Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Peroration on Poetry
By Sir William Temple (16281699)
BUT to spin off this thread, which is already grown too long: what honour and request the ancient poetry has lived in, may not only be observed from the universal reception and use in all nations from China to Peru, from Scythia to Arabia, but from the esteem of the best and the greatest men as well as the vulgar. Among the Hebrews, David and Solomon, the wisest kings, Job and Jeremiah, the holiest men, were the best poets of their nation and language. Among the Greeks, the two most renowned sages and lawgivers were Lycurgus and Solon, whereof the last is known to have excelled in poetry, and the first was so great a lover of it, that to his care and industry we are said (by some authors) to owe the collection and preservation of the loose and scattered pieces of Homer in the order wherein they have since appeared. Alexander is reported neither to have travelled nor slept without those admirable poems always in his company. Phalaris, that was inexorable to all other enemies, relented at the charms of Stesichorus, his muse. Among the Romans, the last and great Scipio passed the soft hours of his life in the conversation of Terence, and was thought to have a part in the composition of his comedies. Cæsar was an excellent poet as well as orator, and composed a poem in his voyage from Rome to Spain, relieving the tedious difficulties of his march with the entertainments of his muse. Augustus was not only a patron, but a friend and companion of Virgil and Horace, and was himself both an admirer of poetry and a pretender too, as far as his genius would reach, or his busy scene allow. Tis true, since his age we have few such examples of great Princes favouring or affecting poetry, and as few perhaps of great poets deserving it. Whether it be that the fierceness of the Gothic humours, or noise of their perpetual wars, frighted it away, or that the unequal mixture of the modern languages would not bear it; certain it is, that the great heights and excellency both of poetry and music fell with the Roman learning and empire, and have never since recovered the admiration and applauses that before attended them. Yet, such as they are amongst us, they must be confessed to be the softest and sweetest, the most general and most innocent amusements of common time and life. They still find room in the Courts of Princes, and the cottages of shepherds. They serve to revive and animate the dead calm of poor or idle lives, and to allay or divert the violent passions and perturbations of the greatest and the busiest men. And both these effects are of equal use to human life; for the mind of man is like the sea, which is neither agreeable to the beholder nor the voyager in a calm or in a storm, but is so to both when a little agitated by gentle gales; and so the mind, when moved by soft and easy passions and affections. I know very well, that many, who pretend to be wise by the forms of being grave, are apt to despise both poetry and music as toys and trifles too light for the use or entertainment of serious men. But, whoever find themselves wholly insensible to these charms, would, I think, do well to keep their own counsel, for fear of reproaching their own temper, and bringing the goodness of their natures, if not of their understandings, into question; it may be thought at least an ill sign, if not an ill constitution, since some of the fathers went so far as to esteem the love of music a sign of predestination, as a thing divine, and reserved for the felicities of heaven itself. While this world lasts, I doubt not but the pleasure and requests of these two entertainments will do so too: and happy those that content themselves with these, or any other so easy and so innocent; and do not trouble the world, or other men, because they cannot be quiet themselves, though no body hurts them!
When all is done, human life is, at the greatest and the best, but like a froward child, that must be played with and humoured a little to keep it quiet till it falls asleep, and then the care is over.