Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
 
The Heathen Poet and the Bible
By Samuel Horsley (1733–1806)
 
From Sermons

A HEATHEN poet, whose subject leads him to speak of a certain voyage, which, if it was ever really performed, was the first attempt of any European nation to cross the main seas in a large ship with masts and sails, describes in elegant and animated strains the consequences which the success of so extraordinary an undertaking might be expected to produce upon the state of mankind, the free intercourse that was likely to be opened between distant nations, and the great discoveries to be expected from voyages in future times, when the arts of shipbuilding and navigation, to which this expedition, if a real one, gave rise, should be carried to perfection. This is his general argument, and verses to this effect make the conclusion of his song:—
                                Distant years
Shall bring the fated season, when Ocean,
Nature’s prime barrier, shall no more obstruct
The daring search of enterprising man.
The earth, so wide, shall all be open,—
The mariner explore new worlds;
Nor Shetland be the utmost shore.
  1
  “Now give me,” says the infidel, 1 “a prophecy from your Bible, which may be as clearly predictive of any event which you may choose to allege for the accomplishment, as these verses have by mere accident proved to be of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus,—give me such a prophecy from your Bible as I have produced to you from a heathen poet, 2 who yet was no prophet, nor claimed the character, and I will turn believer.” “We cheerfully accept this arrogant defiance: we are thankful to the adversary that hath invited us to meet him on such advantageous ground, by comparing what may justly be deemed the most indefinite of the Scripture prophecies, with the best specimen of the power of accident for the completion of prophecy which his extensive reading could produce.  2
  These verses of this Latin poet are indeed a striking example of a prediction that might safely take its chance in the world, and happen what might, could not fail at some time or other to meet with its accomplishment. Indeed, it predicts nothing but what was evidently within the ken of human foresight, that men, being once furnished with the means of discovery, would make discoveries; that, having ships, they would make voyages; that, when these improvements in the art of shipbuilding should have furnished larger and better ships, men would make longer and more frequent voyages; and that, by longer and more frequent voyages, they would gain more knowledge of the surface of the globe which they inhabit. What peasant of Thessaly but might have uttered such prophecies as these, who saw the Argo bring her heroes home, and observed to what degree the avarice and curiosity of his countrymen were inflamed by the wealth which the adventurers had amassed, and the stories which they spread? What restriction do we find of the generality of these prognostications, which may seem to put the exact completion out of the reach of accidental causes? None. Neither the parts of the world were specified from which expeditions of discovery should be fitted out, nor the quarters in which they should most succeed: or if any particular intimation upon the latter article be couched in the mention of Shetland as an island that should cease to be extreme, it is erroneous; as it points precisely to that quarter of the globe where discovery hath been ever at a stand,—where the ocean, to this hour opposes his eternal barrier of impervious unnavigable ice.  3
 
Note 1. Says the infidel.  This is Anthony Collins, who achieved a certain kind of immortality as the butt of Swift. [back]
Note 2. A heathen poet.  Seneca in his Medea. [back]
 
 
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