ENGLISH 313: AUGUSTAN WRITERS I
(English Literature, 1660-1714)
Fall 1999

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John Dryden
RELIGIO LAICI

Dim as the borrowed beams of moon and stars                
To lonely, weary, wandering travellers
Is reason to the soul; and as on high
Those rolling fires discover but the sky
Not light us here, so reason's glimmering ray
Was lent, not to assure our doubtful way,
But guide us upward to a better day:
And as those nightly tapers disappear
When day's bright lord ascends our hemisphere,
So pale grows reason at religion's sight,                                              10
So dies, and so dissolves in supernatural light.
Some few, whose lamp shone brighter, have been led
From cause to cause, to nature's secret head,
And found that one first principle must be;
But what, or who that universal he--
Whether some soul encompassing this ball,
Unmade, unmoved, yet making, moving all,
Or various atoms' interfering dance
Leaped into form, the noble work of chance,
Or this great all was from eternity--                                                     20
Not ev'n the Stagirite himself could see;
And Epicurus guessed as well as he.
As blindly groped they for a future state,
As rashly judged of providence and fate.
But least of all could their endeavours find                     Opinions of the
What most concerned the good of human kind:              several sects of
For happiness was never to be found,,                           philosophers
But vanished from 'em like enchanted ground.                concerning the
One thought content the good to be enjoyed:                 summum bonum
This every accident destroyed.                                                             30
The wiser madmen did for virtue toil,
A thorny, or at best a barren soil.
In pleasure some their glutton souls would steep,
But found their line too short, the well too deep,
And leaky vessels which no bliss could keep.
Thus anxious thoughts in endless circles roll,
Without a centre where to fix the soul:
In this wild maze their vain endeavours end.
How can the less the greater comprehend,
OFr finite reason reach infinity?                                                             40
or what could fathom God were more than he.             System of deism

    The deist thinks he stands on firmer ground,
Cries, "Eureka, the mighty secret's found:
God is that spring of good, supreme and blest,
We made to serve, and in that service blessed;
If so, some rules of worship must be given,
Distributed alike to all by heaven,
Else God were partial, and to some denied
The means his justice should for all provide.
This general worship is to praise and pray,                                                               50
One part to borrow blessings, one to pay;
And when frail nature slides into offence,
The sacrifice for crimes is penitence.
Yet since th' effects of providence we find
Are variously dispensed to human kind,
That vice triumphs, and virtue suffers here
(A brand that sovereign justice cannot bear)
Our reason prompts us to a future state,
the last appeal from Fortune, and from fate,
Where God's all-righteous ways will be declared,                                                     60
The bad meet punishment, the good reward."

    Thus man by his own strength to heaven would soar,                        Of revealed religion
And would not be obliged to God for more.
Vain, wretched creature, how art thou misled
To think thy wit these godlike notions bred!
These truths are not the product of thy mind,
But dropped from heaven, and of a nobler kind.
Revealed religion first informed thy sight,
And reason saw not till faith sprung the light.
Hence all thy natural worship takes the source:                                                          70
'Tis revelation what thou think'st discourse.
Else how com'st thou to see these truths so clear
Which so obscure to heathens did appear?
Not Plato these, nor Aristotle found,
Nor he whose wisdom oracles renowned.                                             Socrates
Hast thou a wit so deep, or so sublime,
Or canst thou lower dive, or higher climb?
Canst thou by reason more of godhead know
Than Plutarch, Seneca or Cicero?
Those giant wits, in happier ages born,                                                                       80
When arms and arts did Greece and Rome adorn,
Knew no such system, no such piles could raise
Of natural worship, built on prayer and praise,
To one sole God.
Nor did remorse to expiate sin prescribe,
But slew their fellow creatures for a bribe:
The guiltless victim groaned for their offence,
And cruelty and blood was penitence.
If sheep and oxen could atone for men,
Ah, at how cheap a rate the rich might sin!                                                                  90
And great oppressors might heaven's wrath beguile
By offering his own creatures for a spoil!

    Dar's thou, poor worm, offend infinity,
And must the terms of peace be given by thee?
Then thou art justice in the last appeal:
Thy easy God instructs thee to rebel,
And like a king remote and weak must take
What satisfaction thou art pleased to make.

    But if there be a power too just and strong
To wink at crimes, and bear unpunished wrong,                                                          100
Look humbly upward, see his will disclose
The forfeit first, and then the fine impose:
A mulct thy poverty could never pay
Had not eternal wisdom found the way,
And with celestial wealth supplied thy store:
His justice makes the fine, his mercy quits the score.
See god descending in thy human frame,
Th' offended suffering in th' offender's name;
All thy misdeeds to him imputed see,
And all his righteousness devolved on thee.                                                                  110

 

    For granting we have sinned, and that th' offence
Of man is made against omnipotence,
Some price that bears proportion must be paid,
And infinite with infinite be weighted.
See then the deist lost, remorse for vice
Not paid, or, paid, inadequate in price.
What farther means can reason now direct,
Or what relief from human wit expect?
That shows us sick, and sadly are we sure
Still to be sick, till heaven reveal the cure.                                                                     120
If then heaven's will must needs be understood
(Which must, if we want cure, and heaven be good),
Let all records of will revealed be shown,
With scripture all in equal balance thrown,
And our one sacred book will be that one.

    Proof needs not here, for whether we compare
That impious, idle, superstitious ware
Of rites, lustrations, offerings (which before
In various ages, various countries bore)
With Christian faith and virtues, we shall find                                                                130
None answ'ring the great ends of human kind
But this one rule of life: that shows us best
How God may be appeased, and mortals blessed.
Whether from length of time its worth we draw
(The world is scarce more ancient than the law;
Heaven's early care prescribed for every age,
First in the soul, and after in the page),
Or whether more abstractedly we look
Or on the writers, or the written book,
Whence but from heaven could men unskilled in arts,                                                   140
In several ages born, in several parts,
Weave such agreeing truths?  Or how, or why
Should all conspire to cheat us with a lie?
Unasked their pains, ungrateful their advice,
Starving their gain, and martyrdom their price.

    If on the book itself we cast our view,
Concurrent heathens prove the story true;
The doctrine, miracles, which must convince,
For heaven in them appeals to human sense;
And though they prove not, they confirm the cause                                                      150
When what is taught agrees with nature's laws.

    Then for the style: majestic and divine,
It speaks no less than God in every line,
Commanding words, whose force is still the same
As the first fiat that produced our frame.
All faiths beside or did by arms ascend,
Or sense indulged has made mankind their friend:
This only doctrine does our lusts oppose,
Unfed by nature's soil in which it grows,
Cross to our int'rests, curbing sense and sin;                                                                160
Oppressed without, and undermined within,
It thrives through pain, its own tormentors tires,
And with a stubborn patience still aspires.
To what can reason such effects assign
Transcending nature, but to laws divine?
Which in that sacred volume are contained,
Sufficient, clear, and for that use ordained.

    But stay: the deist here will urge anew                                         Objection of the deist
No supernatural worship can be true,
Because a general law is that alone                                                                              170
Which must to all and everywhere be known;
A style so large as not this book can claim,
Nor aught that bears revealed religion's name.
'Tis said the sound of a messiah's birth
Is gone through all the habitable earth,
But still that text must be confined alone
To what was then inhabited and known;
And what provision could from thence accrue
To Indian souls, and worlds discovered new?
In other parts it helps that ages past                                                                              180
The scriptures there were known, and were embraced,
Till sin spread once again the shades of night;
What's that to these who never saw the light?

    Of all objections this indeed is chief                                             The objection answered
To startle reason, stagger frail belief.
We grant, 'tis true, that heaven from human sense
Has hid the secret paths of  providence,
But boundless wisdom, boundless mercy may
Find ev'n for those bewildered souls a way:
If from his nature foes may pity claim,                                                                           190
Much more may strangers who ne'er heard his name;                                                
And though no name be for salvation known
But that of his eternal Son's alone,
Who knows how far transcending goodness can
Extend the merits of that Son to man?
Who knows what reasons may his mercy lead,
Or ignorance invincible may plead?
Not only charity bids hope the best,
But more the great apostle has expressed:
That if the gentiles (whom no law inspired)                                                                     200
By nature did what was by law required,
They who the written rule had never known
Were to themselves both rule and law alone;
To nature's plain indictment they shall plead,
And by their conscience be condemned or freed.
Most righteous doom! because a rule revealed
Is none to those from whom it was concealed.
Then those who followed reason's dictates right,
Lived up, and lifted high their natural light,
With Socrates may see their Maker's face,                                                                     210
While thousand rubric-martyrs want a place.

    Nor does it balk my charity to find
Th' Egyptian bishop of another mind;
For though his creed eternal truth contains,
'Tis hard for man to doom to endless pains
All who believed not all his zeal required,
Unless he first could prove he was inspired.
Then let us either think he meant to say
This faith, where published, was the only way,
Or else conclude that, Arius to confute,                                                                          220
The good old man, too eager in dispute,
Flew high, and as his Christian fury rose,
Damned all for heretics who durst oppose.

    Thus far my charity this path has tried                                 Digression tot he translator of
(A much unskilful, but well-meaning guide),                             Father Simon's Critical History of
Yet what they are, eve'n these crude thoughts were bred         the Old Testament
By reading that which better thou hast read--
Thy matchless author's work; which thou, my friend,
By well translating better dost commend.
Those youthful hours which, of thy equals most                                                               230
In toys have squandered, or in vice have lost,
Those hours hast thou to nobler use employed,
And the severe delights of truth enjoyed.
Witness this weighty book, in which appears
The crabbèd toil of many thoughtful years
Spent by thy author in the sifting care
Of rabbins' old sophisticated ware
From gold divine, which he who well can sort
May afterwards make algebra a sport;
A treasure which if country curates buy,                                                                         240
They Junius and Tremellius may defy,
Save pains in various readings and translations,
And without Hebrew make most learned quotations;
A work so full with various learning fraught,
So nicely pondered, yet so strongly wrought,
As nature's height and art's last hand required,
As much as man could compass uninspired;
Where we may see what errors have been made
Both in the copier's and translator's trade,
How Jewish, Popish interests have prevailed,                                                                 250
And where infallibility has failed.

    For some who have his secret meaning guessed
Have found our author not too much a priest:
For fashion sake he seems to have recourse
To Pope and councils, and tradition's force,
But he that old traditions could subdue
Could not but find the weakness of the new:
If scripture, though derived from heavenly birth,
Has been but carelessly preserved on earth,
If God's own people (who of God before                                                                     260
Knew what we know, and had been promised more,
In fuller terms, of heaven's assisting care,
And who did neither time nor study spare
To keep this book untainted, unperplexed)
Let in gross errors to corrupt the text,
Omitted paragraphs, embroiled the sense,
With vain traditions stopped the gaping fence,
Which every common hand pulled up with ease,
What safety from such brushwood helps as these?
If written words from time are not secured,                                                                     270
How can we think have oral sounds endured?
Which thus transmitted, if one mouth has failed,
Immortal lies on ages are entailed;
And that some such have been is proved too plain,
If we consider interest, church and gain.

    'O but', says one, 'tradition set aside,                                         Of the infallibility of tradition
Where can one hope for an unerring guide?                                     in general
For since th' orig'nal scripture has been lost,
All copies disagreeing, maimed the most,
Or Christian faith can have no certain ground,                                                                 280
Or truth in church tradition must be found.'

    Such an omniscience church we wish indeed,
'Twere worth both testaments, and cast in the creed:
But if this mother be a guide so sure
As can all doubts resolve, all truth secure,
Then her infallibility as well
Where copies are corrupt or lame can tell,
Restore lost canon with as little pains
As truly explicate what still remains;
Which yet no council dare pretend to do,                                                                         290
Unless like Esdras they could write it new.
Strange confidence, still to interpret true,
Yet not be sure that all they have explained
Is in the blessed original contained.
More safe, and much more modest 'tis, to say
God would not leave mankind without a way,
And that the scriptures, though not everywhere
Free from corruption, or entire, or clear,
Are uncorrupt, sufficient, clear, entire
In all things which our needful faith require.                                                                     300
If others in the same glass better see,
'Tis for themselves they look, but not for me:
For my salvation must its doom receive
Not from what others, but what I believe.

    Must all tradition then be set aside?                                 Objection in behalf of tradition,
This to affirm were ignorance or pride.                                 urged by Father Simon
Are there not many points, some needful sure
To saving faith, that scripture leaves obscure?
Which every sect will wrest a several way
(For what one sect interprets, all sects may).                                                                     310
We hold, and say we prove from scripture plain,
That Christ is God; the bold Socinian
From the same scripture urges he's but man.
Now what appeal can end th' important suit?
Both parts talk loudly, but the rule is mute.

    Shall I speak plain, and in a notion free
Assume an honest layman's liberty?
I think (according to my little skill,
To my own mother church submitting still)
That many have been saved, and many may,                                                                     320
Who never heard this question brought in play.
Th' unlettered Christian, who believes in gross,
Plods on to heaven, and ne'er is at a loss:
For the strait gate would be made straiter yet
Were none admitted there but men of wit.
The few, by nature formed, with learning fraught,
Born to instruct, as others to be taught,
Must study well the sacred page, and see
Which doctrine, this or that, does best agree
With the whole tenor of the work divine,                                                                           330
And plainliest points to heaven's revealed design;
Which exposition flows from genuine sense,
And which is forced by wit and eloquence.
Not that tradition's parts are useless here,
When general, old, disinteressed and clear:
That ancient fathers thus expound the page
Gives truth the reverend majesty of age,
Confirms its force by biding every test,
For best authorities next rules are best,
And still the nearer to the spring we go                                                                              340
More limpid, more unsoiled the waters flow.
Thus first traditions were a proof alone,
Could we be certain such they were, so known;
But since some flaws in long descent may be,
They make not truth, but probability.
Ev'n Arius and Pelagius durst provoke
To what the centuries preceding spoke.
Such difference is there in an oft-told tale,
But truth by its own sinews will prevail.
Tradition written therefore more commends                                                                       350
Authority than what from voice descends;
And this, as perfect as its kind can be,
Rolls down to us the sacred history,
Which, from the universal church received,
Is tried, and after for itself believed.

    The partial papists would infer from hence                             The second objection
Their church in last resort should judge the sense;
But first they would assume, with wondrous art,                         Answer to the objection
Themselves to be the whole, who are but part
Of that vast frame, the church.  Yet grant they were                                                           360
The handers down, can they from thence infer
A right t' interpret?  Or would they alone
Who brought the present claim it for their own?
The book's a common largess to mankind,
Not more for them than every man designed;
The welcome news is in the letter found,
The carrier's not commissioned to expound;
It speaks itself, and what it does contain
In all things needful to be known is plain.

    In times o'er grown with rust and ignorance,                                                                  370
A gainful trade their clergy did advance,
When want of learning kept the laymen low,
And none but priests were authorized to know,
When what small knowledge was, in them did dwell,
And he a god who could but read or spell;
Then mother church did mightily prevail,
She parcelled out the bible by retail,
But still expounded what she sold or gave,
To keep it in her power to damn and save.
Scripture was scarce, and as the market went                                                                   380
Poor laymen took salvation on content,
As needy men take money, good or bad:
God's word they had not, but the priest's they had.
Yet whate'er false conveyances they made,
The lawyer still was certain to be paid.
In those dark times they learned their knack so well
That by long use they grew infallible.
At last a knowing age began t'enquire
If they the book, or that did them inspire;
And making narrower search they found, though late,                                                        390
That what they thought the priest's, was their estate;
Taught by the will produced (the written word)
How long they had been cheated on record.
Them every man who saw the title fair
claimed a child's part, and put in for a share,
Consulted soberly his private good,
And saved himself as cheap as e'er he could.

    'Tis true, my friend (and far be flattery hence),
This good had full as bad a consequence;
The book thus put in every vulgar hand                                                                             400
Which each presumed he best could understand,
The common rule was made the common prey,
And at the mercy of the rabble lay.
The tender page with horny fists was galled,
And he was gifted most that loudest bawled.
The spirit gave the doctoral degree,
And every member  of a company
Was of his trade, and of the Bible free.
Plain truths enough for needful use they found,
But men would still be itching to expound;                                                                         410
Each was ambitious of th' obscurest place,
No measure ta'en from knowledge, all from grace.
Study and pains were now no more their care,
Texts were explained by fasting and by prayer.
This was the fruit the private spirit brought,
Occasioned by great zeal, and little thought.
While crowds unlearned, with rude devotion warm
About the sacred viands buzz and swarm,
The fly-blown text creates a crawling brood,
And turns to maggots what was meant for food.                                                                420
A thousand daily sects rise up, and die,
A thousand more the perished race supply.
So all we make of heaven's discovered will
Is not to have it, or to use it ill.
The danger's much the same, on several shelves
If others wreck us, or we wreck ourselves.

    What then remains, but waiving each extreme,
The tides of ignorance and pride to stem?
Neither so rich a treasure to forgo,
Nor proudly seek beyond our power to know.                                                                 430
Faith is not built on disquisitions vain:
The things we must believe are few, and plain;
But since men will believe more than they need,
And every man will make himself a creed,
In doubtful questions 'tis the safest way
To learn what unsuspected ancients say;
For 'tis not likely we should higher soar
In search of heaven than all the church before;
Nor can we be deceived, unless we see
The scripture and the fathers disagree.                                                                              440
If after all they stand suspected still
(For no man's faith depends upon his will)
'Tis some relief that points not clearly known
Without much hazard may be let alone;
And after hearing what our church can say,
If still our reason runs another way,
That private reason 'tis more just to curb,
Than by disputes the public peace disturb.
For points obscure are of small use to learn,
But common quite is mankind's concern.                                                                          450

    Thus have I made my own opinions clear,
Yet neither praise expect nor censure fear;
And this unpolished, rugged verse I chose,
As fittest for discourse, and nearest prose.
For while from sacred truth I do not swerve,
Tom Sternhold's or Tom Sha--ll's rhymes will serve.

 

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