Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. III. Addison to Blake
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
 
Extracts from Conversation: Characters and Sketches
By William Cowper (1731–1800)
 
  YE powers who rule the tongue, if such there are,
And make colloquial happiness your care,
Preserve me from the thing I dread and hate,
A duel in the form of a debate.
The clash of arguments and jar of words,        5
Worse than the mortal brunt of rival swords,
Decide no question with their tedious length,
(For opposition gives opinion strength,)
Divert the champions prodigal of breath,
And put the peaceably disposed to death.        10
Oh thwart me not, Sir Soph, at every turn,
Nor carp at every flaw you may discern;
Though syllogisms hang not on my tongue,
I am not surely always in the wrong;
’Tis hard if all is false that I advance,        15
A fool must now and then be right by chance.
Not that all freedom of dissent I blame;
No,—there I grant the privilege I claim.
A disputable point is no man’s ground,
Rove where you please, ’tis common all around.        20
Discourse may want an animated No,
To brush the surface, and to make it flow;
But still remember, if you mean to please,
To press your point with modesty and ease.
The mark at which my juster aim I take,        25
Is contradiction for its own dear sake.
Set your opinion at whatever pitch,
Knots and impediments make something hitch;
Adopt his own, ’tis equally in vain,
Your thread of argument is snapped again;        30
The wrangler, rather than accord with you,
Will judge himself deceived,—and prove it too.
Vociferated logic kills me quite,
A noisy man is always in the right;
I twirl my thumbs, fall back into my chair,        35
Fix on the wainscot a distressful stare,
And when I hope his blunders are all out,
Reply discreetly, ‘To be sure—no doubt.’
  Dubius is such a scrupulous good man,—
Yes, you may catch him tripping if you can.        40
He would not with a peremptory tone
Assert the nose upon his face his own;
With hesitation admirably slow,
He humbly hopes—presumes—it may be so.
His evidence, if he were called by law        45
To swear to some enormity he saw,
For want of prominence and just relief,
Would hang an honest man, and save a thief.
Through constant dread of giving truth offence,
He ties up all his hearers in suspense;        50
Knows what he knows, as if he knew it not;
What he remembers seems to have forgot;
His sole opinion, whatsoe’er befall,
Centering at last in having none at all.
Yet though he tease and baulk your listening ear,        55
He makes one useful point exceeding clear;
Howe’er ingenious on his darling theme
A sceptic in philosophy may seem,
Reduced to practice, his beloved rule
Would only prove him a consummate fool;        60
Useless in him alike both brain and speech,
Fate having placed all truth above his reach;
His ambiguities his total sum,
He might as well be blind and deaf and dumb.
  Where men of judgment creep and feel their way,        65
The positive pronounce without dismay,
Their want of light and intellect supplied
By sparks absurdity strikes out of pride:
Without the means of knowing right from wrong,
They always are decisive, clear, and strong;        70
Where others toil with philosophic force,
Their nimble nonsense takes a shorter course,
Flings at your head conviction in the lump,
And gains remote conclusions at a jump;
Their own defect, invisible to them,        75
Seen in another, they at once condemn,
And, though self-idolized in every case,
Hate their own likeness in a brother’s face.
The cause is plain and not to be denied,
The proud are always most provoked by pride;        80
Few competitions but engender spite,
And those the most where neither has a right.
  The Point of Honour has been deemed of use,
To teach good manners and to curb abuse;
Admit it true, the consequence is clear,        85
Our polished manners are a mask we wear,
And at the bottom, barbarous still and rude,
We are restrained indeed, but not subdued.
The very remedy, however sure,
Springs from the mischief it intends to cure,        90
And savage in its principle appears,
Tried, as it should be, by the fruit it bears.
’Tis hard indeed, if nothing will defend
Mankind from quarrels but their fatal end;
That now and then a hero must decease,        95
That the surviving world may live in peace.
Perhaps at last close scrutiny may show
The practice dastardly, and mean, and low,
That men engage in it compelled by force,
And fear, not courage, is its proper source:        100
The fear of tyrant custom, and the fear
Lest fops should censure us, and fools should sneer.
At least to trample on our Maker’s laws,
And hazard life for any or no cause,
To rush into a fixed eternal state        105
Out of the very flames of rage and hate,
Or send another shivering to the bar
With all the guilt of such unnatural war,
Whatever use may urge, or honour plead,
On reason’s verdict is a madman’s deed.        110
Am I to set my life upon a throw,
Because a bear is rude and surly? No.
A moral, sensible, and well-bred man
Will not affront me,—and no other can.
Were I empowered to regulate the lists,        115
They should encounter with well-loaded fists;
A Trojan combat would be something new,
Let Dares beat Entellus black and blue;
Then each might show to his admiring friends
In honourable bumps his rich amends,        120
And carry in contusions of his skull
A satisfactory receipt in full.
*        *        *        *        *
  The emphatic speaker dearly loves to oppose
In contact inconvenient, nose to nose;
As if the gnomon on his neighbour’s phiz,        125
Touched with the magnet, had attracted his.
His whispered theme, dilated and at large,
Proves after all a wind-gun’s airy charge,
An extract of his diary—no more,
A tasteless journal of the day before.        130
He walk’d abroad, o’ertaken in the rain
Called on a friend, drank tea, stepped home again;
Resumed his purpose, had a world of talk
With one he stumbled on, and lost his walk.
I interrupt him with a sudden bow,        135
‘Adieu, dear Sir! lest you should lose it now.’
  I cannot talk with civet in the room,
A fine puss-gentleman that ’s all perfume;
The sight ’s enough—no need to smell a beau—
Who thrusts his nose into a raree show?        140
His odoriferous attempts to please
Perhaps might prosper with a swarm of bees;
But we that make no honey, though we sting,
Poets, are sometimes apt to maul the thing.
’Tis wrong to bring into a mixed resort        145
What makes some sick, and others à-la-mort,
An argument of cogence, we may say,
Why such a one should keep himself away.
  A graver coxcomb we may sometimes see,
Quite as absurd, though not so light as he:        150
A shallow brain behind a serious mask,
An oracle within an empty cask,
The solemn fop; significant and budge;
A fool with judges, amongst fools a judge;
He says but little, and that little said        155
Owes all its weight, like loaded dice, to lead.
His wit invites you by his looks to come,
But when you knock it never is at home:
’Tis like a parcel sent you by the stage,
Some handsome present, as your hopes presage;        160
’Tis heavy, bulky, and bids fair to prove
An absent friend’s fidelity and love;
But when unpacked, your disappointment groans
To find it stuffed with brickbats, earth, and stones.
  Some men employ their health, an ugly trick,        165
In making known how oft they have been sick,
And give us in recitals of disease
A doctor’s trouble, but without the fees;
Relate how many weeks they kept their bed,
How an emetic or cathartic sped;        170
Nothing is slightly touched, much less forgot,
Nose, ears, and eyes seem present on the spot.
Now the distemper, spite of draught or pill,
Victorious seemed, and now the doctor’s skill;
And now—alas for unforeseen mishaps!        175
They put on a damp nightcap and relapse;
They thought they must have died, they were so bad;
Their peevish hearers almost wish they had.
  Some fretful tempers wince at every touch,
You always do too little or too much:        180
You speak with life, in hopes to entertain,—
Your elevated voice goes through the brain;
You fall at once into a lower key,—
That ’s worse, the drone-pipe of an humble-bee.
The southern sash admits too strong a light,        185
You rise and drop the curtain—now ’tis night;
He shakes with cold;—you stir the fire and strive
To make a blaze—that ’s roasting him alive.
Serve him with venison, and he chooses fish;
With sole—that ’s just the sort he would not wish:        190
He takes what he at first professed to loathe,
And in due time feeds heartily on both;
Yet still, o’erclouded with a constant frown,
He does not swallow, but he gulps it down.
Your hope to please him vain on every plan,        195
Himself should work that wonder, if he can—
Alas! his efforts double his distress,
He likes yours little, and his own still less.
Thus always teasing others, always teased,
His only pleasure is—to be displeased.        200
 
 
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