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 Retirement: Dejection and Retirement. The Retired Statesman
By William Cowper (1731–1800)
 
  VIRTUOUS and faithful HEBERDEN, 1 whose skill
Attempts no task it cannot well fulfil,
Gives melancholy up to nature’s care,
And sends the patient into purer air.
Look where he comes—in this embowered alcove,        5
Stand close concealed, and see a statue move:
Lips busy, and eyes fixed, foot falling slow,
Arms hanging idly down, hands clasped below,
Interpret to the marking eye distress,
Such as its symptoms can alone express.        10
That tongue is silent now; that silent tongue
Could argue once, could jest or join the song,
Could give advice, could censure or commend,
Or charm the sorrows of a drooping friend.
Renounced alike its office and its sport,        15
Its brisker and its graver strains fall short;
Both fail beneath a fever’s secret sway,
And like a summer brook are past away.
This is a sight for Pity to peruse,
Till she resemble faintly what she views,        20
Till sympathy contract a kindred pain,
Pierced with the woes that she laments in vain.
This, of all maladies that man infest,
Claims most compassion, and receives the least:
Job felt it, when he groaned beneath the rod        25
And the barbed arrows of a frowning God;
And such emollients as his friends could spare,
Friends such as his for modern Jobs prepare.
Blest, rather curst, with hearts that never feel,
Kept snug in caskets of close hammered steel,        30
With mouths made only to grin wide and eat,
And minds that deem derided pain a treat;
With limbs of British oak, and nerves of wire,
And wit, that puppet-prompters might inspire,
Their sovereign nostrum is a clumsy joke        35
On pangs enforced with God’s severest stroke.
But with a soul, that ever felt the sting
Of sorrow, sorrow is a sacred thing:
Not to molest, or irritate, or raise
A laugh at its expense, is slender praise;        40
He, that has not usurped the name of man,
Does all, and deems too little all, he can
To assuage the throbbings of the festered part,
And stanch the bleedings of a broken heart.
’Tis not, as heads that never ache suppose,        45
Forgery of fancy, and a dream of woes;
Man is a harp whose chords elude the sight,
Each yielding harmony, disposed aright;
The screws reversed (a task which if He please
God in a moment executes with ease)        50
Ten thousand thousand strings at once go loose,
Lost, till He tune them, all their power and use.
Then neither heathy wilds, nor scenes as fair
As ever recompensed the peasant’s care,
Nor soft declivities with tufted hills,        55
Nor view of waters turning busy mills,
Parks in which Art preceptress Nature weds,
Nor gardens interspersed with flowery beds,
Nor gales, that catch the scent of blooming groves,
And waft it to the mourner as he roves,        60
Can call up life into his faded eye
That passes all he sees unheeded by:
No wounds like those a wounded spirit feels;
No cure for such, till God, who makes them, heals.
And thou, sad sufferer under nameless ill,        65
That yields not to the touch of human skill,
Improve the kind occasion, understand
A Father’s frown, and kiss his chastening hand.
To thee the day-spring, and the blaze of noon,
The purple evening and resplendent moon,        70
The stars, that, sprinkled o’er the vault of night,
Seem drops descending in a shower of light,
Shine not, or undesired and hated shine,
Seen through the medium of a cloud like thine:
Yet seek Him, in his favour life is found;        75
All bliss beside, a shadow or a sound:
Then Heaven, eclipsed so long, and this dull Earth,
Shall seem to start into a second birth;
Nature, assuming a more lovely face,
Borrowing a beauty from the works of grace,        80
Shall be despised and overlooked no more,
Shall fill thee with delights unfelt before,
Impart to things inanimate a voice,
And bid her mountains and her hills rejoice;
The sound shall run along the winding vales,        85
And thou enjoy an Eden ere it fails.
  ‘Ye groves,’ the statesman at his desk exclaims,
Sick of a thousand disappointed aims,
‘My patrimonial treasure and my pride,
Beneath your shades your grey possessor hide,        90
Receive me languishing for that repose
The servant of the public never knows.
Ye saw me once, (ah those regretted days,
When boyish innocence was all my praise!)
Hour after hour delightfully allot        95
To studies then familiar, since forgot,
And cultivate a taste for ancient song,
Catching its ardour as I mused along;
Nor seldom, as propitious heaven might send,
What once I valued and could boast, a friend,        100
Were witnesses how cordially I pressed
His undissembling virtue to my breast;
Receive me now, not uncorrupt as then,
Nor guiltless of corrupting other men,
But versed in arts, that, while they seem to stay        105
A fallen empire, hasten its decay.
To the fair haven of my native home,
The wreck of what I was, fatigued I come;
For once I can approve the patriot’s voice,
And make the course he recommends my choice:        110
We meet at last in one sincere desire,
His wish and mine both prompt me to retire.’
’Tis done—he steps into the welcome chaise,
Lolls at his ease behind four handsome bays,
That whirl away from business and debate        115
The disencumbered Atlas of the state.
Ask not the boy, who, when the breeze of morn
First shakes the glittering drops from every thorn,
Unfolds his flock, then under bank or bush
Sits linking cherry-stones, or platting rush,        120
How fair is freedom?—he was always free:
To carve his rustic name upon a tree,
To snare the mole, or with ill-fashioned hook
To draw the incautious minnow from the brook,
Are life’s prime pleasures in his simple view,        125
His flock the chief concern he ever knew;
She shines but little in his heedless eyes,
The good we never miss we rarely prize:
But ask the noble drudge in state affairs,
Escaped from office and its constant cares,        130
What charms he sees in freedom’s smile expressed,
In freedom lost so long, now repossessed;
The tongue, whose strains were cogent as commands,
Revered at home, and felt in foreign lands,
Shall own itself a stammerer in that cause,        135
Or plead its silence as its best applause.
He knows indeed that, whether dressed or rude,
Wild without art, or artfully subdued,
Nature in every form inspires delight,
But never marked her with so just a sight.        140
Her hedge-row shrubs, a variegated store,
With woodbine and wild-roses mantled o’er,
Green balks and furrowed lands, the stream that spreads
Its cooling vapour o’er the dewy meads,
Downs, that almost escape the inquiring eye,        145
That melt and fade into the distant sky,
Beauties he lately slighted as he passed,
Seem all created since he travelled last.
Master of all the enjoyments he designed,
No rough annoyance rankling in his mind,        150
What early philosophic hours he keeps,
How regular his meals, how sound he sleeps!
Not sounder he that on the mainmast head,
While morning kindles with a windy red,
Begins a long look-out for distant land,        155
Nor quits till evening-watch his giddy stand,
Then swift descending with a seaman’s haste,
Slips to his hammock, and forgets the blast.
He chooses company, but not the squire’s,
Whose wit is rudeness, whose good breeding tires;        160
Nor yet the parson’s, who would gladly come,
Obsequious when abroad, though proud at home;
Nor can he much affect the neighbouring peer,
Whose toe of emulation treads too near;
But wisely seeks a more convenient friend,        165
With whom, dismissing forms, he may unbend:
A man whom marks of condescending grace
Teach, while they flatter him, his proper place:
Who comes when called, and at a word withdraws,
Speaks with reserve, and listens with applause;        170
Some plain mechanic, who, without pretence
To birth or wit, nor gives nor takes offence,
On whom he rests well pleased his weary powers,
And talks and laughs away his vacant hours.
  The tide of life, swift always in its course,        175
May run in cities with a brisker force,
But nowhere with a current so serene,
Or half so clear, as in the rural scene.
Yet how fallacious is all earthly bliss,
What obvious truths the wisest heads may miss;        180
Some pleasures live a month, and some a year,
But short the date of all we gather here;
No happiness is felt, except the true,
That does not charm the more for being new.
This observation, as it chanced, not made,        185
Or, if the thought occurred, not duly weighed,
He sighs—for, after all, by slow degrees
The spot he loved has lost the power to please;
To cross his ambling pony day by day
Seems at the best but dreaming life away;        190
The prospect, such as might enchant despair,
He views it not, or sees no beauty there:
With aching heart, and discontented looks,
Returns at noon to billiards or to books,
But feels, while grasping at his faded joys,        195
A secret thirst of his renounced employs.
He chides the tardiness of every post,
Pants to be told of battles won or lost,
Blames his own indolence, observes, though late,
’Tis criminal to leave a sinking state,        200
Flies to the levee, and received with grace,
Kneels, kisses hands, and shines again in place.
 
Note 1. The celebrated Dr. William Heberden (1710–1800). [back]
 
 
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