John Donne Poem

Obsequies of the Lord Harrington, Brother to the Countess of Bedford

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To the Countess of Bedford
I have learned by those laws wherein I am a little conversant, that he which bestows any cost upon the dead, obliges him which is dead, but not the heir; I do not therefore send this paper to your Ladyship that you should thank me for it, or think that I thank you in it; your favours and benefits to me are so much above my merits, that they are even above my gratitude, if that were to be judged by words, which must express it. But, Madam, since your noble brother’s fortune being yours, the evidences also concerning it are yours; so, his virtues being yours, the evidences concerning that belong also to you, of which by your acceptance this may be one piece, in which quality I humbly present it, and as a testimony how entirely your family possesseth
Your ladyship’s most humble
and thankful servant,

FAIR soul, which wast, not only as all souls be,
Then when thou wast infusèd, harmony,

But didst continue so; and now dost bear

A part in God’s great organ, this whole sphere;

If looking up to God, or down to us,

Thou find that any way is pervious

’Twixt heaven and earth, and that men’s actions do

Come to your knowledge, and affections too,

See, and with joy, me to that good degree

Of goodness grown, that I can study thee,

And by these meditations refined,

Can unapparel and enlarge my mind,

And so can make, by this soft ecstasy,

This place a map of heaven, myself of thee.

Thou seest me here at midnight; now all rest;

Times dead-low water, when all minds divest

To-morrow’s business; when the labourers have

Such rest in bed, that their last churchyard grave,

Subject to change, will scarce be a type of this;

Now, when the client, whose last hearing is

To-morrow, sleeps; when the condemned man,

Who, when he opes his eyes, must shut them then

Again by death, although sad watch he keep,

Doth practice dying by a little sleep;

Thou at this midnight seest me, and as soon

As that sun rises to me, midnight’s noon,

All the world grows transparent, and I see

Through all, both church and state, in seeing thee;

And I discern by favour of this light,

Myself, the hardest object of the sight.

God is the glass; as thou, when thou dost see

Him Who sees all, seest all concerning thee;

So, yet unglorified, I comprehend

All, in these mirrors of thy ways and end.

Though God be our true glass, through which we see

All, since the being of all things is He,

Yet are the trunks which do to us derive

Things, in proportion, fit by perspective,

Deeds of good men; for by their being here,

Virtues, indeed remote, seem to be near.

But where can I affirm, or where arrest

My thoughts on his deeds? which shall I call best?

For fluid virtue cannot be looked on,

Nor can endure a contemplation.

As bodies change, and as I do not wear

Those spirits, humours, blood I did last year,

And, as if on a stream I fix mine eye,

That drop, which I looked on, is presently

Push’d with more waters from my sight, and gone;

So in this sea of virtues, can no one

Be insisted on; virtues as rivers pass,

Yet still remains that virtuous man there was.

And as if man feed on man’s flesh, and so

Part of his body to another owe,

Yet at the last two perfect bodies rise,

Because God knows where every atom lies;

So, if one knowledge were made of all those,

Who knew his minutes well, he might dispose

His virtues into names and ranks; but I

Should injure nature, virtue, and destiny,

Should I divide and discontinue so

Virtue, which did in one entireness grow.

For as he that should say spirits are framed

Of all the purest parts that can be named,

Honours not spirits half so much as he

Which says they have no parts, but simple be;

So is ’t of virtue, for a point and one

Are much entirer than a million.

And had fate meant to have had his virtues told,

It would have let him live to have been old;

So then that virtue in season, and then this,

We might have seen, and said, that now he is

Witty, now wise, now temperate, now just.

In good short lives, virtues are fain to thrust,

And to be sure betimes to get a place,

When they would exercise, lack time and space.

So was it in this person, forced to be,

For lack of time, his own epitome;

So to exhibit in few years as much

As all the long-breathed chronicles can touch.

As when an angel down from heaven doth fly,

Our quick thought cannot keep him company;

We cannot think, ‘Now he is at the sun,

Now through the moon, now he through th’ air doth run’;

Yet when he’s come, we know he did repair

To all ’twixt heaven and earth, sun, moon, and air.

And as this angel in an instant knows,

And yet we know, this sudden knowledge grows

By quick amassing several forms of things,

Which he successively to order brings,

When they, whose slow-paced lame thoughts cannot go

So fast as he, think that he doth not so.

Just as a perfect reader doth not dwell

On every syllable, nor stay to spell,

Yet without doubt he doth distinctly see,

And lay together every A and B;

So, in short-lived good men, is not understood

Each several virtue, but the compound good;

For they all virtue’s paths in that pace tread,

As angels go, and know, and as men read.

O, why should then these men, these lumps of balm,

Sent hither the world’s tempest to becalm,

Before by deeds they are diffused and spread,

And so make us alive, themselves be dead?

O soul, O circle, why so quickly be

Thy ends, thy birth and death closed up in thee?

Since one foot of thy compass still was placed

In heaven, the other might securely have paced,

In the most large extent, through every path

Which the whole world or man th’ abridgment hath.

Thou know’st that though the tropic circles have

—Yea, and those small ones which the Poles engrave—

All the same roundness, evenness, and all

The endlessness of th’ equinoctial;

Yet, when we come to measure distances,

How here, how there, the sun affected is,

When he doth faintly work, and when prevail,

Only great circles, then, can be our scale.

So though thy circle to thyself express

All, tending to thy endless happiness,

And we by our good use of it may try,

Both how to live well, young, and how to die;

Yet since we must be old, and age endures

His torrid zone at court, and calentures

Of hot ambitions, irreligion’s ice,

Zeal’s agues, and hydroptic avarice

—Infirmities, which need the scale of truth,

As well as lust and ignorance of youth—

Why didst thou not for these give medicines too,

And by thy doing set us what to do?

Though as small pocket-clocks, whose every wheel

Doth each mismotion and distemper feel,

Whose hands get shaking palsies, and whose string

(His sinews) slackens, and whose soul, the spring,
Expires, or languishes; whose pulse, the fly,
Either beats not, or beats unevenly;
Whose voice, the bell, doth rattle or grow dumb,
Or idle as men which to their last hours are come,
If these clocks be not wound, or be wound still,
Or be not set, or set at every will;
So youth is easiest to destruction,
If then we follow all, or follow none.
Yet, as in great clocks which in steeples chime,
Placed to inform whole towns to employ their time,
An error doth more harm, being general,
When small clocks’ faults only on the wearer fall;
So work the faults of age, on which the eye
Of children, servants, or the state rely.
Why wouldst not thou, then, which hadst such a soul,
A clock so true, as might the sun control,
And daily hadst from Him, who gave it thee,
Instructions, such as it could never be
Disorder’d, stay here, as a general
And great sun-dial, to have set us all?
O, why wouldest thou be an instrument
To this unnatural course, or why consent
To this, not miracle, but prodigy,
That when the ebbs longer than flowings be,
Virtue, whose flood did with thy youth begin,
Should so much faster ebb out, than flow in?
Though her flood were blown in by thy first breath,
All is at once sunk in the whirlpool death.
Which word I would not name, but that I see
Death, else a desert, grown a court by thee.
Now I am sure that if a man would have
Good company, his entry is a grave.
Methinks all cities, now, but anthills be,
Where, when the several labourers I see,
For children, house, provision taking pain,
They’re all but ants, carrying eggs, straw, and grain.
And churchyards are our cities, unto which
The most repair, that are in goodness rich.
There is the best concourse and confluence,
There are the holy suburbs, and from thence
Begins God’s city, New Jerusalem,
Which doth extend her utmost gates to them.
At that gate, then, triumphant soul, dost thou
Begin thy triumph. But since laws allow,
That at the triumph day the people may
All that they will ’gainst the triumpher say,
Let me here use that freedom, and express
My grief, though not to make thy triumph less.
By law to triumphs none admitted be,
Till they as magistrates get victory.
Though then to thy force all youth’s foes did yield,
Yet till fit time had wrought thee to that field,
To which thy rank in this state destined thee,
That there thy counsels might get victory,
And so in that capacity remove
All jealousies ’twixt prince and subjects’ love,
Thou couldst no title to this triumph have;
Thou didst intrude on death, usurp a grave.
Then, though victoriously, thou hadst fought as yet
But with thine own affections, with the heat
Of youth’s desires, and colds of ignorance,
But till thou shouldst successfully advance
Thine arms ’gainst foreign enemies, which are
Both envy, and acclamation popular
—For both these engines equally defeat,
Though by a divers mine, those which are great—
Till then thy war was but a civil war,
For which to triumph none admitted are;
No more are they who, though with good success,
In a defensive war their power express.
Before men triumph, the dominion
Must be enlarged, and not preserved alone.
Why shouldst thou, then, whose battles were to win
Thyself from those straits nature put thee in,
And to deliver up to God that state,
Of which He gave thee the vicariate,
Which is thy soul and body, as entire
As he who takes indentures doth require;
But didst not stay to enlarge His kingdom too,
By making others, what thou didst, to do;
Why shouldst thou triumph now, when heaven no more
Hath got by getting thee, than it had before;
For heaven and thou, e’en when thou livedst here,
Of one another in possession were.
But this from triumph most disables thee,
That that place which is conquered must be
Left safe from present war, and likely doubt
Of imminent commotions to break out;
And hath he left us so? or can it be
His territory was no more than he?
No, we were all his charge; the diocese
Of every exemplar man the whole world is;
And he was joined in commission
With tutelar angels, sent to every one.
But though this freedom to upbraid and chide
Him who triumph’d were lawful, it was tied
With this, that it might never reference have
Unto the senate, who this triumph gave;
Men might at Pompey jest, but they might not
At that authority by which he got
Leave to triumph, before by age he might;
So though, triumphant soul, I dare to write,
Moved with a reverential anger, thus,
That thou so early wouldst abandon us;
Yet I am far from daring to dispute
With that great sovereignty, whose absolute
Prerogative hath thus dispensed with thee,
’Gainst nature’s laws, which just impugners be
Of early triumphs; and I, though with pain,
Lessen our loss, to magnify thy gain
Of triumph, when I say, it was more fit
That all men should lack thee, than thou lack it.
Though then in our time be not suffered
That testimony of love unto the dead,
To die with them, and in their graves be hid,
As Saxon wives, and French soldarii did;
And though in no degree I can express
Grief in great Alexander’s great excess,
Who at his friend’s death made whole towns divest
Their walls and bulwarks, which became them best;
Do not, fair soul, this sacrifice refuse,
That in thy grave I do inter my Muse,
Which, by my grief, great as thy worth, being cast
Behindhand, yet hath spoke, and spoke her last.

Elegy on the Lady Markham
Elegy upon the Untimely Death of the Incomparable Prince Henry


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