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Poem by John Donne
To the Countess of Bedford, on New Year’s Day
THIS twilight of two years, not past, nor next, Some emblem is of me, or I of this; Who—meteor-like, of stuff and form perplex’d, Whose what and where in disputation is— If I should call me anything, should miss. I sum the years, and me, and find me not Debtor to th’ old, nor creditor to th’ new. That cannot say, “My thanks I have forgot,” Nor trust I this with hopes; and yet scarce true This bravery is, since these times show’d me you. In recompense I would show future times What you were, and teach them to urge towards such. Verse embalms virtue; and tombs, or thrones, of rhymes Preserve frail transitory fame, as much As spice doth bodies from corrupt airs’ touch. Mine are short-lived; the tincture of your name Creates in them, but dissipates as fast, New spirits; 1 for strong agents with the same Force, that doth warm and cherish us, do waste; Kept hot with strong extracts, no bodies last. So, my verse, built of your just praise, might want Reason and likelihood, the firmest base; And made of miracle, now faith is scant, Will vanish soon, and so possess no place; And you, and it, too much grace might disgrace. When all—as truth commands assent—confess All truth of you, yet they will doubt how I —One corn of one low ant-hill’s dust, and less— Should name, know, or express a thing so high, And—not an inch—measure infinity. I cannot tell them, nor myself, nor you, But leave, lest truth be endanger’d by my praise, And turn to God, who knows I think this true, And useth oft, when such a heart mis-says, To make it good, for such a praiser prays. He will best teach you, how you should lay out His stock of beauty, learning, favour, blood; He will perplex security with doubt, And clear those doubts; hide from you, and show you good; And so increase your appetite and food. He will teach you, that good and bad have not One latitude in cloisters, and in court; Indifferent there the greatest space hath got; Some pity ’s not good there; some vain disport, On this side sin, with that place may comport. Yet He, as He bounds seas, will fix your hours, Which pleasure and delight may not ingress; And, though what none else lost be truliest yours, He will make you, what you did not, possess, By using others’ (not vice, but) weakness. He will make you speak truths, and credibly, And make you doubt that others do not so; He will provide you keys, and locks, to spy, And ’scape spies, to good ends, and He will show What you may not acknowledge, what not know. For your own conscience, He gives innocence, But, for your fame, a discreet wariness; And—though to ’scape, than to revenge offence Be better—He shows both, and to repress Joy, when your state swells, sadness, when ’tis less. From need of tears He will defend your soul, Or make a re-baptizing of one tear; He cannot—that ’s, He will not—dis-enroll Your name; and when with active joy we hear This private gospel, then ’tis our New Year.
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