Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"Reason" John Pomfret (1667-1702)

Unhappy man! Who, thro’ successive years,
From early youth to life’s last childhood errs;
No sooner born but proves a foe to truth
For infant Reason is o’erpow’r’d in youth.
The cheats of sense will half our learning share,
And preconceptions all our knowledge are.
Reason, ‘tis true, should over sense of preside,
Correct our notions, and our judgements guide;
But false opinions, rooted in the mind,
Hoodwink the soul, and keep our reason blind.
Reason’s a taper which faintly burns;
A languid flame, that glows and dies by turns:
We see’t a little while, and but a little way;
We travel by its light, as men by day;
But quickly dying it forsakes us soon,
Like morning-stars, that never stay till noon.

The soul can scarce above the body rise,
All we see is with corporeal eyes.
Life now does scarce one glimpse of light display:
We mourn in darkness, and despair of day:
That nat’ral light, once dress’d with orient beams,
Is now diminished, and a twilight seems;
A miscellaneous composition, made
Of night and day, of sunshine and shade.
Thro’ an uncertain medium now we look,
And find that falsehood which for truth we took:
So rays projected from the eastern skies
Shew the false day before the sun can rise.

That little knowledge now which man maintains,
From outward objects and from sense he gains:
He, like a wretched slave, most plod and sweat,
By day must toil, by night that toil repeat;
And yet at last what little fruit he gains!
A beggars harvest, glean’d with mighty pains.

The passions still predominant will rule,
Ungovern’d rude, not bred in Reason’s school;
Our understanding they with darkness fill,
Cause strong corruptions, and pervert the will:
On these the soul, as on some flowing tide,
Mus sit , and on the raging billows ride,
Hurry’d away;  for how can be withstood
Th’ impetuous torrent of the boiling blood?
Be gone, false hopes! for all our learning’s vain;
Can we be free where these the rule maintain?
These are the tools of knowledge which we use:
The spirits heated will strange things produce.
Tell me who e’er the passions could control,
Or from the body disingage the soul:
Till this is done our best pursuits are vain
To conquer truth, and unmix’d knowledge gain.
Thro’ all the bulky volumes of the dead,
And thro’ those books that modern times have bred,
With pain we travel, as thro’ moorish ground,
Where scarce one useful plant is ever found;
O’er-run with errors, which so thick appear,
Our search proves vain, no spark of truth is there.

What’s all the noisy jargon of the schools
But idle nonsense of laborious fools,
Who fetter reason with perplexing rules?
What in Aquinas’ bulky works are found
Does not enlighten Reason, but confound.
Who travels Scotus’ swelling tomes shall find
A cloud of darkness rising on the mind.
In controverted points can reason sway,
When passion of conceit still hurries us away?
Thus his new notions Sherlock would instill,
And clear the greatest mysteries at will;
Bu by unlucky wit perplex’d them more,
And made them darker than they were before.
South soon oppos’d him, out of Christian zeal,
Shewing how well he could dispute and rail.
How shall we e’er discover which is right,
When both so eagerly maintain the fight?
Each does the other’s argument’s deride;
Each has the Church and Scripture on his side:
The sharp ill-natur’d combat’s but a jest:
Both may be wrong; one, perhaps, errs the least.
How shall we know which Articles are true,
The Old ones of the church, or Burnet’s New?
In paths uncertain and unsafe he treads,
Who blindly follows others’ fertile heads.
What sure, what certain mark have we to know
The right or wrong ‘twixt Burgess, Wake, and Howe?

Should untun’d Nature crave the medic art,
What health can that contentious tribe impart?
Ev’ry physician writes a diff’rent bill
And gives no other reason, but his will.
No longer boast your art, ye impious race!
Let wars ‘twixt alcalies and acids cease,
And proud G—ll with Colbatch be at peace.
Gibbons and Radcliffe do but rarely guess;
To-day they’ve good, to-morow no success.
Ev’n Garth and Maurus (Sir Richard Blackmore) sometimes shall prevail,
When Gibson, learned Hainnes, and Tyson,fail.
And, more than once, we’ve seen that blund’ring S—ne,
Missing the gout, by chance has hit the stone;
The patient does the lucky error find;
A cure he works, tho’ not the cure deign’d.

Custom, the world’s great idol, we adore,
And knowing this we seek to know no more.
What education did at first receive,
Our ripened age confirms us to believe:
The careful nurse and priest are all we need,
To learn opinions and our county’s creed:
The parents’ precepts early are instill’d,
And spoil the man while they instruct the child
To what hard fate is human-kind betray’d,
When thus implicit faith’s a virtue made,
When education more than truth prevails,
And nought is current but what custom seals?
Thus from the time we first began to know,
We live and learn, but not the wiser grow.

We seldom use our liberty aright,
Nor judge of things by universal light;
Our prepossessions  and affections bind
The soul in chains, and lord it o’er the mind;
And if self-int’rest be but in the case,
Our examin’d principles may pass.
Good Heav’ns! that man should thus himself deceive,
To learn on credit, and on trust believe!
Better he mind no notions had retained,
But still a fair unwritten blank remain’d:
For now, who truth from falsehood would discern,
Must first disprove the mind, and all unlearn.
Errors contracted in unmindful youth,
When once remov’d will smooth the way to truth.
To dispossess the child the mortal lives.
But death approaches ere the man arrives.

Those who would learning’s glorious kingdom find,
The dear bought purchase of the trading mind,
From many dangers must themselves acquit,
And more than Scylla and Charybdis meet.
Oh! what an ocean must be voyag’d o’er
To gain a prospect of the shining shore?
Resisting rocks oppose th’ inquiring soul,
And adverse waves retard it as they roll.

Does not that foolish deference we pay
To men that liv’d long since our passage stay?
What odd prepost’rous paths at first we tread,
And learn to walk by stumbling on the dead?
First we a blessing from the grave implore,
Worship old urns, and monuments adore;
The rev’red sage, with vast esteem we prize;
He lived long since and must be wondrous wise.
Thus are we debtors to the famous dead
For all those errors which their fancies bred:
Errors indeed! for real knowledge stay’d
With those first times,nor father was convey’d,
While light opinions are much lower brought,
For on the waves of ignorance they float;
But solid truth scarce ever gains the shore,
So soon it sinks, and ne’er emerges more.

Will knowledge dawn and bless the mind at last?
Ah! no;  ‘tis charms, and undiscovered lies.
Truth, like a single point, escapes the sight,
And claims attention to perceive it right:
But what resembles truth is soon descry’d
Spread like a surface and expanded wide.
The first man rarely, very rarely, finds
The tedious search of long inquiring minds:
But yet what’s worse, we know not when we err;
What mark does truth, what bright distinction , bear?
How do we know that what we know is true?
How shall we falsehood fly, and truth pursue?
Let none then here his certain knowledge boast,
‘Tis all but probability at most:
This is the easy purchase of the mind,
The vulgar’s treasure, which we soon may find:
But truth lies hid, and ere we can explore
The glitt’ring gem, our fleeting life is o’er.

John Pomfret 
Was searching through old poems - and the name for this one caught my eye. It looked interesting enough, so started transcribing...and transcribing (P.S happy to have people point out mistakes, just be careful I've deliberately tried to leave in the spelling of the day, not to mention the apostrophes and inconsistent captilisation of the word reason. Still, it was a fun romp, showing that even while things change (the poets idea of reason would have encompassed his religious views) they stay the same. 

I think the modern version would be a heap shorter - along the lines of "You want the truth...you can't handle the truth, and even if you could, you'd never see it because the only thing you've learned is how to close your eyes!!" ;)

Have a great week
A.J. Ponder
PS, please note this poem has thematic links to my recent "Hey Neil DeGrasse Tyson, There's No Need to Welcome Science"

1 comment:

  1. Alicia, this has nothing to do with your Post, but Helen Lowe is trying to contact you about the fate of Tuesday Poem and she hasn't got your email address. I think we all have an old email address for you. Cheers, Andrew Bell