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[THE TASK, A POEM, IN SIX BOOKS.]

ARGUMENT of the FOURTH BOOK.

The post comes in. The news-paper is read. The world contemplated at a distance. Address to Winter. The amusements of a rural winter evening compared with the fashionable ones. Address to evening. A brown study. Fall of snow in the evening. The waggoner A poor family piece. The rural thief. Public houses. The multitude of them censured. The farmer's daughter, what she was. What she is. The simplicity of country manners almost lost. Causes of the change. Desertion of the country by the rich. Neglect of magistrates. The militia principally in fault. The new recruit and his transformation. Reflection on bodies corporate. The love of rural objects natural to all, and never to be totally extinguished.

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BOOK IV.

THE WINTER EVENING.

1 HARK! 'tis the twanging horn! o'er yonder bridge
2 That with its wearisome but needful length
3 Bestrides the wintry flood, in which the moon
4 Sees her unwrinkled face reflected bright,
5 He comes, the herald of a noisy world,
6 With spatter'd boots, strapp'd waist, and frozen locks,
7 News from all nations lumb'ring at his back.
8 True to his charge the close-pack'd load behind,
9 Yet careless what he brings, his one concern
10 Is to conduct it to the destin'd inn,
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11 And having dropp'd th' expected bag pass on.
12 He whistles as he goes, light-hearted wretch,
13 Cold and yet cheerful: messenger of grief
14 Perhaps to thousands, and of joy to some,
15 To him indiff'rent whether grief or joy.
16 Houses in ashes, and the fall of stocks,
17 Births, deaths, and marriages, epistles wet
18 With tears that trickled down the writers cheeks
19 Fast as the periods from his fluent quill,
20 Or charged with am'rous sighs of absent swains
21 Or nymphs responsive, equally affect
22 His horse and him, unconscious of them all.
23 But oh th' important budget! usher'd in
24 With such heart-shaking music, who can say
25 What are its tidings? have our troops awaked?
26 Or do they still, as if with opium drugg'd,
27 Snore to the murmurs of th' Atlantic wave?
28 Is India free? and does she wear her plumed
29 And jewelled turban with a smile of peace,
30 Or do we grind her still? the grand debate,
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31 The popular harrangue, the tart reply,
32 The logic and the wisdom and the wit
33 And the loud laugh I long to know them all;
34 I burn to set th' imprison'd wranglers free,
35 And give them voice and utt'rance once again.
36 Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
37 Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
38 And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
39 Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
40 That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
41 So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
42 Not such his evening, who with shining face
43 Sweats in the crowded theatre, and squeezed
44 And bored with elbow-points through both his sides,
45 Out scolds the ranting actor on the stage.
46 Nor his, who patient stands 'till his feet throb
47 And his head thumps, to feed upon the breath
48 Of patriots bursting with heroic rage,
49 Or placemen, all tranquillity and smiles.
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50 'This folio of four pages, happy work!
51 Which not ev'n critics criticise, that holds
52 Inquisitive attention while I read
53 Fast bound in chains of silence, which the fair,
54 Though eloquent themselves, yet fear to break,
55 What is it but a map of busy life
56 Its fluctuations and its vast concerns?
57 Here runs the mountainous and craggy ridge
58 That tempts ambition. On the summit, see,
59 The seals of office glitter in his eyes;
60 He climbs, he pants, he grasps them. At his heels,
61 Close at his heels a demagogue ascends,
62 And with a dext'rous jerk soon twists him down
63 And wins them, but to lose them in his turn.
64 Here rills of oily eloquence in soft
65 Maeanders lubricate the course they take;
66 The modest speaker is ashamed and grieved
67 T' engross a moment's notice, and yet begs,
68 Begs a propitious ear for his poor thoughts,
69 However trivial all that he conceives.
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70 Sweet bashfulness! it claims, at least, this praise,
71 The dearth of information and good sense
72 That it foretells us, always comes to pass.
73 Cataracts of declamation thunder here,
74 There forests of no-meaning spread the page
75 In which all comprehension wanders lost;
76 While fields of pleasantry amuse us there,
77 With merry descants on a nation's woes.
78 The rest appears a wilderness of strange
79 But gay confusion, roses for the cheeks
80 And lilies for the brows of faded age,
81 Teeth for the toothless, ringlets for the bald,
82 Heav'n, earth, and ocean plunder'd of their sweets,
83 Nectareous essences, Olympian dews,
84 Sermons and city feasts and fav'rite airs,
85 Aetherial journies, submarine exploits,
86 And Katterfelto with his hair on end
87 At his own wonders, wond'ring for his bread.
88 Tis pleasant through the loop-holes of retreat
89 To peep at such a world. To see the stir
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90 Of the great Babel and not feel the crowd.
91 To hear the roar she sends through all her gates
92 At a safe distance, where the dying sound
93 Falls a soft murmur on th' uninjured ear.
94 Thus sitting and surveying thus at ease
95 The globe and its concerns, I seem advanced
96 To some secure and more than mortal height,
97 That lib'rates and exempts me from them all.
98 It turns submitted to my view, turns round
99 With all its generations; I behold
100 The tumult and am still. The sound of war
101 Has lost its terrors 'ere it reaches me,
102 Grieves but alarms me not. I mourn the pride
103 And av'rice that make man a wolf to man,
104 Hear the faint echo of those brazen throats
105 By which he speaks the language of his heart,
106 And sigh, but never tremble at the sound.
107 He travels and expatiates, as the bee
108 From flow'r to flow'r, so he from land to land;
109 The manners, customs, policy of all
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110 Pay contribution to the store he gleans,
111 He sucks intelligence in ev'ry clime,
112 And spreads the honey of his deep research
113 At his return, a rich repast for me.
114 He travels and I too. I tread his deck,
115 Ascend his topmast, through his peering eyes
116 Discover countries, with a kindred heart
117 Suffer his woes and share in his escapes,
118 While fancy, like the finger of a clock,
119 Runs the great circuit, and is still at home.
120 Oh Winter! ruler of th' inverted year,
121 Thy scatter'd hair with sleet like ashes fill'd,
122 Thy breath congeal'd upon thy lips, thy cheeks
123 Fring'd with a beard made white with other snows
124 Than those of age; thy forehead wrapt in clouds,
125 A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne
126 A sliding car indebted to no wheels,
127 But urged by storms along its slipp'ry way;
128 I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem'st,
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129 And dreaded as thou art. Thou hold'st the sun
130 A pris'ner in the yet undawning East,
131 Short'ning his journey between morn and noon,
132 And hurrying him impatient of his stay
133 Down to the rosy West. But kindly still
134 Compensating his loss with added hours
135 Of social converse and instructive ease,
136 And gathering at short notice in one group
137 The family dispersed, and fixing thought
138 Not less dispersed by day light and its cares.
139 I crown thee King of intimate delights,
140 Fireside enjoyments, home-born happiness,
141 And all the comforts that the lowly roof
142 Of undisturb'd retirement, and the hours
143 Of long uninterrupted evening know.
144 No ratt'ling wheels stop short before these gates.
145 No powder'd pert proficient in the art
146 Of sounding an alarm, assaults these doors
147 'Till the street rings. No stationary steeds
148 Cough their own knell, while heedless of the sound
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149 The silent circle fan themselves, and quake.
150 But here the needle plies its busy task,
151 The pattern grows, the well-depicted flow'r
152 Wrought patiently into the snowy lawn
153 Unfolds its bosom, buds and leaves and sprigs
154 And curling tendrils, gracefully disposed,
155 Follow the nimble finger of the fair,
156 A wreath that cannot fade, of flow'rs that blow
157 With most success when all besides decay.
158 The poet's or historian's page, by one
159 Made vocal for th' amusement of the rest;
160 The sprightly lyre, whose treasure of sweet sounds
161 The touch from many a trembling chord shakes out;
162 And the clear voice symphonious, yet distinct,
163 And in the charming strife triumphant still,
164 Beguile the night, and set a keener edge
165 On female industry; the threaded steel
166 Flies swiftly, and unfelt the task proceeds,
167 The volume closed, the customary rites
168 Of the last meal commence. A Roman meal.
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169 Such as the mistress of the world once found
170 Delicious, when her patriots of high note,
171 Perhaps by moonlight, at their humble doors,
172 And under an old oak's domestic shade
173 Enjoyed, spare feast! a radish and an egg.
174 Discourse ensues, not trivial, yet not dull,
175 Nor such as with a frown forbids the play
176 Of fancy, or proscribes the sound of mirth.
177 Nor do we madly, like an impious world,
178 Who deem religion frenzy, and the God
179 That made them an intruder on their joys,
180 Start at his awful name, or deem his praise
181 A jarring note. Themes of a graver tone
182 Exciting oft our gratitude and love,
183 While we retrace with mem'ry's pointing wand
184 That calls the past to our exact review,
185 The dangers we have scaped, the broken snare,
186 The disappointed foe, deliv'rance found
187 Unlook'd for, life preserved and peace restored,
188 Fruits of omnipotent eternal love.
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189 Oh evenings worthy of the Gods! exclaim'd
190 The Sabine bard. Oh evenings, I reply,
191 More to be prized and coveted than yours,
192 As more illumin'd and with nobler truths,
193 That I and mine and those we love, enjoy.
194 Is winter hideous in a garb like this?
195 Needs he the tragic fur, the smoke of lamps,
196 The pent-up breath of an unsav'ry throng
197 To thaw him into feeling, or the smart
198 And snappish dialogue that flippant wits
199 Call comedy, to prompt him with a smile?
200 The self-complacent actor when he views
201 (Stealing a side long glance at a full house)
202 The slope of faces from the floor to th' roof,
203 (As if one master-spring controul'd them all)
204 Relax'd into an universal grin,
205 Sees not a count'nance there that speaks a joy
206 Half so refin'd or so sincere as ours.
207 Cards were superfluous here, with all the tricks
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208 That idleness has ever yet contrived
209 To fill the void of an unfurnish'd brain,
210 To palliate dullness and give time a shove.
211 Time as he passes us, has a dove's wing,
212 Unsoiled and swift and of a silken sound.
213 But the world's time, is time in masquerade.
214 Theirs, should I paint him, has his pinions fledg'd
215 With motley plumes, and where the peacock shows
216 His azure eyes, is tinctured black and red
217 With spots quadrangular of di'mond form,
218 Ensanguin'd hearts, clubs typical of strife,
219 And spades, the emblem of untimely graves.
220 What should be, and what was an hour-glass once
221 Becomes a dice-box, and a billiard mast
222 Well does the work of his destructive scythe.
223 Thus deck'd he charms a world whom fashion blinds
224 To his true worth, most pleas'd when idle most,
225 Whose only happy are their wasted hours.
226 Ev'n misses, at whose age their mother's wore
227 The back-string and the bib, assume the dress
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228 Of womanhood, sit pupils in the school
229 Of card-devoted time, and night by night
230 Plac'd at some vacant corner of the board,
231 Learn ev'ry trick, and soon play all the game.
232 But truce with censure. Roving as I rove,
233 Where shall I find an end, or how proceed?
234 As he that travels far, oft turns aside
235 To view some rugged rock or mould'ring tow'r,
236 Which seen delights him not; then coming home,
237 Describes and prints it, that the world may know
238 How far he went for what was nothing worth;
239 So I with brush in hand and pallet spread
240 With colours mixt for a far diff'rent use,
241 Paint cards and dolls, and ev'ry idle thing
242 That fancy finds in her excursive flights.
243 Come evening once again, season of peace,
244 Return sweet evening, and continue long!
245 Methinks I see thee in the streaky west,
246 With matron-step slow-moving, while the night
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247 Treads on thy sweeping train; one hand employ'd
248 In letting fall the curtain of repose
249 On bird and beast, the other charged for man
250 With sweet oblivion of the cares of day;
251 Not sumptuously adorn'd, nor needing aid
252 Like homely featur'd night, of clust'ring gems,
253 A star or two just twinkling on thy brow
254 Suffices thee; save that the moon is thine
255 No less than hers, not worn indeed on high
256 With ostentatious pageantry, but set
257 With modest grandeur in thy purple zone,
258 Resplendent less, but of an ampler round.
259 Come then, and thou shalt find thy vot'try calm
260 Or make me so. Composure is thy gift.
261 And whether I devote thy gentle hours
262 To books, to music, or the poets toil,
263 To weaving nets for bird-alluring fruit;
264 Or twining silken threads round iv'ry reels
265 When they command whom man was born to please,
266 I slight thee not, but make thee welcome still.
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267 Just when our drawing-rooms begin to blaze
268 With lights by clear reflection multiplied
269 From many a mirrour, in which he of Gath
270 Goliah, might have seen his giant bulk
271 Whole without stooping, tow'ring crest and all,
272 My pleasures too begin. But me perhaps
273 The glowing hearth may satisfy awhile
274 With faint illumination that uplifts
275 The shadow to the cieling, there by fits
276 Dancing uncouthly to the quiv'ring flame.
277 Not undelightful is an hour to me
278 So spent in parlour twilight; such a gloom
279 Suits well the thoughtfull or unthinking mind,
280 The mind contemplative, with some new theme
281 Pregnant, or indisposed alike to all.
282 Laugh ye, who boast your more mercurial pow'rs
283 That never feel a stupor, know no pause
284 Nor need one. I am conscious, and confess
285 Fearless, a soul that does not always think.
286 Me oft has fancy ludicrous and wild
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287 Sooth'd with a waking dream of houses, tow'rs,
288 Trees, churches, and strange visages express'd
289 In the red cinders, while with poring eye
290 I gazed, myself creating what I saw.
291 Nor less amused have I quiescent watch'd
292 The sooty films that play upon the bars
293 Pendulous, and foreboding in the view
294 Of superstition prophesying still
295 Though still deceived, some strangers near approach.
296 'Tis thus the understanding takes repose
297 In indolent vacuity of thought,
298 And sleeps and is refresh'd. Meanwhile the face
299 Conceals the mood lethargic with a mask
300 Of deep deliberation, as the man
301 Were task'd to his full strength, absorb'd and lost.
302 Thus oft reclin'd at ease, I lose an hour
303 At evening, till at length the freezing blast
304 That sweeps the bolted shutter, summons home
305 The recollected powers, and snapping short
306 The glassy threads with which the fancy weaves
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307 Her brittle toys, restores me to myself.
308 How calm is my recess, and how the frost
309 Raging abroad, and the rough wind, endear
310 The silence and the warmth enjoy'd within.
311 I saw the woods and fields at close of day
312 A variegated show; the meadows green
313 Though faded, and the lands where lately waved
314 The golden harvest, of a mellow brown,
315 Upturn'd so lately by the forceful share.
316 I saw far off the weedy fallows smile
317 With verdure not unprofitable, grazed
318 By flocks fast feeding and selecting each
319 His fav'rite herb; while all the leafless groves
320 That skirt th' horizon wore a sable hue,
321 Scarce noticed in the kindred dusk of eve.
322 To-morrow brings a change, a total change!
323 Which even now, though silently perform'd
324 And slowly, and by most unfelt, the face
325 Of universal nature undergoes.
326 Fast falls a fleecy show'r. The downy flakes
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327 Descending and with never-ceasing lapse
328 Softly alighting upon all below,
329 Assimilate all objects. Earth receives
330 Gladly the thick'ning mantle, and the green
331 And tender blade that fear'd the chilling blast,
332 Escapes unhurt beneath so warm a veil.
333 In such a world, so thorny, and where none
334 Finds happiness unblighted, or if sound,
335 Without some thistly sorrow at its side,
336 It seems the part of wisdom, and no sin
337 Against the law of love, to measure lots
338 With less distinguish'd than ourselves, that thus
339 We may with patience bear our mod'rate ills,
340 And sympathize with others, suffering more.
341 Ill fares the trav'ller now, and he that stalks
342 In pond'rous boots beside his reeking team.
343 The wain goes heavily, impeded sore
344 By congregated loads adhering close
345 To the clogg'd wheels; and in its sluggish pace
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346 Noiseless, appears a moving hill of snow.
347 The toiling steeds expand the nostril wide,
348 While ev'ry breath by respiration strong
349 Forced downward, is consolidated soon
350 Upon their jutting chests. He, form'd to bear
351 The pelting brunt of the tempestuous night,
352 With half-shut eyes and pucker'd cheeks, and teeth
353 Presented bare against the storm, plods on.
354 One hand secures his hat, save when with both
355 He brandishes his pliant length of whip,
356 Resounding oft, and never heard in vain.
357 On happy! and in my account, denied
358 That sensibility of pain with which
359 Refinement is endued, thrice happy thou.
360 Thy frame robust and hardy, feels indeed
361 The piercing cold, but feels it unimpair'd.
362 The learned finger never need explore
363 Thy vig'rous pulse, and the unhealthful East,
364 That breathes the spleen, and searches ev'ry bone
365 Of the infirm, is wholesome air to thee.
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366 Thy days roll on exempt from household care,
367 Thy waggon is thy wife; and the poor beasts
368 That drag the dull companion to and fro,
369 Thine helpless charge, dependent on thy care.
370 Ah treat them kindly! rude as thou appear'st
371 Yet show that thou hast mercy, which the great
372 With needless hurry whirl'd from place to place,
373 Humane as they would seem, not always show.
374 Poor, yet industrious, modest, quiet, neat,
375 Such claim compassion in a night like this,
376 And have a friend in ev'ry feeling heart.
377 Warm'd, while it lasts, by labor, all day long
378 They brave the season, and yet find at eve
379 Ill clad and fed but sparely time to cool.
380 The frugal housewife trembles when she lights
381 Her scanty stock of brush-wood, blazing clear
382 But dying soon, like all terrestrial joys.
383 The few small embers left she nurses well,
384 And while her infant race with outspread hands
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385 And crowded knees sit cow'ring o'er the sparks,
386 Retires, content to quake, so they be warm'd.
387 The man feels least, as more inur'd than she
388 To winter, and the current in his veins
389 More briskly moved by his severer toil;
390 Yet he too finds his own distress in theirs.
391 The taper soon extinguished, which I saw
392 Dangled along at the cold fingers end
393 Just when the day declined, and the brown loaf
394 Lodged on the shelf half-eaten without sauce
395 Of sav'ry cheese, or butter costlier still,
396 Sleep seems their only refuge. For alas!
397 Where penury is felt the thought is chain'd,
398 And sweet colloquial pleasures are but few.
399 With all this thrift they thrive not. All the care
400 Ingenious parsimony takes, but just
401 Saves the small inventory, bed and stool,
402 Skillet and old carved chest from public sale,
403 They live, and live without extorted alms
404 From grudging hands, but other boast have none
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405 To sooth their honest pride that scorns to beg,
406 Nor comfort else, but in their mutual love.
407 I praise you much, ye meek and patient pair,
408 For ye are worthy; chusing rather far
409 A dry but independent crust, hard-earn'd
410 And eaten with a sigh, than to endure
411 The rugged frowns and insolent rebuffs
412 Of knaves in office, partial in the work
413 Of distribution; lib'ral of their aid
414 To clam'rous importunity in rags,
415 But oft-times deaf to suppliants who would blush
416 To wear a tatter'd garb however coarse,
417 Whom famine cannot reconcile to filth;
418 These ask with painful shyness, and refused
419 Because deserving, silently retire.
420 But be ye of good courage. Time itself
421 Shall much befriend you. Time shall give increase,
422 And all your num'rous progeny well train'd
423 But helpless, in few years shall find their hands,
424 And labor too. Meanwhile ye shall not want
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425 What conscious of your virtues we can spare,
426 Nor what a wealthier than ourselves may send.
427 I mean the man, who when the distant poor
428 Need help, denies them nothing but his name.
429 But poverty with most who whimper forth
430 Their long complaints, is self inflicted woe,
431 Th' effect of laziness or sottish waste.
432 Now goes the nightly thief prowling abroad
433 For plunder; much solicitous how best
434 He may compensate for a day of sloth,
435 By works of darkness and nocturnal wrong.
436 Woe to the gard'ner's pale, the farmer's hedge
437 Plash'd neatly, and secured with driven stakes
438 Deep in the loamy bank. Uptorn by strength
439 Resistless in so bad a cause, but lame
440 To better deeds, he bundles up the spoil
441 An asses burthen, and when laden most
442 And heaviest, light of foot steals fast away.
443 Nor does the boarded hovel better guard
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444 The well stack'd pile of riven logs and roots
445 From his pernicious force. Nor will he leave
446 Unwrench'd the door however well secured,
447 Where chanticleer amidst his haram sleeps
448 In unsuspecting pomp. Twitched from the perch
449 He gives the princely bird with all his wives
450 To his voracious bag, struggling in vain,
451 And loudly wond'ring at the sudden change.
452 Nor this to feed his own. 'Twere some excuse
453 Did pity of their sufferings warp aside
454 His principle, and tempt him into sin
455 For their support, so destitute. But they
456 Neglected pine at home, themselves, as more
457 Exposed than others, with less scruple made
458 His victims, robb'd of their defenceless all.
459 Cruel is all he does. 'Tis quenchless thirst
460 Of ruinous ebriety that prompts
461 His ev'ry action and imbrutes the man.
462 Oh for a law to noose the villain's neck
463 Who starves his own. Who persecutes the blood
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464 He gave them in his childrens veins, and hates
465 And wrongs the woman he has sworn to love.
466 Pass where we may, through city or through town,
467 Village or hamlet of this merry land
468 Though lean and beggar'd, ev'ry twentieth pace
469 Conducts the unguarded nose to such a whiff
470 Of stale debauch forth-issuing from the styes
471 That law has licensed, as makes temp'rance reel.
472 There sit involved and lost in curling clouds
473 Of Indian fume, and guzzling deep, the boor,
474 The lacquey and the groom. The craftsman there
475 Takes a Lethaean leave of all his toil;
476 Smith, cobler, joiner, he that plies the sheers,
477 And he that kneads the dough; all loud alike,
478 All learned, and all drunk. The fiddle screams
479 Plaintive and piteous, as it wept and wailed
480 Its wasted tones and harmony unheard:
481 Fierce the dispute whate'er the theme. While she,
482 Fell Discord, arbitress of such debate,
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483 Perch'd on the sign-post, holds with even hand
484 Her undecisive scales. In this she lays
485 A weight of ignorance, in that, of pride,
486 And smiles delighted with th' eternal poise.
487 Dire is the frequent curse and its twin sound
488 The cheek-distending oath, not to be praised
489 As ornamental, musical, polite,
490 Like those which modern senators employ,
491 Whose oath is rhet'ric, and who swear for fame.
492 Behold the schools in which plebeian minds,
493 Once simple, are initiated in arts
494 Which some may practise with politer grace,
495 But none with readier skill! tis here they learn
496 The road that leads from competence and peace
497 To indigence and rapine; till at last
498 Society grown weary of the load,
499 Shakes her incumber'd lap, and casts them out.
500 But censure profits little. Vain th' attempt
501 To advertize in verse a public pest,
502 That like the filth with which the peasant feeds
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503 His hungry acres, stinks and is of use.
504 Th' excise is fatten'd with the rich result
505 Of all this riot. And ten thousand casks
506 For ever dribbling out their base contents,
507 Touched by the Midas finger of the state,
508 Bleed gold for Ministers to sport away.
509 Drink and be mad then. 'Tis your country bids.
510 Gloriously drunk obey th' important call,
511 Her cause demands th' assistance of your throats,
512 Ye all can swallow, and she asks no more.
513 Would I had fall'n upon those happier days
514 That poets celebrate. Those golden times
515 And those Arcadian scenes that Maro sings,
516 And Sydney, warbler of poetic prose.
517 Nymphs were Dianas then, and swains had hearts
518 That felt their virtues. Innocence it seems,
519 From courts dismiss'd, found shelter in the groves.
520 The footsteps of simplicity impress'd
521 Upon the yielding herbage (so they sing)
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522 Then were not all effaced. Then, speech profane
523 And manners profligate were rarely found,
524 Observed as prodigies, and soon reclaim'd.
525 Vain wish! those days were never. Airy dreams
526 Sat for the picture. And the poet's hand
527 Imparting substance to an empty shade,
528 Imposed a gay delirium for a truth.
529 Grant it. I still must envy them an age
530 That favor'd such a dream, in days like these
531 Impossible, when virtue is so scarce
532 That to suppose a scene where she presides,
533 Is tramontane, and stumbles all belief.
534 No. We are polish'd now. The rural lass
535 Whom once her virgin modesty and grace,
536 Her artless manners and her neat attire
537 So dignified, that she was hardly less
538 Than the fair shepherdess of old romance,
539 Is seen no more. The character is lost.
540 Her head adorn'd with lappets pinn'd aloft
541 And ribbands streaming gay, superbly raised
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542 And magnified beyond all human size,
543 Indebted to some smart wig-weavers hand
544 For more than half the tresses it sustains;
545 Her elbows ruffled, and her tott'ring form
546 Ill propp'd upon French heels; she might be deemed
547 (But that the basket dangling on her arm
548 Interprets her more truely) of a rank
549 Too proud for dairy-work or sale of eggs.
550 Expect her soon with foot-boy at her heels,
551 No longer blushing for her aukward load,
552 Her train and her umbrella all her care.
553 The town has tinged the country. And the stain
554 Appears a spot upon a vestal's robe,
555 The worse for what it soils. The fashion runs
556 Down into scenes still rural, but alas!
557 Scenes rarely graced with rural manners now.
558 Time was when in the pastoral retreat
559 Th' unguarded door was safe. Men did not watch
560 T' invade another's right, or guard their own.
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561 Then sleep was undisturb'd by fear, unscared
562 By drunken howlings; and the chilling tale
563 Of midnight murther was a wonder heard
564 With doubtful credit, told to frighten babes.
565 But farewell now to unsuspicious nights
566 And slumbers unalarm'd. Now 'ere you sleep
567 See that your polish'd arms be prim'd with care,
568 And drop the night-bolt. Ruffians are abroad,
569 And the first larum of the cock's shrill throat
570 May prove a trumpet, summoning your ear
571 To horrid sounds of hostile feet within.
572 Ev'n day-light has its dangers. And the walk
573 Through pathless wastes and woods, unconscious once
574 Of other tenants than melodious birds
575 Or harmless flocks, is hazardous and bold.
576 Lamented change! to which full many a cause
577 Invet'rate, hopeless of a cure, conspires.
578 The course of human things from good to ill,
579 From ill to worse, is fatal, never fails.
580 Increase of pow'r begets increase of wealth,
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581 Wealth luxury, and luxury excess;
582 Excess, the scrophulous and itchy plague
583 That seizes first the opulent, descends
584 To the next rank contagious, and in time
585 Taints downward all the graduated scale
586 Of order, from the chariot to the plough.
587 The rich, and they that have an arm to check
588 The license of the lowest in degree,
589 Desert their office; and themselves intent
590 On pleasure, haunt the capital, and thus,
591 To all the violence of lawless hands
592 Resign the scenes their presence might protect.
593 Authority herself not seldom sleeps,
594 Though resident, and witness of the wrong.
595 The plump convivial parson often bears
596 The magisterial sword in vain, and lays
597 His rev'rence and his worship both to rest
598 On the same cushion of habitual sloth.
599 Perhaps timidity restrains his arm,
600 When he should strike, he trembles, and sets free,
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601 Himself enslaved by terror of the band,
602 Th' audacious convict whom he dares not bind.
603 Perhaps, though by profession ghostly pure,
604 He too may have his vice, and sometimes prove
605 Less dainty than becomes his grave outside,
606 In lucrative concerns. Examine well
607 His milk-white hand. The palm is hardly clean
608 But here and there an ugly smutch appears.
609 Foh! 'twas a bribe that left it. He has touched
610 Corruption. Whoso seeks an audit here
611 Propitious, pays his tribute, game or fish,
612 Wildfowl or ven'son, and his errand speeds.
613 But faster far and more than all the rest
614 A noble cause, which none who bears a spark
615 Of public virtue, ever wish'd removed,
616 Works the deplor'd and mischievous effect.
617 'Tis universal soldiership has stabb'd
618 The heart of merit in the meaner class.
619 Arms through the vanity and brainless rage
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620 Of those that bear them in whatever cause,
621 Seem most at variance with all moral good,
622 And incompatible with serious thought.
623 The clown, the child of nature, without guile,
624 Blest with an insant's ignorance of all
625 But his own simple pleasures, now and then
626 A wrestling match, a foot-race, or a fair,
627 Is ballotted, and trembles at the news.
628 Sheepish he doffs his hat, and mumbling swears
629 A Bible-oath to be whate'er they please,
630 To do he knows not what. The task perform'd,
631 That instant he becomes the serjeant's care,
632 His pupil, and his torment, and his jest.
633 His aukward gait, his introverted toes,
634 Bent knees, round shoulders, and dejected looks,
635 Procure him many a curse. By slow degrees,
636 Unapt to learn and formed of stubborn stuff,
637 He yet by slow degrees puts off himself,
638 Grows conscious of a change, and likes it well.
639 He stands erect, his slouch becomes a walk,
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640 He steps right onward, martial in his air
641 His form and movement; is as smart above
642 As meal and larded locks can make him; wears
643 His hat or his plumed helmet with a grace,
644 And his three years of heroship expired,
645 Returns indignant to the slighted plough.
646 He hates the field in which no fife or drum
647 Attends him, drives his cattle to a march,
648 And sighs for the smart comrades he has left.
649 'Twere well if his exterior change were all
650 But with his clumsy port the wretch has lost
651 His ignorance and harmless manners too.
652 To swear, to game, to drink, to shew at home
653 By lewdness, idleness, and sabbath-breach,
654 The great proficiency he made abroad,
655 T' astonish and to grieve his gazing friends,
656 To break some maiden's and his mother's heart,
657 To be a pest where he was useful once,
658 Are his sole aim, and all his glory now.
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659 Man in society is like a flow'r
660 Blown in its native bed. 'Tis there alone
661 His faculties expanded in full bloom
662 Shine out, there only reach their proper use.
663 But man associated and leagued with man
664 By regal warrant, or self-joined by bond
665 For interest-sake, or swarming into clans
666 Beneath one head for purposes of war,
667 Like flow'rs selected from the rest, and bound
668 And bundled close to fill some crowded vase,
669 Fades rapidly, and by compression marred
670 Contracts defilement not to be endured.
671 Hence charter'd boroughs are such public plagues,
672 And burghers, men immaculate perhaps
673 In all their private functions, once combined
674 Become a loathsome body, only fit
675 For dissolution, hurtful to the main.
676 Hence merchants, unimpeachable of sin
677 Against the charities of domestic life,
678 Incorporated, seem at once to Iose
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679 Their nature, and disclaiming all regard
680 For mercy and the common rights of man,
681 Build factories with blood, conducting trade
682 At the sword's point, and dying the white robe
683 Of innocent commercial justice red.
684 Hence too the field of glory, as the world
685 Misdeems it, dazzled by its bright array,
686 With all the majesty of its thund'ring pomp,
687 Enchanting music and immortal wreaths,
688 Is but a school where thoughtlessness is taught
689 On principle, where foppery atones
690 For folly, gallantry for ev'ry vice.
691 But slighted as it is, and by the great
692 Abandon'd, and, which still I more regret,
693 Infected with the manners and the modes
694 It knew not once, the country wins me still.
695 I never fram'd a wish, or form'd a plan
696 That flatter'd me with hopes of earthly bliss,
697 But there I laid the scene. There early stray'd
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698 My fancy, 'ere yet liberty of choice
699 Had found me, or the hope of being free.
700 My very dreams were rural, rural too
701 The first-born efforts of my youthful muse
702 Sportive, and jingling her poetic bells
703 'Ere yet her ear was mistress of their pow'rs.
704 No bard could please me but whose lyre was tuned
705 To Nature's praises. Heroes and their feats
706 Fatigued me, never weary of the pipe
707 Of Tityrus, assembling as he sang
708 The rustic throng beneath his fav'rite beech.
709 Then Milton had indeed a poet's charms.
710 New to my taste, his Paradise surpass'd
711 The struggling efforts of my boyish tongue
712 To speak its excellence; I danced for joy.
713 I marvel'd much that at so ripe an age
714 As twice sev'n years, his beauties had then first
715 Engaged my wonder, and admiring still
716 And still admiring, with regret supposed
717 The joy half lost because not sooner found.
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718 Thee too enamour'd of the life I loved,
719 Pathetic in its praise, in its pursuit
720 Determined, and possessing it at last
721 With transports such as favor'd lovers feel,
722 I studied, prized, and wished that I had known
723 Ingenious Cowley! and though now, reclaimed,
724 By modern lights from an erroneous taste,
725 I cannot but lament thy splendid wit
726 Entangled in the cobwebs of the schools,
727 I still revere thee, courtly though retired,
728 Though stretch'd at ease in Chertsey's silent bow'rs
729 Not unemploy'd, and finding rich amends
730 For a lost world in solitude and verse.
731 'Tis born with all. The love of Nature's works
732 Is an ingredient in the compound, man,
733 Infused at the creation of the kind.
734 And though th' Almighty Maker, has throughout
735 Discriminated each from each, by strokes
736 And touches of his hand with so much art
737 Diversified, that two were never found
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738 Twins at all points yet this obtains in all,
739 That all discern a beauty in his works
740 And all can taste them. Minds that have been form'd
741 And tutor'd, with a relish more exact,
742 But none without some relish, none unmoved.
743 It is a flame that dies not even there
744 Where nothing feeds it. Neither business, crowds,
745 Nor habits of luxurious city-life,
746 Whatever else they smother of true worth
747 In human bosoms, quench it or abate.
748 The villas with which London stands begirt
749 Like a swarth Indian with his belt of beads,
750 Prove it. A breath of unadult'rate air,
751 The glimpse of a green pasture, how they cheer
752 The citizen, and brace his languid frame!
753 Ev'n in the stifling bosom of the town,
754 A garden in which nothing thrives, has charms
755 That sooth the rich possessor; much consoled
756 That here and there some sprigs of mournful mint,
757 Of nightshade or valerian grace the well
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758 He cultivates. These serve him with a hint
759 That Nature lives, that sight-refreshing green
760 Is still the liv'ry she delights to wear,
761 Though sickly samples of th' exub'rant whole.
762 What are the casements lined with creeping herbs,
763 The prouder sashes fronted with a range
764 Of orange, myrtle, or the fragrant weed
765 The Frenchman's
* Mignonette.
darling? are they not all proofs
766 That man immured in cities, still retains
767 His inborn inextinguishable thirst
768 Of rural scenes, compensating his loss
769 By supplemental shifts, the best he may?
770 The most unfurnished with the means of life,
771 And they that never pass their brick-wall bounds
772 To range the fields and treat their lungs with air,
773 Yet feel the burning instinct: over-head
774 Suspend their crazy boxes planted thick
775 And water'd duely. There the pitcher stands
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776 A fragment, and the spoutless tea-pot there;
777 Sad witnesses how close-pent man regrets
778 The country, with what ardour he contrives
779 A peep at nature, when he can no more.
780 Hail therefore patroness of health and ease
781 And contemplation, heart-consoling joys
782 And harmless pleasures in the throng'd abode
783 Of multitudes unknown, hail rural life!
784 Address himself who will to the pursuit
785 Of honors or emolument or fame,
786 I shall not add myself to such a chace,
787 Thwart his attempts, or envy his success.
788 Some must be great. Great offices will have
789 Great talents. And God gives to ev'ry man
790 The virtue, temper, understanding, taste,
791 That lifts him into life, and lets him fall
792 Just in the niche he was ordain'd to fill.
793 To the deliv'rer of an injured land
794 He gives a tongue t' enlarge upon, an heart
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795 To feel, and courage to redress her wrongs;
796 To monarchs dignity, to judges sense,
797 To artists ingenuity and skill;
798 To me an unambitious mind, content
799 In the low vale of life, that early felt
800 A wish for ease and leisure, and 'ere long
801 Found here that leisure and that ease I wish'd.

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About this text

Title (in Source Edition): [THE TASK, A POEM, IN SIX BOOKS.] BOOK IV.
Themes: domestic life; rural life; patriotism
Genres: blank verse; narrative verse; georgic; philosophic poetry

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Source edition

The task: a poem, in six books. By William Cowper, ... To which are added, by the same author, An epistle to Joseph Hill, Esq. ... To which are added, ... an epistle ... and the history of John Gilpin. London: printed for J. Johnson, 1785, pp. [135]-178. [8],359,[1]p. ; 8⁰. (ESTC T14896; OTA K027776.000)

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The text has been typographically modernized, but without any silent modernization of spelling, capitalization, or punctuation. The source of the text is given and all editorial interventions have been recorded in textual notes. Based on the electronic text originally produced by the ECCO-TCP project, this ECPA text has been edited to conform to the recommendations found in Level 5 of the Best Practices for TEI in Libraries version 3.0.

Secondary literature

  • Griffin, Dustin. Redefining Georgic: Cowper's Task. ELH 57 (1990): 565-79. Print.
  • Matheson, Ann. The Influence of Cowper's The Task on Coleridge's Conversational Poems. Sultana, Donald, ed. New Approaches to Coleridge. London: Vision, 1981. 137-50. Print.
  • Priestman, Martin. Cowper's Task: Structure and Influence. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Print.

Other works by William Cowper