Ambition And Content: A Fable
Poem by Mark Akenside
Optat quietem.” —Hor
While yet the world was young, and men were few,
Nor lurking fraud, nor tyrant rapine knew,
In virtue rude, the gaudy arts they scorn'd,
Which, virtue lost, degenerate times adorn'd:
No sumptuous fabrics yet were seen to rise,
Nor gushing fountains taught to invade the skies;
With nature, art had not begun the strife,
Nor swelling marble rose to mimic life;
No pencil yet had learn'd to express the fair;
The bounteous earth was all their homely care.
Then did Content exert her genial sway,
And taught the peaceful world her power to obey;
Content, a female of celestial race,
Bright and complete in each celestial grace.
Serenely fair she was, as rising day,
And brighter than the sun's meridian ray;
Joy of all hearts, delight of every eye,
Nor grief, nor pain appear'd when she was by;
Her presence from the wretched banish'd care,
Dispers'd the swelling sigh, and stopt the falling tear.
Long did the nymph her regal state maintain,
As long mankind were blest beneath her reign;
Till dire Ambition, hellish fiend, arose,
To plague the world, and banish man's repose:
A monster sprung from that rebellious crew,
Which mighty Jove's Phlegræan thunder slew.
Resolv'd to dispossess the royal fair,
On all her friends he threaten'd open war:
Fond of the novelty, vain, fickle man,
In crowds to his infernal standard ran;
And the weak maid, defenceless left alone,
To avoid his rage, was forc'd to quit the throne.
It chanc'd as wandering through the fields she stray'd,
Forsook of all, and destitute of aid,
Upon a rising mountain's flowery side
A pleasant cottage, roof'd with turf, she spied:
Fast by a gloomy, venerable wood
Of shady planes, and ancient oaks, it stood.
Around a various prospect charm'd the sight;
Here waving harvests clad the fields with white;
Here a rough shaggy rock the clouds did pierce,
From which a torrent rush'd with rapid force;
Here mountain-woods diffus'd a dusky shade;
Here flocks and herds in flowery valleys play'd,
While o'er the matted grass the liquid crystal stray'd.
In this sweet place there dwelt a cheerful pair,
Though bent beneath the weight of many a year;
Who wisely flying public noise and strife,
In this obscure retreat had pass'd their life;
The husband Industry was call'd, Frugality the wife.
With tenderest Friendship mutually blest,
No household jars had e'er disturb'd their rest.
A numerous offspring grac'd their homely board,
That still with Nature's simple gifts was stor'd.
The father rural business only knew;
The sons the same delightful art pursue:
An only daughter, as a goddess fair,
Above the rest was the fond mother's care;
Plenty; the brightest nymph of all the plain,
Each heart's delight, ador'd by every swain.
Soon as Content this charming scene espied,
Joyful within herself the goddess cried;
“This happy sight my drooping heart doth raise;
The gods, I hope, will grant me gentler days:
When with prosperity my life was blest,
In yonder house I've been a welcome guest:
There now, perhaps, I may protection find;
For royalty is banish'd from my mind;
I'll thither haste: how happy should I be,
If such a refuge were reserv'd for me!”
Thus spoke the fair; and straight she bent her way
To the tall mountain, where the cottage lay:
Arriv'd she makes her chang'd condition known;
Tells how the rebels drove her from the throne;
What painful, dreary wilds she'd wander'd o'er;
And shelter from the tyrant doth implore.
The faithful, aged pair at once were seiz'd
With joy and grief, at once were pain'd and pleas'd;
Grief for their banish'd queen their hearts possest,
And joy succeeded for their future guest;
“And if you'll deign, bright goddess, here to dwell,
And with your presence grace our humble cell,
Whate'er the gods have given with bounteous hand,
Our harvests, fields and flocks, our all command.”
Meantime, Ambition, on his rival's flight,
Sole lord of man, attain'd his wish's height;
Of all dependence on his subjects eas'd,
He rag'd without a curb, and did whate'er he pleas'd:
As some wild flame, driven on by furious winds,
Wide spreads destruction, nor resistance finds;
So rush'd the fiend destructive o'er the plain,
Defac'd the labours of the industrious swain;
Polluted every stream with human gore,
And scatter'd plagues and death from shore to shore.
Great Jove beheld it from the Olympian towers,
Where sate assembled all the heavenly powers;
Then with a nod that shook the empyrean throne,
Thus the Saturnian thunderer begun:
“You see, immortal inmates of the skies,
How this vile wretch almighty power defies;
His daring crimes, the blood which he has spilt,
Demand a torment equal to his guilt.
Then, Cyprian goddess, let thy mighty boy
Swift to the tyrant's guilty palace fly;
There let him choose his sharpest, hottest dart,
And with his former rival wound his heart.
And thou, my son, (the god to Hermes said)
Snatch up thy wand, and plume thy heels and head;
Dart through the yielding air with all thy force,
And down to Pluto's realms direct thy course;
There rouse Oblivion from her sable cave,
Where dull she sits by Lethe's sluggish wave;
Command her to secure the sacred bound,
Where lives Content retir'd, and all around
Diffuse the deepest glooms of Stygian night,
And screen the virgin from the tyrant's sight;
That the vain purpose of his life may try
Still to explore, what still eludes his eye.”
He spoke; loud praises shake the bright abode,
And all applaud the justice of the god.
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