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Of Improving the Present Time

by William Congreve (1728)

William Congreve wrote the following poem to his good friend Lord Cobham. Congreve had retired from public life (he was to die the following year) and in the poem suggests that it may be time for Cobham to do the same. As G. B. Clarke notes, however, Lord Cobham's most influential years in both politics and landscape gardening were to come in the following two decades.

Sincerest Critic of my Prose or Rhyme,
Tell how thy pleasing Stowe employs thy Time.
Say, Cobham, what amuses thy Retreat,
Or Schemes of War, or Stratagems of State?
Dost thou recall to Mind with Joy or Grief
Great Marlborough's Actions, that immortal Chief,
Whose slightest Trophy raised in each Campaign
More than sufficed to signalise a Reign?
Does the Remembrance, rising, warm thy Heart
With Glory past, where Thou thyself hadst Part,
Or dost thou grieve indignant, now, to see
The fruitless End of all that Victory?
To see the Audacious Foe, so late subdued,
Dispute those Terms for which so long they sued,
As if Britannia now were sunk so low,
To beg that Peace she wonted to bestow.
Be far that Guilt, be never known such Shame,
That England should retract her rightful Claim,
Or, ceasing to be dreaded and adored,
Stain with the Pen the Lustre of her Sword!
Or dost thou give the Winds afar to blow
Each vexing Thought and Heart-devouring Woe,
And fix thy Mind alone on rural Scenes,
To turn the levelled Lawns to liquid Plains,
To raise the creeping Rills from humble Beds,
And force the latent Springs to lift their Heads,
On watery Columns Capitals to rear
That mix their flowing Curls with upper air?
Or dost Thou, weary grown, these Works neglect,
No Temples, Statues, Obelisks erect,
But seek the morning Breeze from fragrant Meads,
Or shun the Noontide Ray in wholesome Shades,
Or slowly walk alone the mazy Wood,
To meditate on all that's wise and good?
For Nature, bountiful, in Thee has joined
A Person pleasing with a worthy Mind,
Not given the Form alone, but Means and Art
To draw the Eye or to allure the Heart.
Poor were the Praise in Fortune to excel,
Yet want the Way to use that Fortune well.
While thus adorned, while thus with Virtue crowned,
At Home in Peace, Abroad in Arms renowned,
Graceful in Form and winning in Address,
While well you think what aptly you express,
With Health, with Honour, with a fair Estate,
A Table free, and elegantly neat,
What can be added more to mortal Bliss?
What can he want who stands possessed of This?
What can the fondest wishing Mother more
Of Heaven attentive for her Son implore?
And yet a Happiness remains unknown,
Or to Philosophy revealed alone;
A Precept, which unpracticed renders vain
Thy flowing Hopes, and Pleasure turns to Pain.
Should Hope and Fear thy Heart alternate tear,
Or Love, or Hate, or Rage, or anxious Care,
Whatever Passions may thy Mind infest,
(Where is that Mind which passions ne'er molest?)
Amid the Pangs of such intestine Strife,
Still think the Present Day thy Last of Life;
Defer not till to-Morrow to be wise,
To-Morow's Sun to Thee may never rise.
Or should to-Morrow chance to cheer thy Sight
With her enlivening and unlooked-for Light,
How grateful will appear her dawning Rays,
As Favours unexpected doubly please!
Who thus can think and who such Thoughts pursues,
Content may keep his Life, or calmly lose;
A Proof of this Thou mayest thyself receive,
When Leisure from Affairs will give thee Leave.
Come, see thy Friend, retired without Regret,
Forgetting Cares, or trying to forget;
In easy Contemplation soothing Time
With Morals much, and now and then with Rhyme;
Not so robust in Body as in Mind,
And always undejected, though declined;
Not wondering at the World's new wicked Ways,
Compared with those of our Forefathers' Days;
For Virtue now is neither more or less,
And Vice is only varied in the Dress.
Believe it, Men have ever been the same,
And all the Golden Age is but a Dream.

John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,