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Poem by John Oldham

Upon the Works of Ben Jonson



GREAT thou! whom 'tis a crime almost to dare to praise,
Whose firm, established, and unshaken glories stand,
⁠And proudly their own fame command,
⁠Above our power to lessen or to raise,
And all, but the few heirs of thy brave genius, and thy bays;
Hail mighty founder of our stage! for so I dare
Entitle thee, nor any modern censures fear,
⁠Nor care what thy unjust detractors say;
They'll say, perhaps, that others did materials bring,
⁠That others did the first foundations lay,
⁠And glorious 'twas (we grant) but to begin,
⁠But thou alone couldst finish the design,
All the fair model, and the workmanship was thine:
⁠Some bold adventurers might have been before,
⁠Who durst the unknown world explore;
⁠By them it was surveyed at distant view,
⁠And here and there a cape, and line they drew,
⁠Which only served as hints, and marks to thee,
Who wast reserved to make the full discovery.
⁠Art's compass to thy painful search we owe,
Whereby thou wentest so far, and we may after go;
By that we may wit's vast and trackless ocean try,
⁠Content no longer, as before,
⁠Dully to coast along the shore,
But steer a course more unconfined and free,
Beyond the narrow bounds that pent antiquity.


⁠Never till thee, the theatre possessed
⁠A prince with equal power and greatness blessed;
⁠No government, or laws it had
⁠To strengthen and establish it,
⁠Till thy great hand the sceptre swayed,[4]
But groaned under a wretched anarchy of wit:
⁠Unformed and void was then its poesy,
⁠Only some pre-existing matter we
⁠Perhaps could see,
⁠That might foretel what was to be;
⁠A rude and undigested lump it lay,
Like the old chaos, e'er the birth of light and day,
Till thy brave genius like a new creator came,
⁠And undertook the mighty frame.
No shuffled atoms did the well-built work compose,
It from no lucky hit of blundering chance arose,
(As some of this great fabric idly dream)
⁠But wise, all seeing judgment did contrive,
⁠And knowing art its graces give:
No sooner did thy soul with active force and fire
⁠The dull and heavy mass inspire,
⁠But straight throughout it let us see
Proportion, order, harmony,
⁠And every part did to the whole agree,
And straight appeared a beauteous, new-made world of poetry.


Let dull and ignorant pretenders art condemn;
⁠(Those only foes to art, and art to them)
The mere fanatics, and enthusiasts in poetry,
(For schismatics in that, as in religion be)
⁠Who make't all revelation, trance, and dream;
⁠Let them despise her laws, and think
That rules and forms the spirit stint:
Thine was no mad, unruly frenzy of the brain,
⁠Which justly might deserve the chain,
⁠'Twas brisk, and mettled, but a managed rage,
Sprightly as vigorous youth, and cool as temperate age:
⁠Free, like thy will, it did all force disdain,
⁠But suffered reason's loose and easy rein,
⁠By that it suffered to be led,
Which did not curb poetic liberty, but guide;
⁠Fancy, that wild and haggard faculty,
⁠Untamed in most, and let at random fly,
⁠Was wisely governed, and reclaimed by thee;
⁠Restraint and discipline was made endure,
And by thy calm and milder judgment brought to lure;
⁠Yet when 'twas at some nobler quarry sent,
⁠With bold and towering wings it upward went,
⁠Not lessened at the greatest height,
Not turned by the most giddy flights of dazzling wit.


⁠Nature and art, together met and joined,
⁠Made up the character of thy great mind;
⁠That, like a bright and glorious sphere,
⁠Appeared with numerous stars embellished o'er,
And much of light to thee, and much of influence bore;
⁠This, was the strong intelligence, whose power
Turned it about, and did the unerring motions steer;
⁠Concurring both, like vital seed and heat,
⁠The noble births they jointly did beget,
⁠And hard 'twas to be thought,
Which most of force to the great generation brought.
So mingling elements compose our bodies frame,
⁠Fire, water, earth, and air,
⁠Alike their just proportions share,
⁠Each undistinguished still remains the same,
⁠Yet can't we say that either's here, or there,
But all, we know not how, are scattered everywhere.


Sober and grave was still the garb thy muse put on,
⁠No tawdry careless slattern dress.
⁠Nor starched, and formal with affectedness,
Nor the cast mode, and fashion of the court and town;
⁠But neat, agreeable, arid jaunty 'twas,
⁠Well fitted, it sate close in every place,
And all became, with an uncommon air and grace:
⁠Rich, costly and substantial was the stuff,
Not barely smooth, nor yet too coarsely rough:
⁠No refuse, ill-patched shreds of the schools,
⁠The motley wear of read and learnèd fools,
No French commodity which now so much does take,
⁠And our own better manufacture spoil;
⁠Nor was it aught of foreign soil,
But staple all, and all of English growth and make:
⁠What flowers soe'er of art it had, were found
⁠No tinsel slight embroideries,
⁠But all appeared either the native ground,
Or twisted, wrought, and interwoven with the piece.


⁠Plain humour, shown with her whole various face,
⁠Not masked with any antic dress,
⁠Nor screwed in forced ridiculous grimace
⁠ (The gaping rabble's dull delight,
⁠And more the actor's than the poet's wit)
⁠Such did she enter on thy stage,
And such was represented to the wondering age:
⁠Well wast thou skilled and read in human kind,
In every wild fantastic passion of his mind,
Didst into all his hidden inclinations dive,
⁠What each from nature does receive,
Or age, or sex, or quality, or country give;
⁠What custom too, that mighty sorceress,
⁠Whose powerful witchcraft does transform
Enchanted man to several monstrous images,
⁠Makes this an odd, and freakish monkey turn,
⁠And that a grave and solemn ass appear,
And all a thousand beastly shapes of folly wear:
⁠Whate'er caprice or whimsey leads awry
⁠Perverted and seduced mortality,
⁠Or does incline, and bias it
From what's discreet, and wise, and right, and good and fit;
⁠All in thy faithful glass were so expressed,
⁠As if they were reflections of thy breast,
⁠As if they had been stamped on thy own mind,
And thou the universal vast idea of mankind.


Never didst thou with the same dish repeated cloy,
⁠Though every dish, well-cooked by thee,
⁠Contained a plentiful variety;
To all that could sound relishing palates be,
Each regale with new delicacies did invite,
⁠Courted the taste, and raised the appetite:
⁠Whate'er fresh dainty fops in season were,
⁠To garnish and set out thy bill of fare;
⁠(Those never found to fail throughout the year,
⁠For seldom that ill-natured planet rules,
⁠That plagues a poet with a dearth of fools)
⁠What thy strict observation e'er surveyed.
From the fine, luscious spark of high and courtly breed,
⁠Down to the dull insipid cit,
⁠Made thy pleased audience entertainment fit,
Served up with all the grateful poignancies of wit.


⁠Most plays are writ like almanacks of late,
⁠And serve one only year, one only state;
Another makes them useless, stale, and out of date;
⁠But thine were wisely calculated, fit
⁠For each meridian, every clime of wit,
⁠For all succeeding time, and after-age,
⁠And all mankind might thy vast audience sit,
⁠And the whole world be justly made thy stage:
⁠Still they shall taking be, and ever new,
Still keep in vogue in spite of all the damning crew;
⁠Till the last scene of this great theatre,
⁠Closed and shut down,
⁠The numerous actors all retire,
⁠And the grand play of human life be done.


Beshrew those envious tongues who seek to blast thy bays,
⁠Who spots in thy bright fame would find, or raise,
⁠And say it only shines with borrowed rays;
⁠Rich in thyself, to whose unbounded store
⁠Exhausted nature could vouchsafe no more,
Thou couldst alone the empire of the stage maintain,
⁠Couldst all its grandeur, and its port sustain,
⁠Nor needest others subsidies to pay,
Needest no tax on foreign, or thy native country lay,
⁠To bear the charges of thy purchased fame,
⁠But thy own stock could raise the same,
Thy sole revenue all the vast expense defray:
Yet, like some mighty conqueror in poetry,
⁠Designed by fate of choice to be
Founder of its new universal monarchy,
⁠Boldly thou didst the learned world invade,
⁠Whilst all around thy powerful genius swayed,
⁠Soon vanquished Rome, and Greece were made submit,
⁠Both were thy humble tributaries made,
And thou returnedst in triumph with her captive wit.


⁠Unjust, and more ill-natured those,
⁠Thy spiteful and malicious foes,
⁠Who on thy happiest talent fix a lie,
And call that slowness, which was care and industry.
⁠Let me (with pride so to he guilty thought)
⁠Share all thy wished reproach, and share thy shame,
⁠If diligence be deemed a fault,
⁠If to be faultless must deserve their blame:
⁠Judge of thyself alone (for none there were,
⁠Could be so just, or could be so severe)
⁠Thou thy own works didst strictly try
By known and uncontested rules of poetry,
⁠And gavest thy sentence still impartially:
With rigour thou arraignedst each guilty line,
⁠And sparedst no criminal sense, because 'twas thine:
Unbribed with labour, love, or self-conceit,
⁠(For never, or too seldom we,
Objects too near us, our own blemishes can see)
⁠Thou didst no small delinquencies acquit,
⁠But saw'st them to correction all submit,
Saw'st execution done on all convicted crimes of wit.


⁠Some curious painter, taught by art to dare,
(For they with poets in that title share)
When he would undertake a glorious frame
⁠Of lasting worth, and fadeless as his fame,
⁠Long he contrives, and weighs the bold design,
⁠Long holds his doubting hand e'er he begin,
And justly, then, proportions every stroke and line,
⁠And oft he brings it to review,
And oft he does deface, and dashes oft anew,
And mixes oils to make the flitting colours dure,
To keep 'em from the tarnish of injurious time secure;
Finished, at length, in all that care and skill can do,
⁠The matchless piece is set to public view,
⁠And all surprised about it wondering stand,
⁠And though no name be found below,
⁠Yet straight discern the inimitable hand,
And straight they cry 'tis Titian, or 'tis Angelo:
So thy brave soul, that scorned all cheap and easy ways,
⁠And trod no common road to praise,
Would not with rash, and speedy negligence proceed,
⁠(For whoe'er saw perfection grow in haste?
⁠Or that soon done, which must for ever last?)
⁠But gently did advance with wary heed,
And shewed that mastery is most in justness read:
Nought ever issued from thy teeming breast,
But what had gone full time, could write exactly best,
And stand the sharpest censure, and defy the rigidest test.


⁠'Twas thus the Almighty Poet (if we dare
⁠Our weak, and meaner acts with His compare)
When He the world's fair poem did of old design,
(That work, which now must boast no longer date than
⁠Though 'twas in Him alike to will and do,
⁠Though the same Word that spoke, could make it too,
Yet would He not such quick, and hasty measures use,
Nor did an instant (which it might) the great effect produce;
⁠But when the All-wise himself in council sate,
⁠Vouchsafed to think and be deliberate.
When Heaven considered, and the Eternal Wit and Sense,
⁠Seemed to take time, and care, and pains,
⁠It shewed that some uncommon birth,
That something worthy of a God was coming forth;
Nought incorrect there was, nought faulty there,
No point amiss did in the large voluminous piece appear;
⁠And when the glorious Author all surveyed,
⁠Surveyed whatever His mighty labours made,
⁠Well pleased He was to find
All answered the great model and idea of His mind:
⁠Pleased at himself He in high wonder stood,
And much His power, and much His wisdom did applaud,
To see how all was perfect, all transcendent good.


Let meaner spirits stoop to low precarious fame,
⁠Content on gross and coarse applause to live,
⁠And what the dull and senseless rabble give;
⁠Thou didst it still with noble scorn contemn,
⁠Nor wouldst that wretched alms receive,
The poor subsistence of some bankrupt, sordid name:
⁠Thine was no empty vapour, raised beneath,
⁠And formed of common breath,
⁠The false and foolish fire, that's whisked about
By popular air, and glares a while, and then goes out;
But 'twas a solid, whole, and perfect globe of light,
⁠That shone all over, was all over bright,
And dared all sullying clouds, and feared no darkening night;
⁠Like the gay monarch of the stars and sky,
⁠Who wheresoe'er he does display
⁠His sovereign lustre, and majestic ray,
⁠Straight all the less, and petty glories nigh
⁠Vanish, and shrink away,
O'erwhelmed and swallowed by the greater blaze of day.
With such a strong, an awful and victorious beam
⁠Appeared, and ever shall appear, thy fame.
Viewed, and adored, by all the undoubted race of wit,
⁠Who only can endure to look on it;
⁠The rest o'ercome with too much light,
With too much brightness dazzled, or extinguished quite.
⁠Restless and uncontrolled, it now shall pass
⁠As wide a course about the world as he;
⁠And when his long-repeated travels cease,
⁠Begin a new and vaster race,
And still tread round the endless circle of eternity.

John Oldham

John Oldham's other poems:
  1. A Dithyrambic
  2. A Satire Touching Nobility
  3. David's Lamentation for the Death of Saul and Jonathan, Paraphrased
  4. The Praise of Homer
  5. The Parting

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