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Poem by John Oldham

A Satire Touching Nobility


'TIS granted, that nobility in man
Is no wild fluttering notion of the brain,
Where he, descended of an ancient race,
Which a long train of numerous worthies grace,
By virtue's rules guiding his steady course,
Traces the steps of his bright ancestors.
⁠But yet I can't endure an haughty ass,
Debauched with luxury and slothful ease,
Who, besides empty titles of high birth,
Has no pretence to anything of worth,
Should proudly wear the fame which others sought,
And boast of honour which himself ne'er got.
⁠I grant, the acts which his forefathers did
Have furnished matter for old Hollinshed,
For which their scutcheon, by the conqueror graced,
Still bears a lion rampant for its crest;
But what does this vain mass of glory boot
To be the branch of such a noble root,

If he, of all the heroes of his line
Which in the register of story shine,
Can offer nothing to the world's regard,
But mouldy parchments which the worms have spared?
If sprung, as he pretends, of noble race,
He does his own original disgrace,
And swollen with selfish vanity and pride,
To greatness has no other claim beside,
But squanders life, and sleeps away his days,
Dissolved in sloth, and steeped in sensual ease?
⁠Meanwhile, to see how much the arrogant
Boasts the false lustre of his high descent,
You'd fancy him comptroller of the sky,
And framed by Heaven of other clay than I.
⁠Tell me, great hero, you that would be thought
So much above the mean and humble rout,
Of all the creatures which do men esteem?
And which would you yourself the noblest deem?
Put case of horse: No doubt, you'll answer straight,
The racer which has oftenest won the plate;
Who full of mettle, and of sprightly fire,
Is never distanced in the fleet career;
Him all the rivals of Newmarket dread,
And crowds of venturers stake upon his head.
But if the breed of Dragon, often cast,
Degenerate, and prove a jade at last,
Nothing of honour, or respect, we see,
Is had of his high birth, and pedigree;
But, maugre all his great progenitors,
The worthless brute is banished from the course,
Condemned for life to ply the dirty road,
To drag some cart, or bear some carrier's load.
⁠Then how can you, with any sense, expect
That I should be so silly to respect
The ghost of honour perished long ago,
That's quite extinct, and lives no more in you?
Such gaudy trifles with the fools may pass,
Caught with mere show, and vain appearances;

Virtue's the certain mark, by Heaven designed,
That's always stamped upon a noble mind.
If you from such illustrious worthies came,
By copying them your high extract proclaim;
Show us those generous heats of gallantry,
Which ages past did in those worthies see,
That zeal for honour, and that brave disdain,
Which scorned to do an action base or mean:
Do you apply your interest aright,
Not to oppress the poor with wrongful might?
Would you make conscience to pervert the laws,
Though bribed to do't, or urged by your own cause?
Dare you, when justly called, expend your blood
In service for your king's and country's good?
Can you in open field in armour sleep,
And there meet danger in the ghastliest shape?
⁠By such illustrious marks as these, I find,
You're truly issued of a noble kind:
Then fetch your line from Albanact, or Knute,
Or, if these are too fresh, from older Brute;
At leisure search all history to find
Some great and glorious warrior to your mind;
Take Caesar, Alexander, which you please,
To be the mighty founder of your race:
In vain the world your parentage belie,
That was, or should have been, your pedigree.
⁠But, though you could with ease derive your kin
From Hercules himself in a right line,
If yet there nothing in your actions be,
Worthy the name of your high progeny,
All these great ancestors, whom you disgrace,
Against you are a cloud of witnesses;
And all the lustre of their tarnished fame
Serves but to light and manifest your shame.
In vain you urge the merits of your race,
And boast that blood, which you yourself debase;
In vain you borrow, to adorn your name,
The spoils and plunder of another's fame,

If, where I looked for something great and brave,
I meet with nothing but a fool or knave,
A traitor, villain, sycophant, or slave,
A freakish madman, fit to be confined,
Whom Bedlam only can to order bind,
Or, to speak all at once, a barren limb,
And rotten branch of an illustrious stem.
⁠But I am too severe, perhaps you'll think,
And mix too much of satire with my ink;
We speak to men of birth and honour here,
And those nice subjects must be touched with care.
Cry mercy, sirs!⁠Your race, we grant, is known:
But how far backwards can you trace it down?
You answer: For at least a thousand year,
And some odd hundreds, you can make't appear.
'Tis much.⁠But yet, in short, the proofs are clear;
All books with your forefathers' titles shine,
Whose names have 'scaped the general wreck of time;
But who is there so bold, that dares engage
His honour, that, in this long tract of age,
No one of all his ancestors deceased
Had e'er the fate to find a bride unchaste?
That they have all along Lucretias been,
And nothing e'er of spurious blood crept in,
To mingle and defile the sacred line?
⁠Cursed be the day, when first this vanity
Did primitive simplicity destroy,
In the blessed state of infant time, unknown,
When glory sprung from innocence alone;
Each from his merit only title drew,
And that alone made kings, and nobles too;
Then, scorning borrowed helps to prop his name,
The hero from himself derived his fame;
But merit, by degenerate time at last,
Saw vice ennobled, and herself debased;
And haughty pride false pompous titles feigned,
To amuse the world, and lord it o'er mankind.

Thence the vast herd of earls and barons came,
For virtue each brought nothing but a name;
Soon after, man, fruitful in vanities,
Did blazoning and armory devise,
Pounded a college for the herald's art,
And made a language of their terms apart,
Composed of frightful words, of Chief, and Base,
Of Chevron, Saltier, Canton, Bend, and Fesse,
And whatsoe'er of hideous jargon else
Mad Guilliam and his barbarous volume fills.
⁠Then, farther the wild folly to pursue,
Plain downright honour out of fashion grew;
But to keep up its dignity and birth,
Expense and luxury must set it forth:
It must inhabit stately palaces,
Distinguish servants by their liveries,
And, carrying vast retinues up and down,
The duke and earl be by their pages known.
⁠Thus honour to support itself is brought
To its last shifts, and thence the art has got
Of borrowing everywhere, and paying nought.
'Tis now thought mean, and much beneath a lord,
To be an honest man, and keep his word,
Who, by his peerage and protection safe,
Can plead the privilege to be a knave;
While daily crowds of starving creditors
Are forced to dance attendance at his doors;
Till he, at length, with all his mortgaged lands
Are forfeited into the banker's hands.
Then, to redress his wants, the bankrupt peer
To some rich trading sot turns pensioner;
And the next news you're sure to hear, that he
Is nobly wed into the company,
Where for a portion of ill gotten gold,
Himself and all his ancestors are sold;
And thus repairs his broken family,
At the expense of his own infamy.

⁠For if you want estate to set it forth,
In vain you boast the splendour of your birth;
Your prized gentility for madness goes,
And each your kindred shuns and disavows.
But he that's rich is praised at his full rate,
And though he once cried 'Small-coal!' in the street,
Though he, nor one of his e'er mentioned were,
But in the parish-book or register,
Dugdale, by help of chronicle, shall trace
An hundred barons of his ancient race.

John Oldham

John Oldham's other poems:
  1. David's Lamentation for the Death of Saul and Jonathan, Paraphrased
  2. A Dithyrambic
  3. Upon the Works of Ben Jonson
  4. Some Verses on Presenting a Book to Cosmelia
  5. The Praise of Homer

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