Solomon On The Vanity Of The World, A Poem. In Three Books. - Knowledge. Book I. - Poem by Matthew Prior
The bewailing of man's miseries hath been elegantly and copiously set forth by many, in the writings as well of philosophers as divines; and it is both a pleasant and a profitable contemplation.
Lord Bacon's Advancement of Learning.
Solomon, seeking happiness from knowledge, convenes the learned men of his kingdom; requires them to explain to him the various operations and effects of Nature; discourses of vegetables, animals and man; proposes some questions concerning the origin and situation of the habitable earth: proceeds to examine the system of the visible heaven: doubts if there may not be a plurality of worlds; inquires into the nature of spirits and angels, and wishes to be more fully informed as to the attributes of the Supreme Being. He is imperfectly answered by the Rabbins and Doctors; blames his own curiosity: and concludes that, as to human science, All Is Vanity.
Ye sons of men with just regard attend,
Observe the preacher, and believe the friend,
Whose serious muse inspires him to explain
That all we act and all we think is vain:
That in this pilgrimage of seventy years,
O'er rocks of perils and through vales of tears
Destined to march, our doubtful steps we tend,
Tired with the toil, yet fearful of its end:
That from the womb we take our fatal shares
Of follies, passions, labours, tumults, cares;
And at approach of death shall only know
The truths which from these pensive numbers flow,
That we pursue false joy and suffer real wo.
Happiness! object of that waking dream
Which we call life, mistaking; fugitive theme
Of my pursuing verse: ideal shade,
Notional good; by fancy only made,
And by tradition nursed; fallacious fire,
Whose dancing beams mislead our fond desire;
Cause of our care, and error of our mind:
Oh! hadst thou ever been by Heaven design'd
To Adam, and his mortal race, the boon
Entire had been reserved for Solomon;
On me the partial lot had been bestow'd,
And in my cup the golden draught had flow'd.
But, O! ere yet original man was made,
Ere the foundations of this earth were laid,
It was opponent to our search ordain'd,
That joy still sought should never be attain'd:
This sad experience cites me to reveal,
And what I dictate is from what I feel.
Born, as I as, great David's favourite son,
Dear to my people on the Hebrew throne,
Sublime my court, with Ophir's treasures bless'd.
My name extended to the farthest east,
My body clothed with every outward grace,
Strength in my limbs, and beauty in my face,
My shining thought with fruitful notions crown'd,
Quick my invention, and my judgement sound:
Arise, (I communed with myself) arise,
Think to be happy; to be great be wise;
Content of spirit must from science flow,
For 'tis a godlike attribute to know.
I said, and sent my edict through the land;
Around my throne the letter'd Rabbins stand,
Historic leaves revolve, long volumes spread,
The old discoursing as the younger read!
Attend I heard, proposed my doubts, and said:
The vegetable world, each plant and tree,
Its seed, its name, its nature, its degree,
I am allow'd, as Fame reports, to know,
From the fair cedar on the craggy brow
Of Lebanon nodding supremely tall,
To creeping moss, and hyssop on the wall;
Yet just and conscious to myself, I find
A thousand doubts oppose the searching mind.
I know not why the beach delights the glade,
With boughs extended and a rounder shade,
Whilst towering firs in conic forms arise,
And with a pointed spear divide the skies:
Nor why again the changing oak should shell
The yearly honour of his stately head,
Whilst the distinguish'd yew is ever seen
Unchanged his branch, and permanent his green;
Wanting the sun why does the caltha fade?
Why does the cypress flourish in the shade?
The fig and date, why love they to remain
In middle station and an even plain,
While in the lower marsh the gourd is found,
And while the hill with olive shade is crown'd?
Why does one climate and one soil endue
The blushing poppy with a crimson hue,
Yet leave the lily pale, and tinge the violet blue?
Why does the fond carnation love to shoot
A various colour from one parent root,
While the fantastic tulip strives to break
In twofold beauty and a parted streak?
The twining jasmine and the blushing rose
With lavish grace their morning scents disclose;
The smelling tuberose and jonquil declare,
The stronger impulse of an evening air.
Whence has the tree (resolve me) or the flower
A various instinct or a different power?
Why should one earth, one clime, one stream, one breath,
Raise this to strength, and sicken that to death?
Whence does it happen that the plant, which well
We name the sensitive, should move and feel?
Whence know her leaves to answer her command,
And with quick horror fly the neighbouring hand?
Along the sunny bank or watery mead
Ten thousand stalks their various blossoms spread;
Peaceful and lowly, in their native soil,
They neither know to spin nor care to toil,
Yet with confess'd magnificence deride
Our vile attire and impotence of pride.
The cowslip smiles in brighter yellow dress'd
Than that which veils the nubile virgin's breast;
A fairer red stands blushing in the rose
Than that which on the bridegroom's vestment flows.
Take but the humblest lily of the field,
And if our pride will to our reason yield,
It must by sure comparison be shown,
That on the regal seat great David's son,
Array'd in all his robes and types of power,
Shines with less glory than that simple flower.
Of fishes next, my friends, I would inquire:
How the mute race engender or respire,
From the small fry that glide on Jordan's stream
Unmark'd a multitude without a name,
To that leviathan, who o'er the seas
Immense rolls onward his impetuous ways,
And mocks the wind, and in the tempest plays?
How they in warlike bands march greatly forth,
To southern climes directing their career,
Their station changing with th' inverted year?
How all with careful knowledge are endued,
To choose their proper bed, and wave, and food;
To guard their spawn, and educate their brood?
Of birds, how each, according to her kind,
Proper materials for her nest can find,
And build a frame which deepest thought in man
Would or amend or imitate in vain?
How in small flights they know to try their young,
And teach the callow child her parent's song?
Why these frequent the plain, and those the wood?
Why every land has her specific brood?
Where the tall crane or winding swallow goes,
Fearful of gathering winds and falling snows;
If into rocks or hollow trees they creep,
In temporary death confined to sleep,
Or, conscious of the coming evil, fly
To milder regions and a southern sky?
Of beasts and creeping insects shall we trace;
The wondrous nature and the various race;
Or wild or tame, or friend to man or foe,
Of us what they or what of them we know?
Tell me, ye Studious! who pretend to see
Far into Nature's bosom, whence the bee
Was first inform'd her venturous flight to steer
Through trackless paths and an abyss of air?
Whence she avoids the slimy marsh, and knows
The fertile hills, where sweeter herbage grows,
And honey-making flowers their opening buds disclose?
How, from the thicken'd mist and setting sun
Finds she the labour of her day is done?
Who taught her against the winds and rains to strive,
To bring her burden to the certain hive,
And through the liquid fields again to pass
Duteous, and hearkening to the sounding brass?
And, O thou Sluggard! tell me why the ant,
'Midst summer's plenty, thinks of winter's want,
By constant journeys careful to prepare
Her stores, and bringing home the corny ear,
By what instruction does she bite the grain,
Lest hid in earth, and taking root again,
It mighty elude the foresight of her care?
Distinct in either insect's deed appear
The marks of thought, contrivance, hope, and fear.
Fix thy corporeal and internal eye
On the young gnat or new-engender'd fly,
Or the vile worm, that yesterday began
To crawl, thy fellow-creatures, abject man!
Like thee they breathe, they move, they taste, they see,
They show their passions by their acts like thee;
Darting their stings, they previously declare
Design'd revenge, and fierce intent of war:
Laying their eggs, they evidently prove
The genial power and full effect of love.
Each then has organs to digest his his food,
One to beget, and one receive the brood;
Has limbs and sinews, blood, and heart, and brain,
Life and her proper functions to sustain,
Though the whole fabric smaller than a grain.
What more can our penurious reason grant
To the large whale or castled elephant?
To those enormous terrors of the Nile,
The crested snake and long-tail'd crocodile,
Than that all differ but in shape and name,
Each destined to a less or larger frame?
For potent Nature loves a various act,
Prone to enlarge, or studious to contract;
Now forms her work too small, now too immense,
And scorns the measures of our feeble sense.
The object, spread too far, or raised too high,
Denies its real image to the eye;
Too little, it eludes the dazzled sight,
Becomes mix'd blackness or unparted light.
Water and air the varied form confound;
The straight looks crooked, and the square grows round.
Thus while with fruitless hope and weary pain
We seek great nature's power, but seek in vain,
Safe sits the goddess in her dark retreat,
Around her myriads of ideas wait,
And endless shapes, which the mysterious queen
Can take or quit, can alter or retain,
As from our lost pursuit she wills to hide
Her close decrees, and chasten human pride.
Untamed and fierce the tiger still remains:
He tires his life in biting of his chains:
For the kind gifts of water and of food
Ungrateful, and returning ill for good,
He seeks his keeper's flesh and thirsts his blood:
While the strong camel and the generous horse,
Restrain'd and awed by man's inferior force,
Do to the rider's will their rage submit,
And answer to the spur, and own the bit;
Stretch their glad mouths to meet the feeder's hand,
Pleased with his weight, and proud of his command.
Again: the lonely fox roams far abroad,
On secret rapine bent and midnight fraud;
Now haunts the cliff, now traverses the lawn,
And flies the hated neighbourhood of man;
While the kind spaniel and the faithful hound,
Likest that fox in shape and species found,
Refuses through these cliffs and lawns to roam,
Pursues the noted path, and covets home,
Does with kind joy domestic faces meet,
Takes what the glutted child denies to eat,
And dying, licks his long-loved master's feet.
By what immediate cause they are inclined,
In many acts, 'tis hard I own to find.
I see in others, or I think I see,
That strict their principles and ours agree.
Evil, like us, they shun, and covet good,
Abhor the poison, and receive the food:
Like us they love or hate; like us they know
To joy the friend, or grapple with the foe,
With seeming thought their action they intend,
And use the means proportion'd to the end.
Then vainly the philosopher avers
That reason guides our deed and instinct theirs.
How can we justly different causes frame,
When the effects entirely are the same?
Instinct and reason how can we divide?
'Tis the fool's ignorance and the pedant's pride.
With the same folly sure man vaunts his sway
If the brute beast refuses to obey.
For, tell me, when the empty boaster's word
Proclaims himself the universal lord,
Does he not tremble lest the lion's paw
Should join his plea against the fancy'd law?
Would not the learned coward leave the chair,
If in the schools or porches should appear
The fierce hyaena or the foaming bear?
The combatant too late the field declines
When now the sword is girded to his loins.
When the swift vessel flies before the wind,
Too late the sailor views the land behind:
And 'tis too late now back again to bring
Inquiry, raised and towering on the wing;
Forward she strives, averse to be withheld
From nobler objects and a larger field.
Consider with me his ethereal space,
Yielding to earth and sea the middle place:
Anxious I ask ye how the pensile ball
Should never strive to rise nor never fear to fall?
When I reflect how the revolving sun
Does round our globe his crooked journeys run,
I doubt of many lands if they contain
Or herd or beast, or colonies of man:
If any nation pass their destined days
Beneath the neighbouring sun's directer rays;
If any suffer on the polar coast
The rage of Arctos and eternal frost.
May not the pleasure of Omnipotence
To each of these some secret good dispense?
Those who amidst the torrid regions live
May they not gales unknown to us receive?
See daily showers rejoice the thirsty earth,
And bless the glowery buds' succeeding birth?
May they not pity us condemn'd to bear
The various heaven of an obliquer sphere,
While, by fix'd laws, and with a just return,
They feel twelve hours that shade for twelve that burn,
And praise the neighbouring sun whose constant flame
Enlightens them with seasons still the same?
And may not those whose distant lot is cast
North, beyond Tartary's extended waste,
Where through the plains of one continual day
Six shining months pursue their even way,
And six succeeding urge their dusky flight,
Obscured with vapours, and o'erwhelm'd in night.
May not, I ask, the natives of these climes
(As annals may inform succeeding times)
To our quotidian change of heaven prefer
Their own vicissitude and equal share
Of day and night disparted through the year?
May they not scorn our sun's repeated race,
To narrow bounds prescribed and little space,
Hastening from morn, and headlong driven from noon,
Half of our daily toil yet scarcely done?
May they not justly to our climes upbraid
Shortness of night and penury of shade,
That ere our wearied limbs are justly bless'd
With wholesome sleep and necessary rest,
Another sun demands return of care,
The remnant toil of yesterday to bear?
Whilst, when the solar beams salute their sight,
Bold and secure in half a year of light,
Uninterrupted voyages they take
To the remotest wood and farthest lake,
Manage the fishing, and pursue the course
With more extended nerves and more continued force;
And when declining day forsakes their sky,
When gathering clouds speak gloomy winter nigh,
With plenty for the coming season bless'd,
Six solid months (an age) they live, released
From all the labour, process, clamour, wo,
Which our sad scenes of daily action know;
They light the shining lamps, prepare the feast,
And with full mirth receive the welcome guest,
Or tell their tender loves (the only care
Which now they suffer) to the listening fair,
And raised in pleasure, or reposed in ease,
(Grateful alternates of substantial peace)
They bless the long nocturnal influence shed
On the crown'd goblet and the genial bed.
In foreign isles which our discoverers find,
Far from this length of continent disjoin'd,
The rugged bear's or spotted lynx's brood
Frighten the valleys and infest the wood,
The hungry crocodile and hissing snake
Lurk in the troubled stream and fenny brake;
And man untaught, and ravenous as the beast,
Does valley, wood, and brake, and stream infest;
Derived these men and animals their birth
From trunk of oak or pregnant womb of earth?
Whence then the old belief, that all began
In Eden's shade and one created man?
Or grant this progeny was wafted o'er
By coasting boats from next adjacent shore,
Would those, from whom we will suppose they spring,
Slaughter to harmless lands and poison bring?
Would they on board or bears or lynxes take,
Fed the she-adder and the brooding snake?
Or could they think the new-discover'd isle
Pleased to receive a pregnant crocodile?
And since the savage lineage we must trace
From Noah saved and his distinguish'd race,
How should their fathers happen to forget
The arts which Noah taught, the rules he set,
To sow the glebe, to plant the generous vine,
And load with grateful flames the holy shrine?
While the great sire's unhappy sons are found,
Unpress'd their vintage, and untill'd their ground,
Straggling o'er dale and hill in quest of food,
And rude of arts, of virtue, and of God.
How shall we next o'er earth and seas pursue
The varied forms of every thing we view;
That all is changed, though all is still the same
Fluid the parts, yet durable the frame?
Of those materials which have been confess'd
The pristine springs and parents of the rest,
Each becomes other. Water stopp'd gives birth
To grass and plants, and thickens into earth;
Diffused it rises in a higher sphere,
Dilates its drops, and softens into air:
Those finer parts of air again aspire,
Move into warmth, and brighten into fire;
That fire once more, by thicker air o'ercome,
And downward forced in earth's capacious womb,
Alters its particles, is fire no more,
But lies resplendent dust and shining ore;
Or, running through the mighty mother's veins,
Changes its shape, puts off its old remains;
With watery parts its lessen'd force divides,
Flows into waves, and rises into tides.
Disparted streams shall from their channels fly,
And deep surcharged by sandy mountains lie
Obscurely sepulchred. By beating rain
And furious wind, down to the distant plain
The hill that hides his head above the skies
Shall fall: the plain by slow degrees shall rise
Higher than erst had stood the summit hill;
For Time must Nature's great behest fulfil.
Thus by a length of years and change of fate
All things are light or heavy, small or great;
Thus Jordan's waves shall future clouds appear,
And Egypt's pyramids refine to air;
Thus later age shall ask for Pison's flood,
And travellers inquire where Babel stood.
Now, where we see these changes often fall,
Sedate we pass them by as natural;
Where to our eye more rarely they appear,
The pompous name of prodigy they bear:
Let active thought these close meanders trace,
Let human wit their dubious boundaries place.
Are all things miracle, or nothing such?
And prove we not too little or too much?
For that a branch cut off, a wither'd rod,
Should at a word pronounced revive and bud,
Is this more strange than that the mountain's brow,
Stripp'd by December's frost, and white with snow,
Should push in spring ten thousand thousand buds,
And boast returning leaves and blooming woods?
That each successive night from opening heaven
The food of angels should to man be given?
Is this more strange than that with common bread
Our fainting bodies every day are fed?
Than that each grain and seed consumed in earth,
Raises its store, and multiplies its birth!
And from the handful which the tiller sows
The labour'd fields rejoice, and future harvest flows?
Then from whate'er we can to sense produce
Common and plain, or wondrous and abstruse,
From Nature's constant or eccentric laws,
The thoughtful soul this general influence draws,
That an effect must pre-suppose a cause;
And while she does her upward flight sustain,
Touching each link of the continued chain,
At length she is obliged and forced to see
A first, a source, a life, a Deity;
What has for ever been, and must for ever be.
This great existence thus by reason found,
Bless'd by all power, with all perfection crown'd,
How can we bind or limit his decree
By what our ear has heard, or eye may see?
Say then is all in heaps of water lost,
Beyond the islands and the midland coast?
Or has that God who gave our world its birth
Severed those waters by some other earth,
Countries by future ploughshares to be torn,
And cities raised by nations yet unborn!
Ere the progressive course of restless age
Performs three thousand times its annual stage,
May not our power and learning be suppress'd,
And arts and empire learn to travel west?
Where, by the strength of this idea charm'd,
Lighten'd with glory, and with rapture warm'd,
Ascends my soul! what sees she white and great
Amidst subjected seas? An isle, the seat
Of power and plenty, her imperial throne,
For justice and for mercy sought and known;
Virtues sublime, great attributes of heaven,
From thence to this distinguish'd nation given:
Yet farther west the western isle extends
Her happy fame; her armed fleets she sends
To climates folded yet from human eye,
And lands which we imagine wave and sky;
From pole to pole she hears her acts resound,
And rules an empire by no ocean bound;
Knows her ships anchor'd, and her sails unfurl'd,
In other Indies and a second world.
Long shall Britannia (that must be her name)
Be first in conquest, and preside in fame:
Long shall her favour'd monarchy engage
The teeth of Envy and the force of Age;
Revered and happy, she shall long remain
Of human things least changeable, least vain;
Yet all must with the general doom comply,
And this great glorious power though last must die.
Now let us leave this earth, and lift our eye
To the large convex of yon azure sky:
Behold it like an ample curtain spread,
Now streak'd and glowing with the morning red;
Anon at noon in flaming yellow bright,
And choosing sable for the peaceful night.
Ask Reason now whence light and shade were given,
And whence this great variety of heaven?
Reason our guide, what can she more reply,
Than that the sun illuminates the sky?
Than that night rises from his absent ray,
And his returning lustre kindles day?
But we expect the morning red in vain,
'Tis hid in vapours or obscured in rain;
The noontide yellow we in vain require,
'Tis black in storm, or red in lightning fire.
Pitchy and dark the night sometimes appears,
Friend to our wo, and parent of our fears;
Our joy and wonder sometimes she excites,
With stars unnumber'd and eternal lights.
Send forth, ye wise, send forth your labouring thought,
Let it return, with empty notions fraught
Of airy columns every moment broke,
Of circling whirlpools, and of spheres of smoke;
Yet this solution but once more affords
New change of terms and scaffolding of words;
In other garb my question I receive,
And take the doubt the very same I gave.
Lo! as a giant strong, the lusty sun
Multiplied rounds in one great round does run,
Two-fold his course, yet constant his career,
Changing the day, and finishing the year:
Again, when his descending orb retires,
And earth perceives the absence of his fires,
The moon affords us her alternate ray,
And with kind beams distributes fainter day,
Yet keeps the stages of her monthly race.
Various her beams, and changeable her face;
Each planet shining in his proper sphere
Does with just speed his radiant voyage steer;
Each sees his lamp with different lustre crown'd;
Each knows his course with different periods bound,
And in his passage through the liquid space,
Nor hastens nor retards his neighbour's race.
Now shine these planets with substantial rays?
Does innate lustre gild their measured days?
Or do they (as your schemes I think have shown)
Dart furtive beams and glory not their own,
All servants to that source of light, the sun?
Again: I see ten thousand thousand stars,
Nor cast in lines, in circles, nor in squares,
(Poor rules with which our bounded mind is fill'd
When we would plant, or cultivate, or build)
But shining with such vast, such various light,
As speaks the hand that form'd them infinite.
How mean the order and perfection sought
In the best product of the human thought,
Compared to the great harmony that reigns
In what the Spirit of the world ordains!
Now if the sun to earth transmits his ray,
Yet does not scorch us with too fierce a day,
How small a portion of his power is given
To orbs more distant and remoter heaven?
And of those stars which our imperfect eye
Has doom'd and fix'd to one eternal sky,
Each by native stock of honour great,
Itself a sun and with transmissive light
Enlivens worlds denied to human sight;
Around the circles of their ancient skies
New moons may grow or wane, may set or rise,
And other stars may to those suns be earths,
Give their own elements their proper births,
Divide their climes, or elevate their pole,
See their lands flourish, and their oceans roll;
Yet these great orbs, thus radically bright,
Primitive founts, and origins of light,
May each to other (as their different sphere
Makes or their distance or their height appear
Be seen a nobler or inferior star,
Myriads of earths, and moons, and suns may lie
Unmeasured, and unknown by human eye.
In vain we measure this amazing sphere,
And find and fix its centre here or there,
Whilst its circumference, scorning to be brought
E'en into fancied space, illudes our vanquish'd thought.
Where then are all the radiant monsters driven
With which your guesses fill'd the frighten'd heaven?
Where will their fictious images remain?
In paper schemes, and the Chaldean's brain?
This problem yet, this offspring of a guess,
Let us for once a child of Truth confess;
That these fair stars, these objects of delight
And terror to our searching dazzled sight,
Are worlds immense, unnumber'd, infinite;
But do these worlds display their beams, or guide
Their orbs, to serve thy use, to please thy pride?
Thyself but dust, thy stature but a span,
A moment thy duration, foolish man?
As well may the minutest emmet say
That Caucasus was raised to pave his way;
That snail, that Lebanon's extended wood
Was destined only for his walk and food;
The vilest cockle gaping on the coast,
That rounds the ample seas, as well may boast
The craggy rock projects above the sky,
That he in safety at its foot may lie;
And the whole ocean's confluent waters swell,
Only to quench his thirst, or move and blanch his shell,
A higher flight the venturous goddess tries,
Leaving material worlds and local skies;
Inquires what are the beings, where the space,
That form'd and held the angels' ancient race?
For rebel Lucifer with Michael fought,
(I offer only what Tradition taught)
Embattled cherub against cherub rose,
Did shield to shield and power to power oppose;
Heaven rung with triumph, hell was fill'd with woes.
What were these forms, of which your volumes tell
How some fought great, and others recreant fell?
These bound to bear an everlasting load,
Durance of chain, and banishment of God;
By fatal turns their wretched strength to tire,
To swim in sulphurous lakes, or land on solid fire;
While those, exalted to primeval light,
Excess of blessing, and supreme delight,
Only perceive some little pause of joys,
In those great moments when their god employs
Their ministry to pour his threaten'd hate
On the proud king or the rebellious state;
Or to reverse Jehovah's high command,
And speak the thunder falling from his hand,
When to his duty the proud king returns,
And the rebellious state in ashes mourns?
How can good angels be in heaven confined,
Or view that Presence which no space can bind?
Is God above, beneath, or yon', or here?
He who made all, is he not every where?
Oh! how can wicked angels find a night
So dark to hide them from that piercing light
Which form'd the eye, and gave the power of sight?
What mean I now of angel, when I near
Firm body, spirit pure, or fluid air?
Spirits, to action spiritual confined,
Friends to our thought, and kindred to our mind,
Should only act and prompt us from within,
Nor by external eye be ever seen.
Was it not therefore to our fathers known
That these had appetite, and limb, and bone?
Else how could Abram wash their wearied feet,
Or Sarah please their taste with savoury meat?
Whence should they fear? or why did Lot engage
To save their bodies from abusive rage?
And how could Jacob, in a real fight,
Feel or resist the wrestling angel's might?
How could a form its strength with matter try?
Or how a spirit touch a mortal's thigh?
Now are they air condensed, or gather'd rays?
How guide they then our prayer or keep our ways,
By stronger blasts still subject to be toss'd,
By tempests scatter'd, and in whirlwinds lost?
Have they again (as sacred song proclaims)
Substances real, and existing frames?
How comes it, since with them we jointly share
The great effect of one Creator's care,
That whilst our bodies sicken and decay,
Theirs are for ever healthy, young, and gay?
Why, whilst we struggle in this vale beneath
With want and sorrow, with disease and death,
Do they more bless'd perpetual life employ
On songs of pleasure and in scenes of joy?
Now, when my mind has all this world survey'd,
And found that nothing by itself was made;
When thought has raised itself by just degrees,
From valleys crown'd with flowers, and hills with trees,
From smoking minerals, and from rising streams,
From fattening Nilus, or victorious Thames;
From all the living that four-footed move
Along the shore, the meadow, or the grove;
From all that can with fins or feathers fly
Through the aerial or the watery sky;
From the poor reptile with a reasoning soul,
That miserable master of the whole;
From this great object of the body's eye,
This fair half-round, this ample azure sky,
Terribly large, and wonderfully bright,
With stars unnumber'd, and unmeasured light:
From essences unseen, celestial names,
Enlightening spirits, and ministerial flames,
Angels, Dominions, Potentates, and Thrones,
All that in each decree the name of creature owns:
Lift we our reason to that sovereign cause
Who bless'd the whole with life and bounded it with laws;
Who forth from nothing call'd this comely frame,
His will and act, his word and work the same;
To whom a thousand years are but a day;
Who bade the Light her genial beams display,
And set the moon, and taught the sun his way;
Who waking Time, his creature, from the source
Primeval, order'd his predestined course,
Himself, as in the hollow of his hand,
Holding obedient to his high command,
The deep abyss, the long continued store,
Where months, and days, and hours, and minutes, pour
Their floating parts, and thenceforth are no more:
This Alpha and Omega, First and Last,
Who, like the potter, in a mould has cast
The world's great frame, commanding it to be
Such as the eyes of Sense and Reason see:
Yet if he wills may change or spoil the whole,
May take yon beauteous, mystic, starry roll,
And burn it like a useless parchment scroll;
May from its basis in one moment pour
This melted earth -
Like liquid metal, and like burning ore;
Who, sole in power, at the beginning said,
Let sea, and air, and earth, and heaven, be made,
And it was so - And when he shall ordain
In other sort, has but to speak again,
And they shall be no more: of this great theme,
This glorious, hallow'd, everlasting Name,
This God, I would discourse-
The learned Elders sat appall'd, amazed,
And each with mutual look on other gazed;
Nor speech they meditate, nor answer frame;
Too plain, alas! their silence spake their shame
Till one in whom an outward mien appear'd
And turn superior to the vulgar herd,
Began: That human learning's furthest reach
Was but to note the doctrines I could teach;
That mine to speak, and theirs was to obey,
For I in knowledge more than your power did sway,
And the astonish'd world in me beheld
Moses eclipsed, and Jesse's son excell'd.
Humble a second bow'd, and took the word,
Foresaw my name by future age adored;
O live, said he, thou wisest of the wise;
As none has equall'd, none shall ever rise
Excelling thee -
Parent of wicked, bane of honest deeds,
Pernicious Flattery! thy malignant seeds
In an ill hour, and by a fatal hand,
Sadly diffused o'er Virtue's gleby land,
With rising pride amidst the corn appear,
And choke the hopes and harvest of the year.
And now the whole perplex'd ignoble crowd,
Mute to my questions, in my praises loud,
Echo'd the word: whence things arose, or how
They thus exist, the aptest nothing know:
What yet is not, but is ordain'd to be,
All veil of doubt apart, the dullest see.
My Prophets and my Sophists finish'd here
Their civil efforts of the verbal war:
Not so my Rabbins and Logicians yield;
Retiring, still they combat: from the field
Of open arms unwilling they depart,
And sculk behind the subterfuge of art.
To speak one thing mix'd dialects they join,
Divide the simple, and the plain define:
Fix fancied laws, and form imagined rules,
Terms of their art, and jargon of their schools,
Ill-ground maxims, by false gloss enlarged,
And captious science against reason charged.
O wretched impotence of human mind!
We, erring, still excuse for error find,
And darkling grope, not knowing we are blind.
Vain man! Since first the blushing sire essay'd
His folly with connected leaves to shade,
How does the crime of thy resembling race,
With like attempt, that pristine error trace?
Too plain thy nakedness of soul espied,
Why dost thou strive the conscious shame to hide,
By masks of eloquence and veils of pride?
With outward smiles their flattery I received,
Own'd my sick mind by their discourse relieved;
But bent, and inward to myself, again
Perplex'd, these matters I resolved in vain.
My search still tired, my labour still renew'd,
At length I Ignorance and Knowledge view'd
Impartial; both in equal balance laid,
Light flew the knowing scale, the doubtful heavy weigh'd.
Forced by reflective reason, I confess
That human science is uncertain guess.
Alas! we grasp at clouds, and beat the air,
Vexing that spirit we intend to clear.
Can thought beyond the bounds of matter climb?
Or who shall tell me what is space or time?
In vain we lift up our presumptuous eyes
To what our Maker to their ken denies:
The searcher follows fast, the object faster flies.
The little which imperfectly we find
Seduces only the bewildered mind
To fruitless search of something yet behind.
Various discussions tear our heated brain:
Opinions often turn; still doubts remain;
And who indulges thought increases pain.
How narrow limits were to Wisdom given?
Earth she surveys; she thence would measure heaven:
Through mists obscure now wings her tedious way
Now wanders, dazzled with too bright a day,
And from the summit of a pathless coast
Sees infinite, and in that sight is lost.
Remember that the cursed desire to know,
Offspring of Adam, was thy source of wo;
Why wilt thou then renew the vain pursuit,
And rashly catch at the forbidden fruit?
With empty labour and eluded strife
Seeking by knowledge to attain to life,
For ever from that fatal tree debarr'd,
Which flaming swords and angry cherubs guard.
Comments about Solomon On The Vanity Of The World, A Poem. In Three Books. - Knowledge. Book I. by Matthew Prior
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