THE CHARACTER OF A HAPPY LIFE.
How happy is he born and taught,
That serveth not another's will;
Whose armour is his honest thought,
And silly truth his highest skill;
Whose passions not his masters are;
Whose soul is still prepared for death,
Untiéd to the world with care
Of prince's grace or vulgar breath;
Who hath his life from humours freed;
Whose conscience is his strong retreat;
Whose state can neither flatterers feed,
Nor ruin make accusers great;
Who envieth none whom chance doth raise
Or vice; who never understood
How swords give slighter wounds than praise.
Nor rules of state, but rules of good;
Who God doth late and early pray
More of his grace than gifts to lend;
And entertains the harmless day
With a well-chosen book or friend.
This man is free from servile bands
Of hope to rise, or fear to fall:
Lord of himself, though not of lands
And having nothing, yet hath all.
Some of my readers will observe that in many places I have given a
reading different from that in the best-known copy of the poem. I have
followed a manuscript in the handwriting of Ben Jonson. I cannot
tell whether Jonson has put the master's hand to the amateur's work, but
in every case I find his reading the best.
Sir John Davies must have been about fifteen years younger than Sir Fulk
Grevill. He was born in 1570, was bred a barrister, and rose to high
position through the favour of James I.--gained, it is said, by the poem
which the author called Nosce Teipsum, but which is generally
entitled On the Immortality of the Soul, intending by immortality the
spiritual nature of the soul, resulting in continuity of existence. It is
a wonderful instance of what can be done for metaphysics in verse, and by
means of imagination or poetic embodiment generally. Argumentation cannot
of course naturally belong to the region of poetry, however well it may
comport itself when there naturalized; and consequently, although there
are most poetic no less than profound passages in the treatise, a light
scruple arises whether its constituent matter can properly be called
poetry. At all events, however, certain of the more prosaic measures and
stanzas lend themselves readily, and with much favour, to some of the
more complex of logical necessities. And it must be remembered that in
human speech, as in the human mind, there are no absolute divisions:
power shades off into feeling; and the driest logic may find the heroic
couplet render it good service.
Sir John Davies's treatise is not only far more poetic in image and
utterance than that of Lord Brooke, but is far more clear in argument and
firm in expression as well. Here is a fine invocation:
- Light, which mak'st the light which makes the day!
Which sett'st the eye without, and mind within;
Lighten my spirit with one clear heavenly ray,
Which now to view itself doth first begin.
|* * *
|Thou, like the sun, dost,
|Into the palace and the
|And show'st the soul both
||to the clerk and lay, _learned and
|By the clear lamp of th' oracle
He is puzzled enough to get the theology of his time into harmony with
his philosophy, and I cannot say that he is always triumphant in the
attempt; but here at least is good argument in justification of the
freedom of man to sin.
If by His word he had the current stayed
Of Adam's will, which was by nature free,
It had been one as if his word had said,
"I will henceforth that Man no Man shall be."
* * * * *
For what is Man without a moving mind,
Which hath a judging wit, and choosing will?
Now, if God's pow'r should her election bind,
Her motions then would cease, and stand all still.
* * * * *
So that if Man would be unvariable,
He must be God, or like a rock or tree;
For ev'n the perfect angels were not stable,
But had a fall more desperate than we.
The poem contains much excellent argument in mental science as well as in
religion and metaphysics; but with that department I have nothing to do.
I shall now give an outlook from the highest peak of the poem--to any who
are willing to take the trouble necessary for seeing what another would
The section from which I have gathered the following stanzas is devoted
to the more immediate proof of the soul's immortality.
Her only end is never-ending bliss,
Which is the eternal face of God to see,
Who last of ends and first of causes is;
And to do this, she must eternal be.
Again, how can she but immortal be,
When with the motions of both will and wit,
She still aspireth to eternity,
And never rests till she attains to it?
Water in conduit-pipes can rise no higher
Than the well-head from whence it first doth spring;
Then since to eternal God she doth aspire,
She cannot but be an eternal thing.
At first her mother-earth she holdeth dear,
And doth embrace the world and worldly things;
She flies close by the ground, and hovers here,
And mounts not up with her celestial wings.
Yet under heaven she cannot light on ought
That with her heavenly nature doth agree
She cannot rest, she cannot fix her thought,
She cannot in this world contented be.
For who did ever yet, in honour, wealth,
Or pleasure of the sense, contentment find?
Whoever ceased to wish, when he had health
Or having wisdom, was not vexed in mind
Then as a bee, which among weeds doth fall,
Which seem sweet flowers, with lustre fresh and gay--
She lights on that, and this, and tasteth all,
But, pleased with none, doth rise, and soar away;
So, when the soul finds here no true content,
And, like Noah's dove, can no sure footing take,
She doth return from whence she first was sent,
And flies to him that first her wings did make.
Wit, seeking truth, from cause to cause ascends,
And never rests till it the first attain;
Will, seeking good, finds many middle ends,
But never stays till it the last do gain.
Now God the truth, and first of causes is;
God is the last good end, which lasteth still;
Being Alpha and Omega named for this:
Alpha to wit, Omega to the will.
Since then her heavenly kind she doth display
In that to God she doth directly move,
And on no mortal thing can make her stay,
She cannot be from hence, but from above.
One passage more, the conclusion and practical summing up of the whole:
- ignorant poor man! what dost thou bear,
Locked up within the casket of thy breast?
What jewels and what riches hast thou there!
What heavenly treasure in so weak a chest!
Think of her worth, and think that God did mean
This worthy mind should worthy things embrace:
Blot not her beauties with thy thoughts unclean,
Nor her dishonour with thy passion base.
Kill not her quickening power with surfeitings;
Mar not her sense with sensuality;
Cast not her serious wit on idle things;
Make not her free-will slave to vanity.
And when thou think'st of her eternity,
Think not that death against our nature is;
Think it a birth; and when thou go'st to die,
Sing like a swan, as if thou went'st to bliss.
And if thou, like a child, didst fear before,
Being in the dark where thou didst nothing see;
Now I have brought thee torch-light, fear no more;
Now when thou diest thou canst not hood-wink'd be.
And thou, my soul, which turn'st with curious eye
To view the beams of thine own form divine,
Know, that thou canst know nothing perfectly,
While thou art clouded with this flesh of mine.
Take heed of over-weening, and compare
Thy peacock's feet with thy gay peacock's train:
Study the best and highest things that are,
But of thyself an humble thought retain.
Cast down thyself, and only strive to raise
The story of thy Maker's sacred name:
Use all thy powers that blessed Power to praise,
Which gives the power to be, and use the same.
In looking back over our path from the point we have now reached, the
first thought that suggests itself is--How much the reflective has
supplanted the emotional! I do not mean for a moment that the earliest
poems were without thought, or that the latest are without emotion; but
in the former there is more of the skin, as it were--in the latter, more
of the bones of worship; not that in the one the worship is but
skin-deep, or that in the other the bones are dry.
To look at the change a little more closely: we find in the earliest
time, feeling working on historic fact and on what was received as such,
and the result simple aspiration after goodness. The next stage is good
doctrine--I use the word, as St. Paul uses it, for instruction in
righteousness--chiefly by means of allegory, all attempts at analysis
being made through personification of qualities. Here the general form is
frequently more poetic than the matter. After this we have a period
principally of imitation, sometimes good, sometimes indifferent. Next,
with the Reformation and the revival of literature together, come more of
art and more of philosophy, to the detriment of the lyrical expression.
People cannot think and sing: they can only feel and sing. But the
philosophy goes farther in this direction, even to the putting in
abeyance of that from which song takes its rise,--namely, feeling itself.
As to the former, amongst the verse of the period I have given, there is
hardly anything to be called song but Sir Philip Sidney's Psalms, and for
them we are more indebted to King David than to Sir Philip. As to the
latter, even in the case of that most mournful poem of the Countess of
Pembroke, it is, to quite an unhealthy degree, occupied with the attempt
to work upon her own feelings by the contemplation of them, instead of
with the utterance of those aroused by the contemplation of truth. In her
case the metaphysics have begun to prey upon and consume the emotions.
Besides, that age was essentially a dramatic age, as even its command of
language, especially as shown in the pranks it plays with it, would
almost indicate; and the dramatic impulse is less favourable, though not
at all opposed, to lyrical utterance. In the cases of Sir Fulk Grevill
and Sir John Davies, the feeling is assuredly profound; but in form and
expression the philosophy has quite the upper hand.
We must not therefore suppose, however, that the cause of religious
poetry has been a losing one. The last wave must sink that the next may
rise, and the whole tide flow shorewards. The man must awake through all
his soul, all his strength, all his mind, that he may worship God in
unity, in the one harmonious utterance of his being: his heart must be
united to fear his name. And for this final perfection of the individual
the race must awake. At this season and that season, this power or that
power must be chiefly developed in her elect; and for its sake the growth
of others must for a season be delayed. But the next generation will
inherit all that has gone before; and its elect, if they be themselves
pure in heart, and individual, that is original, in mind, will, more or
less thoroughly, embody the result, in subservience to some new
development, essential in its turn to further progress. Even the fallow
times, which we are so ready to call barren, must have their share in
working the one needful work. They may be to the nation that which
sickness so often is to the man--a time of refreshing from the Lord. A
nation's life does not lie in its utterance any more than in the things
which it possesses: it lies in its action. The utterance is a result, and
therefore a sign, of life; but there may be life without any such sign.
To do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God, is the highest
life of a nation as of an individual; and when the time for speech comes,
it will be such life alone that causes the speech to be strong at once
and harmonious. When at last there are not ten righteous men in Sodom,
Sodom can neither think, act, nor say, and her destruction is at hand.
While the wave of the dramatic was sinking, the wave of the lyric was
growing in force and rising in height. Especially as regards religious
poetry we are as yet only approaching the lyrical jubilee. Fact and
faith, self-consciousness and metaphysics, all are needful to the lyric
of love. Modesty and art find their grandest, simplest labour in rightly
subordinating each of those to the others. How could we have a George
Herbert without metaphysics? In those poems I have just given, the way of
metaphysics was prepared for him. That which overcolours one age to the
injury of its harmony, will, in the next or the next, fall into its own
place in the seven-chorded rainbow of truth.