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Poem by William Cowper
What virtue, or what mental grace But men unqualified and base Will boast it their possession? Profusion apes the noble part Of liberality of heart, And dulness of discretion. If every polish’d gem we find, Illuminating heart or mind, Provoke to imitation; No wonder friendship does the same, That jewel of the purest flame, Or rather constellation. No knave but boldly will pretend The requisites that form a friend, A real and a sound one; Nor any fool, he would deceive, But prove as ready to believe, And dream that he had found one. Candid, and generous, and just, Boys care but little whom they trust, An error soon corrected— For who but learns in riper years That man, when smoothest he appears, Is most to be suspected? But here again a danger lies, Lest, having misapplied our eyes, And taken trash for treasure, We should unwarily conclude Friendship a false ideal good, A mere Utopian pleasure. An acquisition rather rare Is yet no subject of despair; Nor is it wise complaining, If, either on forbidden ground, Or where it was not to be found, We sought without attaining. No friendship will abide the test, That stands on sordid interest, Or mean self-love erected; Nor such as may awhile subsist Between the sot and sensualist, For vicious ends connected. Who seek a friend should come dispos’d To exhibit, in full bloom disclos’d, The graces and the beauties That form the character he seeks, For ‘tis a union that bespeaks Reciprocated duties. Mutual attention is implied, And equal truth on either side, And constantly supported; ‘Tis senseless arrogance to accuse Another of sinister views, Our own as much distorted. But will sincerity suffice? It is indeed above all price, And must be made the basis; But every virtue of the soul Must constitute the charming whole, All shining in their places. A fretful temper will divide The closest knot that may be tied, By ceaseless sharp corrosion; A temper passionate and fierce May suddenly your joys disperse At one immense explosion. In vain the talkative unite In hopes of permanent delight— The secret just committed, Forgetting its important weight, They drop through mere desire to prate, And by themselves outwitted. How bright soe’er the prospect seems, All thoughts of friendship are but dreams, If envy chance to creep in; An envious man, if you succeed, May prove a dangerous foe indeed, But not a friend worth keeping. As envy pines at good possess’d, So jealously looks forth distress’d On good that seems approaching; And, if success his steps attend, Discerns a rival in a friend, And hates him for encroaching. Hence authors of illustrious name, Unless belied by common fame, Are sadly prone to quarrel, To deem the wit a friend displays A tax upon their own just praise, And pluck each other’s laurel. A man renown’d for repartee Will seldom scruple to make free With friendship’s finest feeling, Will thrust a dagger at your breast, And say he wounded you in jest, By way of balm for healing. Whoever keeps an open ear For tattlers will be sure to hear The trumpet of contention; Aspersion is the babbler’s trade, To listen is to lend him aid, And rush into dissension. A friendship that in frequent fits Of controversial rage emits The sparks of disputation, Like hand-in-hand insurance-plates, Most unavoidably creates The thought of conflagration. Some fickle creatures boast a soul True as a needle to the pole, Their humour yet so various— They manifest their whole life through The needle’s deviations too, Their love is so precarious. The great and small but rarely meet On terms of amity complete; Plebeians must surrender, And yield so much to noble folk, It is combining fire with smoke, Obscurity with splendour. Some are so placid and serene (As Irish bogs are always green), They sleep secure from waking; And are indeed a bog, that bears Your unparticipated cares Unmoved and without quaking. Courtier and patriot cannot mix Their heterogeneous politics Without an effervescence, Like that of salts with lemon juice, Which does not yet like that produce A friendly coalescence. Religion should extinguish strife, And make a calm of human life; But friends that chance to differ On points which God has left at large, How freely will they meet and charge! No combatants are stiffer. To prove at last my main intent Needs no expense of argument, No cutting and contriving— Seeking a real friend, we seem To adopt the chemist’s golden dream, With still less hope of thriving. Sometimes the fault is all our own, Some blemish in due time made known By trespass or omission; Sometimes occasion brings to light Our friend’s defect, long hid from sight, And even from suspicion. Then judge yourself, and prove your man As circumspectly as you can, And, having made election, Beware no negligence of yours, Such as a friend but ill endures, Enfeeble his affection. That secrets are a sacred trust, That friends should be sincere and just, That constancy befits them, Are observations on the case, That savour much of commonplace, And all the world admits them. But ‘tis not timber, lead, and stone, An architect requires alone To finish a fine building— The palace were but half complete, If he could possibly forget The carving and the gilding. The man that hails you Tom or Jack, And proves by thumps upon your back How he esteems your merit, Is such a friend, that one had need Be very much his friend indeed To pardon or to bear it. As similarity of mind, Or something not to be defined, First fixes our attention; So manners decent and polite, The same we practised at first sight, Must save it from declension. Some act upon this prudent plan, “Say little, and hear all you can.” Safe policy, but hateful— So barren sands imbibe the shower, But render neither fruit nor flower, Unpleasant and ungrateful. The man I trust, if shy to me, Shall find me as reserved as he, No subterfuge or pleading Shall win my confidence again; I will by no means entertain A spy on my proceeding. These samples—for, alas! at last These are but samples, and a taste Of evils yet unmention’d— May prove the task a task indeed, In which ‘tis much if we succeed, However well intention’d. Pursue the search, and you will find Good sense and knowledge of mankind To be at least expedient, And, after summing all the rest, Religion ruling in the breast A principal ingredient. The noblest Friendship ever shown The Saviour’s history makes known, Though some have turn’d and turn’d it; And, whether being crazed or blind, Or seeking with a biass’d mind, Have not, it seems, discern’d it. O Friendship! if my soul forego Thy dear delights while here below, To mortify and grieve me, May I myself at last appear Unworthy, base, and insincere, Or may my friend deceive me!
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