Matthew Prior (1664 - 1721 / Dorset / England)
Alma; or, The Progress of the Mind. In Three Cantos. - Canto I.
Matthew met Richard, when or where
From story is not mighty clear:
Of many knotty points they spoke,
And pro and con by turns they took:
Rats half the manuscript have ate;
Dire hunger! which we still regret;
O! may they ne'er again digest
The horrors of so sad a feast;
Yet less our grief, if what remains,
Dear Jacob, by thy care and pains
Shall be to future times convey'd:
It thus begins:
** Here Matthew said,
Alma in verse, in prose, the mind,
By Aristotle's pen defined,
Throughout the body squat or tall,
, all in all;
And yet, slapdash, is all again
In every sinew, nerve, and vein;
Runs here and there, like Hamlet's ghost,
While every where she rules the roast.
This system, Richard, we are told
The men of Oxford firmly hold:
The Cambridge wits, you know, deny
They say (for in good truth they speak
With small respect of that old Greek)
That, putting all his words together,
'Tis three blue beans in one blue bladder.
Alma, they strenuously maintain,
Sits cock-horse on her throne, the brain,
And from that seat of thought dispenses,
Her sovereign pleasure to the senses.
Two optic nerves, they say, she ties,
Like spectacle across the eyes,
By which the spirits bring her word
Whene'er the balls are fix'd or stirr'd;
How quick at Park and play they strike;
The duke they court; the toast they like;
And at St. James's turn their grace
From former friends, now out of place.
Without these aids, to be more serious,
Her power they hold had been precarious;
The eyes might have conspired her ruin,
And she not known what they were doing.
Foolish it had been and unkind
That they should see and she be blind.
Wise Nature, likewise, they suppose,
Has drawn two conduits down our nose:
Could Alma else with judgement tell
When cabbage stinks or roses smell?
Or who would ask for her opinion
Between an oyster and an onion?
For from most bodies, Dick, you know,
Some little bits ask leave to flow,
And as through these canals they roll,
Bring up a sample of the whole;
Like footmen running before coaches,
To tell the inn what lord approaches.
By nerves about our palate placed,
She likewise judges of the taste;
Else (dismal thought!) our warlike men
Might drink thick Port for fine Champaign,
And our ill-judging wives and daughters,
Mistake small-beer for citron-waters.
Hence, too, that she might better hear,
She sets a drum at either ear,
And loud or gentle, harsh or sweet,
Are but the alarums which they beat.
Last, to enjoy her sense of feeling,
(A thing she much delights to deal in)
A thousand little nerves she sends
Quite to our toes and fingers' ends,
And these, in gratitude, again
Return their spirits to the brain,
In which their figure being printed,
(As just before I think I hinted)
Alma inform'd can try the case,
As she had been upon the place.
Thus while the judge gives different journeys
To country counsel and attorneys,
He on the bench in quiet sits,
Deciding as they bring the writs.
The Pope thus prays and sleeps at Rome,
And very seldom stirs from home,
Yet sending forth his holy spies,
And having heard what they advise,
He rules the church's bless'd dominions,
And sets men's faith by his opinions.
The scholars of the Stagyrite,
Who for the old opinion fight,
Would make their modern friends confess
The difference but from more or less:
The Mind, say they, while you sustain
To hold her station in the brain,
You grant, at least, she is extended,
, the whole dispute is ended:
For till to-morrow should you plead,
From form and structure of the head,
The Mind as visibly is seen
Extended through the whole machine.
Why should all honour then be ta'en
From lower parts to load the brain,
When other limbs we plainly see
Each in his way as brisk as he?
For music, grant the head receives it,
It is the artist's hand that gives it:
And though the skull may wear the laurel,
The soldier's arm sustains the quarrel.
Besides, the nostrils, ears, and eyes,
Are not his parts, but his allies:
E'en what you here the tongue proclaim,
What could the head perform alone
If all their friendly aids were gone?
A foolish figure we must make,
Do nothing else but sleep and ake.
Nor matters it that you can show
How to the head the spirits go;
Those spirits started from some goal
Before they through the veins could roll;
Nor we should hold them much to blame
If they went back before they came.
If, therefore, as we must suppose,
They came from fingers and from toes,
Or toes or fingers, in this case,
Of numskull's self should take the place;
Disputing fair you grant this much,
That all sensation is but touch.
Dip but your toes into cold water,
Their correspondent teeth will chatter;
And strike the bottom of your feet,
You set your head into a heat.
The bully beat, and happy lover,
Confess that feeling lies all over.
Not here, Lucretius dares to teach
(As all our youth may learn from Creech)
That eyes were made, but could not view,
Nor bands embrace, not feet pursue,
But heedless Nature did produce
The members first, and then the use:
What each must act was yet unknown,
Till all is moved by Chance alone.
A man first builds a country-seat,
Then finds the walls not good to eat.
Another plants, and wondering, sees
Nor books nor medals on his trees.
Yet poet and philosopher
Was he who durst such whims aver.
Bless'd for his sake be human reason,
That came at all, though late, in season.
But no man sure e'er left his house,
And saddled Ball, with thoughts so wild
To bring a midwife to his spouse
Before he knew she was with child:
And no man ever reapt his corn,
Or from the oven drew his bread,
Ere hinds and bakers yet were born,
That taught them both to sow and knead.
Before they're ask'd can maids refuse?
Can - Pray, says Dick, hold in your Muse,
While you Pindaric truths rehearse,
She hobbles in alternate verse.
Verse! Matt. replied; is that my care?
Go on, quoth Richard, soft and fair.
This looks, friend Dick, as Nature had
But exercised the salesman's trade;
As if she haply had sat down
And cut out clothes for all the Town,
Then sent them out to Monmouth street
To try what persons they would fit;
But every free and licensed tailor
Would in this thesis find a failure.
Should whims like these his head perplex,
How could he work for either sex!
His clothes as atoms might prevail,
Might fit a pismire or a whale.
No, no: he views with studious pleasure
Your shape before he takes your measure
For real Kate he made the bodice,
And not for an ideal goddess.
No error near his shopboard lurk'd;
He knew the folks for whom he work'd:
Still to their size he aim'd his skill,
Else pray thee who would pay his bill?
Next, Dick, if Chance herself should vary,
Observe how matter would miscarry:
Across your eyes, Friend, place your shoes,
Your spectacles upon your toes,
Then you and Memmius shall agree
How nicely men would walk or see.
But wisdom, peevish, and cross-gain'd
Must be opposed to be sustain'd;
And still your knowledge will increase,
As your make other people's less.
In arms and science 'tis the same;
Our rival's hurts create our fame.
At Faubert's, if disputes arise
Among the champions for the prize,
To prove who gave the fairer butt,
John shows the chalk on Robert's coat.
So for the honour of your book,
It tells where other folks mistook,
And as their notions you confound,
Those you invent get farther ground.
The commentators on old Ari-
Stotle ('tis urged) in judgement vary:
They to their own conceits have brought
The image of his general thought,
Just as the melancholic eye
Sees fleets and armies in the sky,
And to the poor apprentice ear
The bells sound Whittington Lord Mayor.
The conjurer thus explains his scheme;
Thus spirits walk and prophets dream;
North Britons thus have second sight,
And Germans free from gunshot fight.
Theodoret and Origen,
And fifty other learned men,
Attest that if their comments find
The traces of their master's mind,
Alma can ne'er decay nor die:
This flatly th' other sect deny,
Simplicius, Theophrast, Durand,
Great names, but hard in verse to stand
They wonder men should have mistook
The tenets of their master's book,
And hold that Alma yields her breath,
O'ercome by age and seized by death.
Now which were wise, and which were fools?
Poor Alma sits between two stools;
The more she reads the more perplex'd,
The comment ruining the text:
Now fears, now hopes her doubtful fate.
But, Richard, let her look to that -
Whilst we our own affairs pursue.
These different systems old or new,
A man with half an eye may see
Were only form'd to disagree.
Now to bring things to fair conclusion,
And save much Christian ink's effusion,
Let me propose a healing scheme,
And sail along the middle stream;
For, Dick, if we could reconcile
Old Aristotle with Gassendus,
How many would admire our toil,
And yet how few would comprehend us?
Here, Richard, let my scheme commence:
Oh! may my words be lost in sense,
While pleased Thalia deigns to write
The slips and bounds of Alma's flight.
My simple system shall suppose
That Alma enters at the toes;
That then she mounts, by just degrees,
Up to the ancles, legs, and knees:
Next as the sap of life does rise,
She lends her vigour to the thighs:
And, all these under regions past,
She nestles somewhere near the waist;
Gives pain or pleasure, grief or laughter,
As we shall show at large hereafter:
Mature, if not improved by time,
Up to the heart she loves to climb:
From thence, compell'd by craft and age,
She makes the head her latest stage.
From the feet upward to the head,
Pithy, and short, says Dick, proceed.
Dick, this is not an idle notion;
Observe the progress of the motion:
First, I demonstratively prove
That feet were only made to move,
And legs desire to come and go,
For they have nothing else to do.
Hence, long before the child can crawl,
He learns to kick, and wince, and sprawl,
To hinder which, your midwife knows
To bind those parts extremely close,
Lest Alma, newly enter'd in,
And stunn'd at her own christ'ning's din,
Fearful of future grief and pain,
Should silently sneak out again.
Full piteous seems young Alma's case,
As in a luckless gamester's place,
She would not play, yet must not pass.
Again, as she grows something stronger,
And master's feet are swath'd no longer,
If in the night too oft he kicks,
Or shows his
These first assaults fat Kate repays him,
When halt-asleep she overlays him.
Now mark, dear Richard, from the age
That children tread this worldly stage,
Broomstaff or poker they bestride,
And round the parlour love to ride,
Till thoughtful father's pious care
Provides his brood, next Smithfield fair,
With supplemental hobby-horses,
And happy be their infant courses!
Hence for some years they ne'er stand still;
Their legs you see direct their will;
From opening morn till setting sun
Around the fields and woods they run,
They frisk, and dance, and leap, and play,
Nor heed what Friend or Snape can say.
To her next stage as Alma flies,
And likes, as I have said, the thighs,
With sympathetic power she warms
Their good allies and friends the arms;
White Betty dances on the green,
And Susan is at stoolball seen:
While John for ninepins does declare,
And Roger loves to pitch the bar,
Both legs and arms spontaneous move,
Which was the thing I meant to prove.
Another motion now she makes:
O need I name the seat she takes?
His thought quite changes the stripling finds;
The sport and race no more he minds;
Neglected Tray and Pointer lie,
And covies unmolested fly:
Sudden the jocund plain he leaves,
And for the nymph in secret grieves:
In dying accents he complains
Of cruel fires and raging pains.
The nymph, too, longs to be alone,
Leaves all the swains and sighs for one:
The nymph is warm'd with young desire,
And feels, and dies to quench his fire.
They meet each evening in the grove;
Their parley but augments their love:
So to the priest their case they tell;
He toes the knot, and all goes well.
But, O my Muse, just distance keep,
Thou art a maid, and must not peep.
In nine months time the bodice loose,
And petticoats too short, disclose
That at this age the active mind
About the waist lies most confined,
And that young life, and quickening sense
Spring from his influence darted thence:
So from the middle of the world
The sun's prolific rays are hurl'd;
'Tis from that seat he darts those beams
Which quicken earth with genial flames.
Dick, who thus long had passive sat,
Here stroked his chin and cock'd his hat,
Then slapp'd his hand upon the board,
And thus the youth put in his word.
Love's advocates, sweet Sir, would find him
A higher place than you assign'd him.
Love's advocates, Dick, who are those? -
The poets, you may well suppose.
I'm sorry, Sir, you have discarded
The men with whom till now you herded.
Prosemen alone, for private ends,
I thought forsook their ancient friends,
In cor stillavit,
If he may be allow'd to teach us.
The selfsame thing soft Ovid says,
(A proper judge in such a case.)
Horace his phrase is
And happy was that curious speaker.
Here Virgil too has placed this passion;
What signifies too long quotation?
In ode and epic plain the case is,
That Love holds one of these two places.
Dick, without passion or reflection,
I'll straight demolish this objection.
First, poets, all the world agrees,
Write half to profit half to please;
Matter and figure they produce,
For garnish this, and that for use;
And, in the structure of their feasts,
They seek to feed and please their guests:
But one may baulk this good intent,
And take things otherwise than meant.
Thus, if you dine with my Lord Mayor,
Roast beef and venison is your fare,
Thence you proceed to swan and bustard,
And persevere in tart and custard:
But tulip-leaves and lemon-peel
Help only to adorn the meal,
And painted flags, superb and neat,
Proclaim you welcome to the treat.
The man of sense his meat devours,
But only smells the peel and flowers;
And he must be an idle dreamer
Who leaves the pie and gnaws the streamer.
That Cupid goes with bow and arrows,
And Venus keeps her coach and sparrows,
Is all but emblem, to acquaint one
The son is sharp, the mother wanton.
Such images have sometimes shown
A mystic sense, but oftener none;
For who conceives what bards devise,
That heaven is placed in Celia's eyes?
Or where's the sense, direct and moral,
That teeth are pearl, or lips are coral?
Your Horace owns he various writ,
As wild or sober maggots bit;
And where too much the poet ranted,
The sage philosopher recanted.
His grave Epistles may disprove
The wanton Odes he made to love.
Lucretius keeps a mighty pother
With Cupid and his fancied mother;
Calls her great Queen of earth and air,
Declares that winds and seas obey her.
And, while her honour he rehearses,
Implores her to inspire his verses.
Yet, free from this poetic madness,
Next page he says, in sober sadness,
That she and all her fellow-gods
Sit idling in their high abodes,
Regardless of this world below,
Our health or hanging, weal or wo,
Nor once disturb their heavenly spirits
With Scapin's cheats, or Caesar's merits.
Nor e'er can Latin poets prove
Where lies the real seat of Love.
they burn, and
As either best supplies their verse;
And if folks ask the reason for't,
Say one was long the other short.
Thus I presume the British Muse
In prose our property is greater,
Why should it then be less in metre?
If Cupid throws a single dart,
We make him wound the lover's heart
But if he takes his bow and quiver,
'Tis sure he must transfix the liver:
For rhyme with reason may dispense,
And sound has right to govern sense.
But let your friends in verse suppose,
What ne'er shall be allow'd in prose,
Anatomists can make it clear
The liver minds his own affair,
Kindly supplies our public uses,
And parts and strains the vital juices,
Still lays some useful bile aside
To tinge the chyle's insipid tide,
Else we should want both gibe and satire,
And all be burst with pure good-nature:
Now gall is bitter with a witness,
And love is all delight and sweetness:
My logic then has lost its aim
If sweet and bitter be the same:
And he methinks is no great scholar
Who can mistake is desire for choler.
The like may of the heart be said;
Courage and terror there are bred.
All those whose hearts are loose and low
Start if they hear but the tattoo;
And mighty physical their fear is,
Their heart, descending to their breeches,
Must give their stomach cruel twitches:
But heroes who o'ercome or die
Have their hearts hung extremely high,
The string of which, in battle's heat,
Against their very corslets beat,
Keep time with their own trumpet's measure,
And yield them most excessive pleasure.
Now, if 'tis chiefly in the heart
That courage does itself exert,
That this is eke the throne of Love.
Would nature make one place the seat
Of fond desire and fell debate?
Must people only take delight in
Those hours when they are tired with fighting?
And has no man but who has kill'd
A father, right to get a child?
These notions, then, I think but idle,
And love shall still possess the middle.
This truth more plainly to discover,
Suppose your hero were a lover;
Though he before had gall and rage,
Which death or conquest must assuage,
He grows dispirited and low,
He hates the fight and shuns the foe.
In scornful sloth Achilles slept,
And for his wench, like Tallboy, wept,
Nor would return to war and slaughter,
Till they brought back the parson's daughter.
Antonius fled from Actium's coast,
Augustus pressing Asia lost.
His sails by Cupid's hand unfurl'd,
To keep the fair he gave the world.
Edward our Fourth, revered and crown'd,
Vigorous in youth, in arms renown'd,
While England's voice and Warwick's care
Design'd him Gallia's beauteous heir,
Changed peace and power for rage and wars,
Only to dry one widow's tears.
France's Fourth Henry we may see
A servant to the fair d'Estree;
When quitting Coutras' prosperous field,
And Fortune taught at length to yield,
He, from his guards and midnight tent,
Disguis'd, o'er hills and valleys went,
To wanton with the sprightly dame,
And in his pleasure lost his fame.
Bold is the critic who dares prove
These heroes were no friends to love;
And bolder he who dares aver
That they were enemies to war;
Yet when their thought should, now or never,
Have raise their heart or fired their liver,
Fond Alma to those parts was gone
Which Love more justly calls his own.
Examples I could cite you more,
But he contented with these four;
For when one's proofs are aptly chosen,
Four are as valid as four dozen.
One came from Greece, and one from Rome
The other two grew nearer home,
For some in ancient books delight,
Others prefer what moderns write;
Now I should be extremely loath
Not to be thought expert in both.
Comments about this poem (Alma; or, The Progress of the Mind. In Three Cantos. - Canto I. by Matthew Prior )
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