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Poem by John Oldham

A Letter from the Country to a Friend in Town


AS to that poet (if so great a one as he,
May suffer in comparison with me)
When heretofore in Scythian exile pent,
To which he by ungrateful Rome was sent.
If a kind paper from his country came,
And wore subscribed some known and faithful name,
That, like a powerful cordial, did infuse
New life into his speechless gasping muse,
And straight his genius, which before did seem
Bound up in ice, and frozen as the clime,
By its warm force and friendly influence thawed,
Dissolved apace, and in soft numbers flowed;
Such welcome here, dear sir, your letter had
With me, shut up in close constraint as bad:
Not eager lovers, held in long suspense,
With warmer joy, and a more tender sense,
Meet those kind lines which all their wishes bless,
And sign and seal delivered happiness:
My grateful thoughts so throng to get abroad,
They overrun each other in the crowd:
To you with hasty flight they take their way,
And hardly for the dress of words will stay.
⁠Yet pardon, if this only fault I find,
That while you praise too much, you are less kind:
Consider, sir, 'tis ill and dangerous thus
To over-lay a young and tender muse:
Praise, the fine diet which we're apt to love,
If given to excess, does hurtful prove:

Where it does weak distempered stomachs meet,
That surfeits, which should nourishment create.
Your rich perfumes such fragrancy dispense,
Their sweetness overcomes and palls my sense;
On my weak head you heap so many bays,
I sink beneath 'em, quite oppressed with praise,
And a resembling fate with him receive,
Who in too kind a triumph found his grave,
Smothered with garlands, which applauders gave.
⁠To you these praises justlier all belong,
By alienating which yourself you wrong:
Whom better can such commendations fit
Than you, who so well teach and practise wit?
Verse, the great boast of drudging fools, from some,
Nay most of scribblers, with much straining come:
They void 'em dribbling, and in pain they write,
As if they had a stranguary of wit:
Your pen, uncalled, they readily obey,
And scorn your ink should flow so fast as they:
Each strain of yours so easy does appear,
Each such a graceful negligence does wear,
As shews you have none, and yet want no care;
None of your serious pains or time they cost,
But what thrown by, you can afford for lost.
If such the fruits of your loose leisure be,
Your careless minutes yield such poetry,
We guess what proofs your genius would impart,
Did it employ you, as it does divert:
But happy you, more prudent and more wise,
With better aims have fixed your noble choice.
While silly I all thriving arts refuse,
And all my hopes and all my vigour lose
In service on that worst of jilts, a muse,
For gainful business court ignoble ease,
And in gay trifles waste my ill-spent days.
⁠Little I thought, my dearest friend, that you
Would thus contribute to my ruin too:

O'errun with filthy poetry and rhyme,
The present reigning evil of the time,
I lacked, and (well I did myself assure)
From your kind hand I should receive a cure:
When, lo! instead of healing remedies,
You cherish, and encourage the disease:
Inhuman, you help the distemper on,
Which was before but too inveterate grown:
As a kind looker on, who interest shares,
Though not in's stake, yet in his hopes and fears,
Would to his friend a pushing gamester do,
Recall his elbow when he hastes to throw;
Such a wise course you should have took with me,
A rash and venturing fool in poetry.
Poets are cullies, whom rook fame draws in,[3]
And wheedles with deluding hopes to win:
But, when they hit, and most successful are,
They scarce come off with a bare saving share.
⁠Oft, I remember, did wise friends dissuade,
And bid me quit the trifling barren trade;
Oft have I tried, Heaven knows! to mortify
This vile and wicked lust of poetry;
But still unconquered it remains within,
Fixed as a habit, or some darling sin.
In vain I better studies there would sow,
Often I've tried, but none will thrive or grow:
All my best thoughts, when I'd most serious be,
Are never from its foul infection free:
Nay, God forgive me! when I say my prayers,
I scarce can help polluting them with verse:
That fabulous wretch of old reversed I seem,
Who turn whate'er I touch to dross and rhyme.

⁠Oft to divert the wild caprice, I try
If sovereign wisdom and philosophy
Rightly applied, will give a remedy:
Straight the great Stagyrite I take in hand,
Seek nature, and myself to understand:
Much I reflect on his vast worth and fame,
And much my low and grovelling aims condemn,
And quarrel, that my ill-packed fete should be
This vain, this worthless thing called poetry:
But when I find this unregarded toy
Could his important thoughts and pains employ,
By reading there, I am but more undone,
And meet that danger which I went to shun.
Oft when ill humour, chagrin, discontent,
Give leisure my wild follies to resent,
I thus against myself my passion vent:
Enough, mad rhyming sot, enough for shame,
Give o'er, and all thy quills to tooth-picks damn;
Didst ever thou the altar rob, or worse,
Kill the priest there, and maids receiving force?
What else could merit this so heavy curse?
The greatest curse, I can, I wish on him,
(If there be any greater than to rhyme)
Who first did of the lewd invention think,
First made two lines with sounds resembling clink,
And, swerving from the easy paths of prose,
Fetters and chains did on free sense impose:
Cursed too be all the fools, who since have went
Misled in steps of that ill precedent:
Want be entailed their lot:'and on I go,
Wreaking my spite on all the jingling crew:
Scarce the belovèd Cowley 'scapes, though I
Might sooner my own curses fear, than he:
And thus resolved against the scribbling vein,
I deeply swear never to write again.
⁠But when bad company and wine conspire
To kindle and renew the foolish fire,

Straightways relapsed, I feel the raving fit
Return, and straight I all my oaths forget:
The spirit, which I thought cast out before,
Enters again with stronger force and power,
Worse than at first, and tyrannizes more.
No sober good advice will then prevail,
Nor from the raging frenzy me recall:
Cool reason's dictates me no more can move
Than men in drink, in Bedlam, or in love:
Deaf to all means which might most proper seem
Towards my cure, I run stark mad in rhyme:
A sad poor haunted wretch, whom nothing less
Than prayers of the Church can dispossess.
⁠Sometimes, after a tedious day half spent,
When fancy long has hunted on cold scent,
Tired in the dull and fruitless chase of thought,
Despairing I grow weary, and give out:
As a dry lecher pumped of all my store,
I loathe the thing, 'cause I can do't no more:
But, when I once begin to find again
Recruits of matter in my pregnant brain,
Again, more eager, I the hunt pursue,
And with fresh vigour the loved sport renew:
Tickled with some strange pleasure, which I find,
And think a secrecy to all mankind,
I please myself with the vain, false delight,
And count none happy, but the fops that write.
⁠'Tis endless, sir, to tell the many ways
Wherein my poor deluded self I please:
How, when the fancy labouring for a birth,
With unfelt throes brings its rude issue forth:
How after, when imperfect shapeless thought
Is by the judgment into fashion wrought;
When at first search I traverse o'er my mind,
Nought but a dark and empty void I find:
Some little hints at length, like sparks, break thence,
And glimmering thoughts just dawning into sense:

Confused a while the mixed ideas lie,
With nought of mark to be discovered by,
Like colours undistinguished in the night,
Till the dusk images, moved to the light,
Teach the discerning faculty to choose,
Which it had best adopt, and which refuse.[4]
Here, rougher strokes, touched with a careless dash,
Resemble the first setting of a face:
There, finished draughts in form more full appear,
And to their justness ask no further care.
Meanwhile with inward joy I proud am grown,
To see the work successfully go on:
And prize myself in a creating power,
That could make something, what was nought before.
⁠Sometimes a stiff, unwieldy thought I meet,
Which to my laws will scarce be made submit:
But when, after expense of pains and time,
'Tis managed well, and taught to yoke in rhyme,
I triumph more than joyful warriors would,
Had they some stout and hardy foe subdued,
And idly think, less goes to their command,
That make armed troops in well-placed order stand,

Than to the conduct of my words, when they
March in due ranks, are set in just array.
⁠Sometimes on wings of thought I seem on high,
As men in sleep, though motionless they lie,
Fledged by a dream, believe they mount and fly:
So witches some enchanted wand bestride,
And think they through the airy regions ride,
Where fancy is both traveller, way, and guide:
Then straight I grow a strange exalted thing,
And equal in conceit at least a king:
As the poor drunkard, when wine stums[5] his brains,
Anointed with that liquor, thinks he reigns.
Bewitched by these delusions 'tis I write,
(The tricks some pleasant devil plays in spite)
And when I'm in the freakish trance, which I,
Fond silly wretch, mistake for ecstasy,
I find all former resolutions vain,
And thus recant them, and make new again:
⁠'What was't I rashly vowed? shall ever I
Quit my belovèd mistress, poetry?
Thou sweet beguiler of my lonely hours,
Which thus glide unperceived with silent course;
Thou gentle spell, which undisturbed dost keep
My breast, and charm intruding care asleep;
They say, thou'rt poor and unendowed; what though?
For thee, I this vain, worthless world forego:
Let wealth and honour be for fortune's slaves,
The alms of fools, and prize of crafty knaves:
To me thou art whate'er the ambitious crave,
And all that greedy misers want, or have:
In youth or age, in travel or at home,
Here or in town, at London or at Rome,
Rich or a beggar, free or in the Fleet,
Whate'er my fate is, 'tis my fate to write.'
⁠Thus I have made my shrifted muse confess,
Her secret feebleness, and weaknesses:
All her hid faults she sets exposed to view,
And hopes a gentle confessor in you:
She hopes an easy pardon for her sin,
Since 'tis but what she is not wilful in,
Nor yet has scandalous nor open been.
Try if your ghostly counsel can reclaim
The heedless wanton from her guilt and shame:
At least be not ungenerous to reproach
That wretched frailty which you've helped debauch.
'Tis now high time to end, for fear I grow
More tedious than old doters, when they woo,
Than travelled fops, when far-fetched lies they prate,
Or flattering poets, when they dedicate.
No dull forgiveness I presume to crave,
Nor vainly for my tiresome length ask leave:
Lest I, as often formal coxcombs use,
Prolong that very fault I would excuse:
May this the same kind welcome find with you,
As yours did here, and ever shall; adieu.

John Oldham

John Oldham's other poems:
  1. Some Verses on Presenting a Book to Cosmelia
  2. A Satire Touching Nobility
  3. David's Lamentation for the Death of Saul and Jonathan, Paraphrased
  4. A Dithyrambic
  5. The Parting

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