Of Prudence Poem by John Denham

Of Prudence

Wisdom's first progress is to take a view
What's decent or indecent, false or true.
He's truly prudent who can separate
Honest from vile, and still adhere to that;
Their difference to measure, and to reach
Reason well rectified must Nature teach.
And these high scrutinies are subjects fit
For man's all-searching and inquiring wit;
That search of knowledge did from Adam flow;
Who wants it yet abhors his wants to show.
Wisdom of what herself approves makes choice,
Nor is led captive by the common voice.
Clear-sighted Reason Wisdom's judgment leads,
And Sense, her vassal, in her footsteps treads.
That thou to Truth the perfect way may'st know,
To thee all her specific forms I'll show:
He that the way to honesty will learn,
First what's to be avoided must discern.
Thyself from flatt'ring self-conceit defend,
Nor what thou dost not know to know pretend.
Some secrets deep in abstruse darkness lie:
To search them thou wilt need a piercing eye.
Not rashly therefore to such things assent,
Which, undeceived, thou after may'st repent;
Study and time in these must thee instruct,
And others' old experience may conduct.
Wisdom herself her ear doth often lend
To counsel offer'd by a faithful friend.
In equal scales two doubtful matters lay,
Thou may'st choose safely that which most doth weigh;
'Tis not secure this place or that to guard,
If any other entrance stand unbarr'd:
He that escapes the serpent's teeth may fail,
If he himself secures not from his tail.
Who saith, who could such ill events expect?
With shame on his own counsels doth reflect.
Most in the world doth self-conceit deceive,
Who just and good whate'er they act believe;
To their wills wedded, to their errors slaves,
No man (like them) they think himself behaves.
This stiff-neck'd pride nor art nor force can bend,
Nor high-flown hopes to Reason's lure descend.
Fathers sometimes their children's faults regard
With pleasure, and their crimes with gifts reward.
Ill painters, when they draw, and poets write,
Virgil and Titian (self admiring) slight;
Then all they do like gold and pearl appears,
And others' actions are but dirt to theirs.
They that so highly think themselves above
All other men, themselves can only love;
Reason and virtue, all that man can boast
O'er other creatures, in those brutes are lost.
Observe (if thee this fatal error touch,
Thou to thyself contributing too much)
Those who are gen'rous, humble, just and wise,
Who not their gold, nor themselves idolise;
To form thyself by their example learn,
(For many eyes can more than one discern),
But yet beware of councils when too full,
Number makes long disputes, and graveness dull;
Though their advice be good, their counsel wise,
Yet length still loses opportunities:
Debate destroys despatch, as fruits we see
Rot when they hang too long upon the tree;
In vain that husbandman his seed doth sow,
If he his crop not in due season mow.
A gen'ral sets his army in array
In vain, unless he fight and win the day.
'Tis virtuous action that must praise bring forth,
Without which, slow advice is little worth.
Yet they who give good counsel praise deserve,
Though in the active part they cannot serve.
In action, learned counsellors their age,
Profession, or disease, forbids t'engage.
Nor to philosophers is praise denied,
Whose wise instructions after ages guide;
Yet vainly most their age in study spend;
No end of writing books, and to no end:
Beating their brains for strange and hidden things,
Whose knowledge, nor delight, nor profit brings;
Themselves with doubts both day and night perplex,
Nor gentle reader please, or teach, but vex.
Books should to one of these four ends conduce--
For wisdom, piety, delight, or use.
What need we gaze upon the spangled sky?
Or into matter's hidden causes pry?
To describe every city, stream, or hill
I' th'world, our fancy with vain arts to fill?
What is't to hear a sophister, that pleads,
Who by the ears the deceived audience leads?
If we were wise, these things we should not mind,
But more delight in easy matters find.
Learn to live well, that thou may'st die so too;
To live and die is all we have to do:
The way (if no digression's made) is even,
And free access, if we but ask, is given.
Then seek to know those things which make us bless'd,
And having found them, lock them in thy breast;
Inquiring then the way, go on, nor slack,
But mend thy pace, nor think of going back.
Some their whole age in these inquiries waste,
And die like fools before one step they've pass'd;
'Tis strange to know the way, and not t'advance;
That knowledge is far worse than ignorance.
The learned teach, but what they teach, not do,
And standing still themselves, make others go.
In vain on study time away we throw,
When we forbear to act the things we know.
The soldier that philosopher well blamed,
Who long and loudly in the schools declaim'd;
'Tell' (said the soldier) 'venerable Sir,
Why all these words, this clamour, and this stir?
Why do disputes in wrangling spend the day,
Whilst one says only yea, and t'other nay?'
'Oh,' said the doctor, 'we for wisdom toil'd,
For which none toils too much.' The soldier smiled;
'You're gray and old, and to some pious use
This mass of treasure you should now reduce:
But you your store have hoarded in some bank,
For which th'infernal spirits shall you thank.'
Let what thou learnest be by practice shown;
'Tis said that wisdom's children make her known.
What's good doth open to th'inquirer stand,
And itself offers to th'accepting hand;
All things by order and true measures done,
Wisdom will end, as well as she begun.
Let early care thy main concerns secure,
Things of less moment may delays endure:
Men do not for their servants first prepare,
And of their wives and children quit the care;
Yet when we're sick, the doctor's fetch'd in haste,
Leaving our great concernment to the last.
When we are well, our hearts are only set
(Which way we care not) to be rich, or great;
What shall become of all that we have got?
We only know that us it follows not;
And what a trifle is a moment's breath,
Laid in the scale with everlasting death!
What's time when on eternity we think!
A thousand ages in that sea must sink.
Time's nothing but a word; a million
Is full as far from infinite as one.
To whom thou much dost owe, thou much must pay,
Think on the debt against th'accounting day.
God, who to thee reason and knowledge lent,
Will ask how these two talents have been spent.
Let not low pleasures thy high reason blind,
He's mad, that seeks what no man e'er could find.
Why should we fondly please our sense, wherein
Beasts us exceed, nor feel the stings of sin?
What thoughts man's reason better can become,
Than th'expectation of his welcome home?
Lords of the world have but for life their lease,
And that too (if the lessor please) must cease.
Death cancels nature's bonds, but for our deeds
(That debt first paid) a strict account succeeds;
If here not clear'd, no suretyship can bail
Condemned debtors from th'eternal jail;
Christ's blood's our balsam; if that cure us here,
Him, when our judge, we shall not find severe;
His yoke is easy when by us embraced,
But loads and galls, if on our necks 'tis cast.
Be just in all thy actions, and if join'd
With those that are not, never change thy mind.
If ought obstruct thy course, yet stand not still,
But wind about, till you have topp'd the hill;
To the same end men sev'ral paths may tread,
As many doors into one temple lead;
And the same hand into a fist may close,
Which, instantly a palm expanded shows.
Justice and faith never forsake the wise,
Yet may occasion put him in disguise;
Not turning like the wind; but if the state
Of things must change, he is not obstinate;
Things past and future with the present weighs,
Nor credulous of what vain rumour says.
Few things by wisdom are at first believed;
An easy ear deceives, and is deceived:
For many truths have often pass'd for lies,
And lies as often put on truth's disguise;
As flattery too oft like friendship shows,
So them who speak plain truth we think our foes.
No quick reply to dubious questions make,
Suspense and caution still prevent mistake.
When any great design thou dost intend,
Think on the means, the manner, and the end:
All great concernments must delays endure;
Rashness and haste make all things unsecure;
And if uncertain thy pretensions be,
Stay till fit time wear out uncertainty;
But if to unjust things thou dost pretend,
Ere they begin let thy pretensions end.
Let thy discourse be such that thou may'st give
Profit to others, or from them receive:
Instruct the ignorant; to those that live
Under thy care, good rules and patterns give;
Nor is't the least of virtues, to relieve
Those whom afflictions or oppressions grieve.
Commend but sparingly whom thou dost love:
But less condemn whom thou dost not approve;
Thy friend, like flatt'ry, too much praise doth wrong,
And too sharp censure shows an evil tongue:
But let inviolate truth be always dear
To thee; e'en before friendship, truth prefer.
Than what thou mean'st to give, still promise less:
Hold fast thy power thy promise to increase.
Look forward what's to come, and back what's past,
Thy life will be with praise and prudence graced:
What loss or gain may follow, thou may'st guess,
Thou then wilt be secure of the success;
Yet be not always on affairs intent,
But let thy thoughts be easy, and unbent:
When our minds' eyes are disengaged and free,
They clearer, farther, and distinctly see;
They quicken sloth, perplexities untie,
Make roughness smooth, and hardness mollify;
And though our hands from labour are released,
Yet our minds find (even when we sleep) no rest.
Search not to find how other men offend,
But by that glass thy own offences mend;
Still seek to learn, yet care not much from whom,
(So it be learning) or from whence it come.
Of thy own actions, others' judgments learn;
Often by small, great matters we discern:
Youth what man's age is like to be doth show;
We may our ends by our beginnings know.
Let none direct thee what to do or say,
Till thee thy judgment of the matter sway;
Let not the pleasing many thee delight,
First judge if those whom thou dost please judge right.
Search not to find what lies too deeply hid,
Nor to know things whose knowledge is forbid;
Nor climb on pyramids, which thy head turn round
Standing, and whence no safe descent is found.
In vain his nerves and faculties he strains
To rise, whose raising unsecure remains:
They whom desert and favour forwards thrust,
Are wise, when they their measures can adjust.
When well at ease, and happy, live content,
And then consider why that life was lent.
When wealthy, show thy wisdom not to be
To wealth a servant, but make wealth serve thee.
Though all alone, yet nothing think or do,
Which nor a witness, nor a judge might know.
The highest hill is the most slipp'ry place,
And Fortune mocks us with a smiling face;
And her unsteady hand hath often placed
Men in high power, but seldom holds them fast;
Against her then her forces Prudence joins,
And to the golden mien herself confines.
More in prosperity is reason toss'd,
Than ships in storms, their helms and anchors lost:
Before fair gales not all our sails we bear,
But with side winds into safe harbours steer;
More ships in calms, on a deceitful coast,
Or unseen rocks, than in high storms are lost.
Who casts out threats and frowns no man deceives,
Time for resistance and defence he gives;
But flatt'ry still in sugar'd words betrays,
And poison in high-tasted meats conveys;
So Fortune's smiles unguarded man surprise,
But when she frowns, he arms, and her defies.

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