If from great nature’s or our own abyss
Of thought we could but snatch a certainty,
Perhaps mankind might find the path they miss—
But then ‘t would spoil much good philosophy.
One system eats another up, and this
Much as old Saturn ate his progeny;
For when his pious consort gave him stones
In lieu of sons, of these he made no bones.
But System doth reverse the Titan’s breakfast,
And eats her parents, albeit the digestion
Is difficult. Pray tell me, can you make fast,
After due search, your faith to any question?
Look back o’er ages, ere unto the stake fast
You bind yourself, and call some mode the best one.
Nothing more true than not to trust your senses;
And yet what are your other evidences?
For me, I know nought; nothing I deny,
Admit, reject, contemn; and what know you,
Except perhaps that you were born to die?
And both may after all turn out untrue.
An age may come, Font of Eternity,
When nothing shall be either old or new.
Death, so call’d, is a thing which makes men weep,
And yet a third of life is pass’d in sleep.
A sleep without dreams, after a rough day
Of toil, is what we covet most; and yet
How clay shrinks back from more quiescent clay!
The very Suicide that pays his debt
At once without instalments (an old way
Of paying debts, which creditors regret)
Lets out impatiently his rushing breath,
Less from disgust of life than dread of death.
‘T is round him, near him, here, there, every where;
And there ‘s a courage which grows out of fear,
Perhaps of all most desperate, which will dare
The worst to know it:—when the mountains rear
Their peaks beneath your human foot, and there
You look down o’er the precipice, and drear
The gulf of rock yawns,—you can’t gaze a minute
Without an awful wish to plunge within it.
‘T is true, you don’t—but, pale and struck with terror,
Retire: but look into your past impression!
And you will find, though shuddering at the mirror
Of your own thoughts, in all their self-confession,
The lurking bias, be it truth or error,
To the unknown; a secret prepossession,
To plunge with all your fears—but where? You know not,
And that’s the reason why you do—or do not.
But what ‘s this to the purpose? you will say.
Gent. reader, nothing; a mere speculation,
For which my sole excuse is—‘t is my way;
Sometimes with and sometimes without occasion
I write what ‘s uppermost, without delay:
This narrative is not meant for narration,
But a mere airy and fantastic basis,
To build up common things with common places.
You know, or don’t know, that great Bacon saith,
‘Fling up a straw, ‘t will show the way the wind blows;'
And such a straw, borne on by human breath,
Is poesy, according as the mind glows;
A paper kite which flies ‘twixt life and death,
A shadow which the onward soul behind throws:
And mine ‘s a bubble, not blown up for praise,
But just to play with, as an infant plays.
The world is all before me—or behind;
For I have seen a portion of that same,
And quite enough for me to keep in mind;—
Of passions, too, I have proved enough to blame,
To the great pleasure of our friends, mankind,
Who like to mix some slight alloy with fame;
For I was rather famous in my time,
Until I fairly knock’d it up with rhyme.
I have brought this world about my ears, and eke
The other; that ‘s to say, the clergy, who
Upon my head have bid their thunders break
In pious libels by no means a few.
And yet I can’t help scribbling once a week,
Tiring old readers, nor discovering new.
In youth I wrote because my mind was full,
And now because I feel it growing dull.
But ‘why then publish?'—There are no rewards
Of fame or profit when the world grows weary.
I ask in turn,—Why do you play at cards?
Why drink? Why read?—To make some hour less dreary.
It occupies me to turn back regards
On what I ‘ve seen or ponder’d, sad or cheery;
And what I write I cast upon the stream,
To swim or sink—I have had at least my dream.
I think that were I certain of success,
I hardly could compose another line:
So long I ‘ve battled either more or less,
That no defeat can drive me from the Nine.
This feeling ‘t is not easy to express,
And yet ‘t is not affected, I opine.
In play, there are two pleasures for your choosing—
The one is winning, and the other losing.
Besides, my Muse by no means deals in fiction:
She gathers a repertory of facts,
Of course with some reserve and slight restriction,
But mostly sings of human things and acts—
And that ‘s one cause she meets with contradiction;
For too much truth, at first sight, ne’er attracts;
And were her object only what ‘s call’d glory,
With more ease too she ‘d tell a different story.
Love, war, a tempest—surely there ‘s variety;
Also a seasoning slight of lucubration;
A bird’s-eye view, too, of that wild, Society;
A slight glance thrown on men of every station.
If you have nought else, here ‘s at least satiety
Both in performance and in preparation;
And though these lines should only line portmanteaus,
Trade will be all the better for these Cantos.
The portion of this world which I at present
Have taken up to fill the following sermon,
Is one of which there ‘s no description recent.
The reason why is easy to determine:
Although it seems both prominent and pleasant,
There is a sameness in its gems and ermine,
A dull and family likeness through all ages,
Of no great promise for poetic pages.
With much to excite, there ‘s little to exalt;
Nothing that speaks to all men and all times;
A sort of varnish over every fault;
A kind of common-place, even in their crimes;
Factitious passions, wit without much salt,
A want of that true nature which sublimes
Whate’er it shows with truth; a smooth monotony
Of character, in those at least who have got any.
Sometimes, indeed, like soldiers off parade,
They break their ranks and gladly leave the drill;
But then the roll-call draws them back afraid,
And they must be or seem what they were: still
Doubtless it is a brilliant masquerade;
But when of the first sight you have had your fill,
It palls—at least it did so upon me,
This paradise of pleasure and ennui.
When we have made our love, and gamed our gaming,
Drest, voted, shone, and, may be, something more;
With dandies dined; heard senators declaiming;
Seen beauties brought to market by the score,
Sad rakes to sadder husbands chastely taming;
There ‘s little left but to be bored or bore.
Witness those ‘ci-devant jeunes hommes’ who stem
The stream, nor leave the world which leaveth them.
‘T is said—indeed a general complaint—
That no one has succeeded in describing
The monde, exactly as they ought to paint:
Some say, that authors only snatch, by bribing
The porter, some slight scandals strange and quaint,
To furnish matter for their moral gibing;
And that their books have but one style in common—
My lady’s prattle, filter’d through her woman.
But this can’t well be true, just now; for writers
Are grown of the beau monde a part potential:
I ‘ve seen them balance even the scale with fighters,
Especially when young, for that ‘s essential.
Why do their sketches fail them as inditers
Of what they deem themselves most consequential,
The real portrait of the highest tribe?
‘T is that, in fact, there ‘s little to describe.
‘Haud ignara loquor;' these are Nugae, ‘quarum
Pars parva fui,' but still art and part.
Now I could much more easily sketch a harem,
A battle, wreck, or history of the heart,
Than these things; and besides, I wish to spare ‘em,
For reasons which I choose to keep apart.
‘Vetabo Cereris sacrum qui vulgarit—'
Which means that vulgar people must not share it.
And therefore what I throw off is ideal—
Lower’d, leaven’d, like a history of freemasons;
Which bears the same relation to the real,
As Captain Parry’s voyage may do to Jason’s.
The grand arcanum ‘s not for men to see all;
My music has some mystic diapasons;
And there is much which could not be appreciated
In any manner by the uninitiated.
Alas! worlds fall—and woman, since she fell’d
The world (as, since that history less polite
Than true, hath been a creed so strictly held)
Has not yet given up the practice quite.
Poor thing of usages! coerced, compell’d,
Victim when wrong, and martyr oft when right,
Condemn’d to child-bed, as men for their sins
Have shaving too entail’d upon their chins,—
A daily plague, which in the aggregate
May average on the whole with parturition.
But as to women, who can penetrate
The real sufferings of their she condition?
Man’s very sympathy with their estate
Has much of selfishness, and more suspicion.
Their love, their virtue, beauty, education,
But form good housekeepers, to breed a nation.
All this were very well, and can’t be better;
But even this is difficult, Heaven knows,
So many troubles from her birth beset her,
Such small distinction between friends and foes,
The gilding wears so soon from off her fetter,
That—but ask any woman if she’d choose
(Take her at thirty, that is) to have been
Female or male? a schoolboy or a queen?
‘Petticoat influence’ is a great reproach,
Which even those who obey would fain be thought
To fly from, as from hungry pikes a roach;
But since beneath it upon earth we are brought,
By various joltings of life’s hackney coach,
I for one venerate a petticoat—
A garment of a mystical sublimity,
No matter whether russet, silk, or dimity.
Much I respect, and much I have adored,
In my young days, that chaste and goodly veil,
Which holds a treasure, like a miser’s hoard,
And more attracts by all it doth conceal—
A golden scabbard on a Damasque sword,
A loving letter with a mystic seal,
A cure for grief—for what can ever rankle
Before a petticoat and peeping ankle?
And when upon a silent, sullen day,
With a sirocco, for example, blowing,
When even the sea looks dim with all its spray,
And sulkily the river’s ripple ‘s flowing,
And the sky shows that very ancient gray,
The sober, sad antithesis to glowing,—
‘T is pleasant, if then any thing is pleasant,
To catch a glimpse even of a pretty peasant.
We left our heroes and our heroines
In that fair clime which don’t depend on climate,
Quite independent of the Zodiac’s signs,
Though certainly more difficult to rhyme at,
Because the sun, and stars, and aught that shines,
Mountains, and all we can be most sublime at,
Are there oft dull and dreary as a dun—
Whether a sky’s or tradesman’s is all one.
An in-door life is less poetical;
And out of door hath showers, and mists, and sleet,
With which I could not brew a pastoral.
But be it as it may, a bard must meet
All difficulties, whether great or small,
To spoil his undertaking or complete,
And work away like spirit upon matter,
Embarrass’d somewhat both with fire and water.
photo is by Erwin Olaf, "Pearls (Square)" (1999)
Steely Dan, "Show Biz Kids"