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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Of Myself
By Abraham Cowley (1618–1667)
 
IT is a hard and nice subject for a man to write of himself; it grates his own heart to say anything of disparagement, and the reader’s ears to hear anything of praise from him. There is no danger from me of offending him in this kind: neither my mind nor my body nor my fortune allow me any materials for that vanity. It is sufficient for my own contentment that they have preserved me from being scandalous or remarkable on the defective side. But besides that, I shall here speak of myself only in relation to the subject of these precedent discourses, and shall be likelier thereby to fall into the contempt than rise up to the estimation of most people.  1
  As far as my memory can return back into my past life, before I knew, or was capable of guessing, what the world or the glories or business of it were, the natural affections of my soul gave me a secret bent of aversion from them, as some plants are said to turn away from others by an antipathy imperceptible to themselves and inscrutable to man’s understanding. Even when I was a very young boy at school, instead of running about on holy-days and playing with my fellows, I was wont to steal from them and walk into the fields, either alone with a book, or with some one companion if I could find any of the same temper. I was then too so much an enemy to all constraint, that my masters could never prevail on me, by any persuasions or encouragements, to learn without book the common rules of grammar; in which they dispensed with me alone, because they found I made a shift to do the usual exercise out of my own reading and observation. That I was then of the same mind as I am now (which I confess I wonder at, myself) may appear by the latter end of an ode which I made when I was but thirteen years old, and which was then printed with many other verses. The beginning of it is boyish; but of this part, which I here set down (if a very little were corrected), I should hardly now be much ashamed.

  THIS only grant me, that my means may lie
Too low for envy, for contempt too high.
          Some honor I would have,
Not from great deeds, but good alone;
The unknown are better, than ill known:
          Rumor can ope the grave.
Acquaintance I would have, but when’t depends
Not on the number, but the choice of friends.
  
Books should, not business, entertain the light,
And sleep, as undisturbed as death, the night.
          My house a cottage more
Than palace; and should fitting be
For all my use, no luxury.
          My garden painted o’er
With nature’s hand, not art’s; and pleasures yield,
Horace might envy in his Sabin field.
  
Thus would I double my life’s fading space;
For he that runs it well, twice runs his race.
          And in this true delight,
These unbought sports, this happy state,
I would not fear, nor wish, my fate;
          But boldly say each night,
“To-morrow let my sun his beams display,
Or in clouds hide them; I have lived to-day.”
  2
 
  You may see by it, I was even then acquainted with the poets (for the conclusion is taken out of Horace); and perhaps it was the immature and immoderate love of them, which stampt first, or rather engraved, these characters in me: they were like letters cut into the bark of a young tree, which with the tree still grow proportionably. But how this love came to be produced in me so early, is a hard question: I believe I can tell the particular little chance that filled my head first with such chimes of verse as have never since left ringing there: for I remember, when I began to read, and to take some pleasure in it, there was wont to lie in my mother’s parlor (I know not by what accident, for she herself never in her life read any book but of devotion),—but there was wont to lie Spenser’s works: this I happened to fall upon, and was infinitely delighted with the stories of the knights and giants and monsters and brave houses, which I found everywhere there (though my understanding had little to do with all this); and by degrees with the tinkling of the rhyme and dance of the numbers; so that I think I had read him all over before I was twelve years old, and was thus made a poet as immediately as a child is made an eunuch.  3
  With these affections of mind, and my heart wholly set upon letters, I went to the university; but was soon torn from thence by that violent public storm, which would suffer nothing to stand where it did, but rooted up every plant, even from the princely cedars to me the hyssop. Yet I had as good fortune as could have befallen me in such a tempest; for I was cast by it into the family of one of the best persons, and into the court of one of the best princesses, of the world. Now, though I was here engaged in ways most contrary to the original design of my life,—that is, into much company, and no small business, and into a daily sight of greatness, both militant and triumphant (for that was the state then of the English and French courts), yet all this was so far from altering my opinion, that it only added the confirmation of reason to that which was before but natural inclination. I saw plainly all the paint of that kind of life, the nearer I came to it; and that beauty which I did not fall in love with when for aught I knew it was real, was not like to bewitch or entice me when I saw that it was adulterate. I met with several great persons, whom I liked very well; but could not perceive that any part of their greatness was to be liked or desired, no more than I would be glad or content to be in a storm, though I saw many ships which rid safely and bravely in it: a storm would not agree with my stomach, if it did with my courage. Though I was in a crowd of as good company as could be found anywhere, though I was in business of great and honorable trust, though I ate at the best table, and enjoyed the best conveniences for present subsistence that ought to be desired by a man of my condition in banishment and public distresses; yet I could not abstain from renewing my old school-boy’s wish, in a copy of verses to the same effect:—
  “Well then, I now do plainly see
This busy world and I shall ne’er agree,” etc.
  4
  And I never then proposed to myself any other advantage from his Majesty’s happy Restoration, but the getting into some moderately convenient retreat in the country; which I thought, in that case, I might easily have compassed as well as some others, who with no greater probabilities or pretenses have arrived to extraordinary fortune: but I had before written a shrewd prophecy against myself, and I think Apollo inspired me in the truth though not in the elegance of it:—

      “THOU neither great at court, nor in the war,
Nor at th’ exchange shalt be, nor at the wrangling bar.
    Content thyself with the small barren praise
        Which neglected verse does raise.”
        She spake; and all my years to come
            Took their unlucky doom.
    Their several ways of life let others chuse,
      Their several pleasures let them use;
    But I was born for Love and for a Muse.
  
      With Fate what boots it to contend?
    Such I began, such am, and so must end.
      The star that did my being frame
          Was but a lambent flame,
      And some small light it did dispense,
      But neither heat nor influence.
    No matter, Cowley; let proud Fortune see
That thou canst her despise no less than she does thee.
  
          Let all her gifts the portion be
          Of folly, lust, and flattery,
          Fraud, extortion, calumny,
          Murder, infidelity,
          Rebellion and hypocrisy.
      Do thou nor grieve nor blush to be,
      As all th’ inspired tuneful men,
And all thy great forefathers were, from Homer down to Ben.
  5
 
  However, by the failing of the forces which I had expected, I did not quit the design which I had resolved on; I cast myself into it à corps perdu, without making capitulations, or taking counsel of fortune. But God laughs at a man who says to his soul, “Take thy ease.” I met presently not only with many little incumbrances and impediments, but with so much sickness (a new misfortune to me) as would have spoiled the happiness of an emperor as well as mine; yet I do neither repent nor alter my course. “Non ego perfidum dixi sacramentum;” nothing shall separate me from a mistress which I have loved so long and have now at last married; though she neither has brought me a rich portion, nor lived yet so quietly with me as I hoped from her:—

          “Nec vos, dulcissima mundi
Nomina, vos Musæ, Libertas, Otia, Libri,
Hortique Sylvæque, anima remanente, relinquam,”
  
        (Nor by me e’er shall you,
You, of all names the sweetest and the best,
You, Muses, books, and liberty, and rest;
You, gardens, fields, and woods, forsaken be,
As long as life itself forsakes not me.)
  6
 
  But this is a very pretty ejaculation; because I have concluded all the other chapters with a copy of verses, I will maintain the humor to the last.  7
 
 
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