Verse > Anthologies > William Stanley Braithwaite, ed. > The Book of Restoration Verse
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William Stanley Braithwaite, ed.  The Book of Restoration Verse.  1910.
 
To the Royal Society
By Abraham Cowley (1618–1667)
 
PHILOSOPHY 1 the great and only heir
  Of all that human knowledge which has been
  Unforfeited by man’s rebellious sin,
Though full of years he do appear,
  (Philosophy, I say, and call it, he,        5
  For whatsoe’er the painter’s fancy be,
  It a male-virtue seems to me)
  Has still been kept in nonage till of late,
Nor manag’d or enjoy’d his vast estate:
Three or four thousand years one would have thought,        10
To ripeness and perfection might have brought
  A science so well bred and nurst,
And of such hopeful parts too at the first.
But, oh, the guardians and the tutors then,
(Some negligent, and some ambitious men)        15
  Would ne’er consent to set him free,
Or his own natural powers to let him see,
Lest that should put an end to their authority.
 
That his own business he might quite forget,
They amused him with the sports of wanton wit;        20
With the desserts of poetry they fed him,
Instead of solid meats to increase his force;
Instead of vigorous exercise they led him
Into the pleasant labyrinths of ever-fresh discourse:
  Instead of carrying him to see        25
The riches which do hoarded for him lie
  In nature’s endless treasury,
  They chose his eye to entertain
  (His curious but not covetous eye)
With painted scenes, and pageants of the brain.        30
Some few exalted spirits this latter age has shown,
That laboured to assert the liberty
(From guardians, who were now usurpers grown)
Of this old minor still, captiv’d philosophy;
  But ’twas rebellion call’d to fight        35
  For such a long-oppressed right.
Bacon at last, a mighty man, arose
  Whom a wise king, and nature, chose
  Lord Chancellor of both their laws,
And boldly undertook the injur’d pupil’s cause.        40
 
Authority, which did a body boast,
Though ’twas but air condens’d and stalked about,
Like some old giant’s more gigantic ghost,
  To terrify the learned rout
With the plain magic of true reason’s light,        45
  He chased out of our sight;
Nor suffer’d living man to be misled
  By the vain shadows of the dead:
To graves, from whence it rose, the conquer’d phantom fled.
  He broke that monstrous god which stood        50
In midst of th’ orchard, and the whole did claim,
  Which with a useless scythe of wood,
  And something else not worth a name,
  (Both vast for shew, yet neither fit
  Or to defend, or to beget;        55
  Ridiculous and senseless terrors!) made
Children and superstitious men afraid.
  The orchard’s open now, and free;
Bacon has broke that scarecrow deity;
  Come, enter, all that will,        60
Behold the ripened fruit, come gather now your fill.
  Yet still, methinks, we fain would be
  Catching at the forbidden tree,
  We would be like the Deity,
When truth and falsehood, good and evil, we        65
Without the senses’ aid within ourselves would see;
  For ’tis God only who can find
  All nature in his mind.
 
From words, which are but pictures of the thought,
(Though we our thoughts from them perversely drew)        70
To things, the mind’s right object, he it brought,
Like foolish birds to painted grapes we flew;
He sought and gather’d for our use the true;
And, when on heaps the chosen bunches lay,
He pressed them wisely the mechanic way,        75
Till all their juice did in one vessel join,
Ferment into a nourishment divine,
  The thirsty soul’s refreshing wine.
Who to the life an exact piece would make,
Must not from others’ work a copy take;        80
  No, not from Rubens or Van Dyke;
Much less content himself to make it like
Th’ ideas and the images which lie
In his own fancy, or his memory.
  No, he before his sight must place        85
  The natural and living face;
  The real object must command
Each judgment of his eye, and motion of his hand.
 
From these and all long errors of the way,
In which our wandering predecessors went,        90
And, like th’ old Hebrews, many years did stray
  In deserts but of small extent,
Bacon, like Moses, led us forth at last;
  The barren wilderness he past;
  Did on the very border stand        95
  Of the blest promised land,
And from the mountain’s top of his exalted wit,
  Saw it himself, and shew’d us it.
But life did never to one man allow
Time to discover worlds, and conquer too;        100
Nor can so short a line sufficient be
To fathom the vast depths of nature’s sea:
  The work he did we ought t’ admire,
And were unjust if we should more require
From his few years, divided ’twixt th’ excess        105
Of low affliction, and high happiness.
For who on things remote can fix his sight,
That’s always in a triumph, or a fight?
 
From you, great champions, we expect to get
These spacious countries but discover’d yet;        110
Countries where yet instead of nature, we
Her images and idols worship’d see:
These large and wealthy regions to subdue,
Though learning has whole armies at command,
  Quarter’d about in every land,        115
A better troop she ne’er together drew.
  Methinks, like Gideon’s little band,
  God with design has pick’d out you,
To do those noble wonders by a few:
When the whole host he saw, ‘They are’ (said he)        120
  ‘Too many to o’ercome for me’;
  And now he chooses out his men,
  Much in the way that he did then:
  Not those many whom he found
  Idly extended on the ground,        125
  To drink with their dejected head
The stream, just so as by their mouths it fled:
  No, but those few who took the waters up,
And made of their laborious hands the cup.
 
Thus you prepar’d; and in the glorious fight        130
  Their wondrous pattern too you take;
Their old and empty pitchers first they brake,
And with their hands then lifted up the light.
  Io! Sound too the trumpets here!
Already your victorious lights appear;        135
New scenes of heaven already we espy,
And crowds of golden worlds on high;
Which from the spacious plains of earth and sea
  Could never yet discover’d be,
By sailors’ or Chaldeans’ watchful eye.        140
Nature’s great works no distance can obscure
No smallness her near objects can secure;
  Y’have taught the curious sight to press
  Into the privatest recess
Of her imperceptible littleness.        145
  Y’have learn’d to read her smallest hand,
And well begun her deepest sense to understand.
 
Mischief and true dishonour fall on those
Who would to laughter or to scorn expose
So virtuous and so noble a design,        150
So human for its use, for knowledge so divine.
The things which these proud men despise, and call
  Impertinent, and vain, and small,
Those smallest things of nature let me know,
Rather than all their greatest actions do.        155
Whoever would deposèd truth advance
  Into the throne usurp’d from it,
Must feel at first the blows of ignorance,
  And the sharp points of envious wit.
So, when, by various turns of the celestial dance,        160
  In many thousand years
  A star, so long unknown, appears,
Though heaven itself more beauteous by it grow,
It troubles and alarms the world below,
Does to the wise a star, to fools a meteor show.        165
 
With courage and success you the bold work begin;
  Your cradle has not idle been:
None e’er but Hercules and you could be
At five years’ age worthy a history.
  And ne’er did fortune better yet        170
  Th’ historian to the story fit:
  As you from all old errors free
And purge the body of philosophy;
  So from all modern follies he
Has vindicated eloquence and wit.        175
His candid style like a clean stream does slide,
  And his bright fancy all the way
  Does like the sunshine in it play;
It does like Thames, the best of rivers, glide,
Where the god does not rudely overturn,        180
  But gently pour the crystal urn,
And with judicious hand does the whole current guide.
’T has all the beauties nature can impart,
And all the comely dress, without the paint, of art.
 
Note 1. This poem first appeared prefixed to Bishop Sprat’s The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, 1667. “It is nothing less,” says Archbishop Trench, “than the first book of the Novum Organum transfigured into poetry. [back]
 
 
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