy,
Renewing appetites yours would destroy.
My reason is my friend, yours is a cheat;
Hunger calls out, my reason bids me eat;
Perversely, yours your appetite does mock:
This asks for food, that answers, ‘What’s o’clock?’
This plain distinction, sir, your doubt secures:
‘Tis not true reason I despise, but yours.
Thus I think reason righted, bur for man,
I’ll ne’er recant; defend him if you can.
For all his pride and his philosophy,
‘Tis evident beasts are, in their degree,
As wise at least, and better far than he.
Those creatures are the wisest who attain,
By surest means, the ends at which they aim.
If therefore Jowler finds and kills his hares
Better than Meres supplies committee chairs,
Though one’s a statesman, th’ other but a hound,
Jowler, in justice, would be wiser found.
You see how far man’s wisdom here extends;
Look next if human nature makes amends:
Whose principles most generous are, and just,
And to whose morals you would sooner trust.
Be judge yourself, I’ll bring it to the test:
Which is the basest creature, man or beast?
Birds feed on birds, beasts on each other prey,
But savage man alone does man betray.
Pressed by necessity, they kill for food;
Man undoes man to do himself no good.
With teeth and claws by nature armed, they hunt
Nature’s allowance, to supply their want.
But man, with smiles, embraces, friendship, praise,
Inhumanly his fellow’s life betrays;
With voluntary pains works his distress,
Not through necessity, but wantonness.
For hunger or for love they fight or tear,
Whilst wretched man is still in arms for fear.
For fear he arms, and is of arms afraid,
By fear to fear successively betrayed;
Base fear, the source whence his best passions came:
His boasted honor, and his dear-bought fame;
That lust of power, to which he’s a slave,
And for the which alone he dares be brave;
To which his various projects are designed;
Which makes him generous, affable, and kind;
For which he takes such pains to be thought wise,
And screws his actions in a forced disguise,
Leading a tedious life in misery
Under laborious, mean hypocrisy.
Look to the bottom of his vast design,
Wherein man’s wisdom, power, and glory join:
The good he acts, the ill he does endure,
‘Tis all from fear, to make himself secure.
Merely for safety, after fame we thirst,
For all men would be cowards if they durst.
And honesty’s against all common sense:
Men must be knaves, ’tis in their own defence.
Mankind’s dishonest, if you think it fair
Amongst known cheats to play upon the square,
You’ll be undone.
Nor can weak truth your reputation save:
The knaves will all agree to call you knave.
Wronged shall he live, insulted o’er, oppressed,
Who dares be less a villain than the rest.
Thus, sir, you see what human nature craves:
Most men are cowards, all men should be knaves.
The difference lies, as far as I can see,
Not in the thing itself, but the degree,
And all the subject matter of debate is only:
Who’s a knave of the first rate?
All this with indignation have I hurled
At the pretending part of the proud world,
Who, swollen with selfish vanity, devise
False freedoms, holy cheats, and formal lies
Over their fellow slaves to tyrannize.
But if in Court so just a man there be
(In Court a just man, yet unknown to me)
Who does his needful flattery direct,
Not to oppress and ruin, but protect
(Since flattery, which way soever laid,
Is still a tax on that unhappy trade);
If so upright a statesman you can find,
Whose passions bend to his unbiased mind,
Who does his arts and policies apply
To raise his country, not his family,
Nor, whilst his pride owned avarice withstands,
Receives close bribes through friends’ corrupted hands?
Is there a churchman who on God relies;
Whose life, his faith and doctrine justifies?
Not one blown up with vain prelatic pride,
Who, for reproof of sins, does man deride;
Whose envious heart makes preaching a pretense,
With his obstreperous, saucy eloquence,
To chide at kings, and rail at men of sense;
None of that sensual tribe whose talents lie
In avarice, pride, sloth, and gluttony;
Who hunt good livings, but abhor good lives;
Whose lust exalted to that height arrives
They act adultery with their own wives,
And ere a score of years completed be,
Can from the lofty pulput proudly see
Half a large parish their own progeny;
Nor doting bishop who would be adored
For domineering at the council board,
A greater fop in business at fourscore,
Fonder of serious toys, affected more,
Than the gay, glittering fool at twenty proves
With all his noise, his tawdry clothes, and loves;
But a meek, humble man of honest sense,
Who, preaching peace, does practice continence;
Whose pious life’s a proof he does believe
Mysterious truths, which no man can conceive.
If upon the earth there dwell such God-like men,
I’ll here recant my paradox to them,
Adore those shrines of virtue, homage pay,
And, with the rabble world, their laws obey.
If such there be, yet grant me this at least:
Man differs more from man, than man from beast.
Read Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and you’ll see that he’s at home among the Cavaliers; read The Coronet and you’ll realize he’s at home among the most religious of poets.
A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body
O, who shall from this dungeon raise
A soul enslaved so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fettered stands
In feet, and manacled in hands.
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear;
A soul hung up, as ‘twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
Tortured, besides each other part,
In a vain head and double heart.
O, who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
What, stretched upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go;
And warms and moves this needless frame
(A fever could but do the same)
And wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die.
A body that could never rest
Since this ill spirit it possessed.
What magic could me thus confine
Within another’s grief to pine?
Where, whatsoever it complain,
I feel, that cannot feel, the pain;
And all my care itself employs,
That to preserve which me destroys;
Constrained not only to endure
Diseases, but, what’s worse, the cure;
And, ready oft the port to gain,
Am shipwrecked into health again.
But physic yet could never reach
The maladies thou me dost teach:
Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,
And then the palsy shakes of fear;
The pestilence of love does heat,
Or hatred’s hidden ulcer eat;
Joy’s cheerful madness does perplex,
Or sorrow’s other madness vex;
Which knowledge forces me to know,
And memory will not forego.
What but a soul could have the wit
To build me up for sin so fit?
So architects do square and hew
Green trees that in the forest grew.
To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness. lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our love’s long day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest:
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honor turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
When for the thorns with which I long, too long,
. With many a piercing wound,
. My Savior’s head have crowned,
I seek with garlands to address that wrong,
. Through every garden, every mead,
I gather flowers (my fruits are only flowers),
. Dismantling all the fragrant towers
That once adorned my shepherdess’s head:
And now, when I have summed up all my store,
. Thinking (so I myself deceive)
. So rich a chaplet thence to weave
As never yet the King of Glory wore,
. Alas! I find the serpent old,
. That, twining in his speckled breast,
. About the flowers disguised does fold
. With wreathes of fame and interest.
Ah, foolish man, that wouldst debase with them,
And mortal glory, heaven’s diadem!
But thou who only couldst the serpent tame,
Either his slippery knots at once untie,
And disentangle all his winding snare,
Or shatter too with him my curious frame,
And let these whither, so that he may die,
Thou set with skill and chosen out with care;
That they, while thou on both their spoils dost tread,
May crown thy feet, that could not crown thy head.
When I Consider How My Light Is Spent
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
On the Late Massacre in Piedmont
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,
Even them who kept they truth so pure of old
When all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piemontese that rolled
Mother with infant down upon the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To Heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all th’Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant: that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who having learnt the way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
John Dryden was a both a masterful playwright and poet. Enjoy the following taste of his work, including two satires depicting contemporaries as Biblical villains/fools.
From Cymon and Iphigenia, Lines on a Paid Militia
The country rings around with loud alarms,
And raw in the fields the rude militia swarms;
Mouths without hands; maintained at vast expense,
In peace a charge, in war a weak defense:
Stout once a month they march, a blustering band,
And ever, but in times of need, at hand.
This was the morn when, issuing on the guard,
Drawn up in rank and file they stood prepared
Of seeming arms to make a short essay,
Then hasten to be drunk, the business of the day.
Ah, How Sweet
Ah, how sweet it is to love!
Ah, how gay is young desire!
And what pleasing pains we prove
When we first approach love’s fire!
Pains of love are sweeter far
Than all other pleasures are.
Sighs which are but lovers blown
Do but gently leave the heart:
Ee’n the tears they shed alone
Cure, like trickling balm, their smart.
Lovers, when they lose their breath,
Bleed away in easy death.
Love and Time with reverence use,
Treat them like a parting friend;
Nor the golden gifts refuse
Which in youth sincere they send:
For each year their price is more,
And they less simple than before.
Love, like spring-tides full and high,
Swells in every youthful vein;
But each tide does less supply,
Till they quite shrink in again.
If a flow in age appear,
‘Tis but rain, and runs not clear.
GEORGE VILLIERS, DUKE OF BUCKINGHAM
Some of their chiefs were princes of the land;
In the first rank of these did Zimri stand;
A man so various that he seemed to be
Not one, but all mankind’s epitome:
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong;
Was everything by starts, and nothing long;
But in the course of one revolving moon,
Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon;
Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking,
Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking.
Blest madman, who could every hour employ,
With something new to wish or to enjoy!
Railing and praising were his usual themes;
And both, to show his judgment, in extremes:
So over-violent or over-civil,
That every man with him was God or Devil.
In squandering wealth was his peculiar art;
Nothing went unrewarded but desert.
Beggared by fools, whom still he found too late;
He had his jest, and they had his estate.
He laughed himself from court, then sought relief
By forming parties, but could ne’er be chief;
For spite of him, the weight of business well
On Absalom, and wise Achitophel.
Thus, wicked but of will, of means bereft,
He left no faction, but of that was left.
SHADWELL, THE DRAMATIST
Now stop your noses, readers, all and some,
For here’s a tun of midnight work to come.
Og, from a treason-tavern rolling home
Round as a globe, and liquored every chink,
Goodly and great he sails behind his link:
With all this bulk there’s nothing lost in Og,
For every inch that is not fool is rogue;
A monstrous mass of foul, corrupted matter,
As all the devils had spewed to make the batter.
The midwife laid her hand on his thick skull,
With this prophetic blessing,— “Be thou dull;
Drink, swear, and roar, forbear no lewd delight,
Fit for thy bulk; do anything but write:
Thou art of lasting make, like thoughtless men;
A strong nativity—but for the pen!
Eat opium, mingle arsenic in thy drink,
Still thou mayst live, avoiding pen and ink”:
I see, I see, ‘tis counsel given in vain,
For treason botched in rhyme will be thy bane;
Rhyme is the rock on which thou art to wreck,
‘Tis fatal to thy fame and to thy neck;
Why should thy meter good King David blast!
A psalm of his will surely be thy last.
A double noose thou on thy neck dost pull
For writing treason, and for writing dull.
To die for faction is a common evil,
But to be hanged for nonsense is the devil.