John Denham Poems >>
The Progress Of Learning


My early mistress, now my ancient Muse,
That strong Circaean liquor cease t'infuse,
Wherewith thou didst intoxicate my youth,
Now stoop with disenchanted wings to truth;
As the dove's flight did guide Aeneas, now
May thine conduct me to the golden bough:
Tell (like a tall old oak) how learning shoots
To heaven her branches, and to hell her roots.

When God from earth form'd Adam in the East,
He his own image on the clay impress'd;
As subjects then the whole creation came,
And from their natures Adam them did name,
Not from experience (for the world was new),
He only from their cause their natures knew.
Had memory been lost with innocence,
We had not known the sentence nor th'offence;
'Twas his chief punishment to keep in store
The sad remembrance what he was before;               
And though th'offending part felt mortal pain,
Th' immortal part its knowledge did retain.
After the flood, arts to Chaldea fell;
The father of the faithful there did dwell,
Who both their parent and instructor was;
From thence did learning into Egypt pass:
Moses in all the Egyptian arts was skill'd,
When heavenly power that chosen vessel fill'd;
And we to his high inspiration owe,
That what was done before the flood we know.             
Prom Egypt, arts their progress made to Greece,
Wrapp'd in the fable of the golden fleece.
Musaeus first, then Orpheus, civilise
Mankind, and gave the world their deities;
To many gods they taught devotion,
Which were the distinct faculties of one;
Th' Eternal Cause, in their immortal lines
Was taught, and poets were the first divines:
God Moses first, then David, did inspire,
To compose anthems, for his heavenly choir;             
To th'one the style of friend he did impart,
On th'other stamp the likeness of his heart:
And Moses, in the old original,
Even God the poet of the world doth call.
Next those old Greeks Pythagoras did rise,
Then Socrates, whom th'oracle call'd Wise;
The divine Plato moral virtue shows,
Then his disciple Aristotle rose,
Who Nature's secrets to the world did teach,
Yet that great soul our novelists impeach;              
Too much manuring fill'd that field with weeds,
While sects, like locusts, did destroy the seeds;
The tree of knowledge, blasted by disputes,
Produces sapless leaves instead of fruits;
Proud Greece all nations else barbarians held,
Boasting her learning all the world excell'd.
Flying from thence to Italy it came,               
And to the realm of Naples gave the name,
Till both their nation and their arts did come
A welcome trophy to triumphant Rome;
Then whereso'er her conqu'ring eagles fled,
Arts, learning, and civility were spread;
And as in this our microcosm, the heart
Heat, spirit, motion gives to every part,
So Rome's victorious influence did disperse
All her own virtues through the universe.
Here some digression I must make, t'accuse
Thee, my forgetful, and ingrateful Muse:
Couldst thou from Greece to Latium take thy flight,
And not to thy great ancestor do right?               
I can no more believe old Homer blind,
Than those who say the sun hath never shined;
The age wherein he lived was dark, but he
Could not want sight who taught the world to see:
They who Minerva from Jove's head derive,
Might make old Homer's skull the Muses' hive;
And from his brain that Helicon distil
Whose racy liquor did his offspring fill.
Nor old Anacreon, Hesiod, Theocrite,
Must we forget, nor Pindar's lofty flight.              
Old Homer's soul, at last from Greece retired,
In Italy the Mantuan swain inspired.
When great Augustus made war's tempest cease,
His halcyon days brought forth the arts of peace;
He still in his triumphant chariot shines,
By Horace drawn, and Virgil's mighty lines.
'Twas certainly mysterious that the name
Of prophets and of poets is the same;
What the tragedian--wrote, the late success            
Declares was inspiration, and not guess:
As dark a truth that author did unfold,
As oracles or prophets e'er foretold:
'At last the ocean shall unlock the bound
Of things, and a new world by Tiphys found,
Then ages far remote shall understand
The Isle of Thule is not the farthest land.'
Sure God, by these discov'ries, did design
That his clear light through all the world should shine,
But the obstruction from that discord springs
The prince of darkness made 'twixt Christian kings;         
That peaceful age with happiness to crown,
From heaven the Prince of Peace himself came down,
Then the true sun of knowledge first appear'd,
And the old dark mysterious clouds were clear'd,
The heavy cause of th'old accursed flood
Sunk in the sacred deluge of his blood.
His passion man from his first fall redeem'd;
Once more to paradise restored we seem'd;
Satan himself was bound, till th'iron chain
Our pride did break, and let him loose again.            
Still the old sting remain'd, and man began
To tempt the serpent, as he tempted man;
Then Hell sends forth her furies, Av'rice, Pride,
Fraud, Discord, Force, Hypocrisy their guide;
Though the foundation on a rock were laid,
The church was undermined, and then betray'd:
Though the Apostles these events foretold,
Yet even the shepherd did devour the fold:
The fisher to convert the world began,
The pride convincing of vain-glorious man;             
But soon his followers grew a sovereign lord,
And Peter's keys exchanged for Peter's sword,
Which still maintains for his adopted son
Vast patrimonies, though himself had none;
Wresting the text to the old giant's sense,
That heaven, once more, must suffer violence.
Then subtle doctors Scriptures made their prize;
Casuists, like cocks, struck out each others eyes;
Then dark distinctions reason's light disguised,
And into atoms truth anatomised.                  
Then Mah'met's crescent, by our feuds increased,
Blasted the learn'd remainders of the East;
That project, when from Greece to Rome it came,
Made Mother Ignorance Devotion's dame;
Then he whom Lucifer's own pride did swell,
His faithful emissary, rose from hell
To possess Peter's chair, that Hildebrand
Whose foot on mitres, then on crowns, did stand;
And before that exalted idol all
(Whom we call gods on earth) did prostrate fall.          
Then darkness Europe's face did overspread
From lazy cells where superstition bred,
Which, link'd with blind obedience, so increased,
That the whole world some ages they oppress'd;
Till through these clouds the sun of knowledge brake,
And Europe from her lethargy did wake:
Then first our monarchs were acknowledged here,
That they their churches' nursing fathers were.
When Lucifer no longer could advance
His works on the false grounds of ignorance,            
New arts he tries, and new designs he lays,
Then his well-studied masterpiece he plays;
Loyola, Luther, Calvin he inspires,
And kindles with infernal flames their fires,
Sends their forerunner (conscious of th'event)
Printing, his most pernicious instrument!
Wild controversy then, which long had slept,
Into the press from ruin'd cloisters leap'd;
No longer by implicit faith we err,
Whilst every man's his own interpreter;               
No more conducted now by Aaron's rod,
Lay-elders from their ends create their god.
But seven wise men the ancient world did know,
We scarce know seven who think themselves not so.
When man learn'd undefiled religion,
We were commanded to be all as one;
Fiery disputes that union have calcined;
Almost as many minds as men we find,
And when that flame finds combustible earth,
Thence _fatuus_ fires, and meteors take their birth;        
Legions of sects and insects come in throngs;
To name them all would tire a hundred tongues.
So were the Centaurs of Ixion's race,
Who a bright cloud for Juno did embrace;
And such the monsters of Chimaera's kind,
Lions before, and dragons were behind.
Then from the clashes between popes and kings,
Debate, like sparks from flints' collision, springs:
As Jove's loud thunderbolts were forged by heat,
The like our Cyclops on their anvils beat;             
All the rich mines of learning ransack'd are,
To furnish ammunition for this war:
Uncharitable zeal our reason whets,
And double edges on our passion sets;
'Tis the most certain sign the world's accursed,
That the best things corrupted are the worst;
'Twas the corrupted light of knowledge hurl'd
Sin, death, and ignorance o'er all the world;
That sun like this (from which our sight we have),         
Gazed on too long, resumes the light he gave;
And when thick mists of doubts obscure his beams,
Our guide is error, and our visions, dreams;
'Twas no false heraldry when madness drew
Her pedigree from those who too much knew;
Who in deep mines for hidden knowledge toils,
Like guns o'ercharged, breaks, misses, or recoils;
When subtle wits have spun their thread too fine,
'Tis weak and fragile, like Arachne's line:
True piety, without cessation toss'd
By theories, the practic part is lost,               
And like a ball bandied 'twixt pride and wit,
Rather than yield, both sides the prize will quit:
Then whilst his foe each gladiator foils,
The atheist looking on enjoys the spoils.
Through seas of knowledge we our course advance,
Discov'ring still new worlds of ignorance;
And these discov'ries make us all confess
That sublunary science is but guess;
Matters of fact to man are only known,
And what seems more is mere opinion;                
The standers-by see clearly this event;
All parties say they're sure, yet all dissent;
With their new light our bold inspectors press,
Like Cham, to show their fathers' nakedness,
By whose example after ages may
Discover we more naked are than they;
All human wisdom to divine is folly;
This truth the wisest man made melancholy;
Hope, or belief, or guess, gives some relief,
But to be sure we are deceived brings grief:            
Who thinks his wife is virtuous, though not so,
Is pleased and patient till the truth he know.
Our God, when heaven and earth he did create,
Form'd man who should of both participate;
If our lives' motions theirs must imitate,
Our knowledge, like our blood, must circulate.
When like a bridegroom from the east, the sun
Sets forth, he thither, whence he came, doth run;
Into earth's spongy veins the ocean sinks,
Those rivers to replenish which he drinks;             
So learning, which from reason's fountain springs,
Back to the source some secret channel brings.
'Tis happy when our streams of knowledge flow
To fill their banks, but not to overthrow.