Matthew Prior

(1664 - 1721 / Dorset / England)

Alma; or, The Progress of the Mind. In Three Cantos. - Canto II.


But shall we take the Muse abroad,
To drop her idly on the road,
And leave our subject in the middle,
As Butler did his Bear and Fiddle?
Yet he, consummate master, knew
When to recede and where pursue:
His noble negligence teach
What others' toils despair to reach.
He, perfect dancer, climbs the rope,
And balances your fear and hope.
If, after some distinguished leap,
He drops his pole, and seems to slip,
Straight gathering all his active strength,
He rises higher half his length:
With wonder you approve his sleight,
And owe your pleasure to your fright:
But like poor Andrew I advance,
False mimic of my master's dance;
Around the chord a while I sprawl,
And thence, though low, in earnest fall.

My preface tells you I digress'd;
He's half absolved who has confess'd.

I like, quoth Dick, your simile,
And in return take two from me.
As masters in the
clare-obscure

With various light your eyes allure,
A flaming yellow here they spread,
Draw off in blue, or change in red;
Yet from these colours oddly mix'd
Your sight upon the whole is fix'd:
Or as, again, your courtly dames
(Whose clothes returning birthday claims)
By arts improve the stuffs they vary,
And things are best as most contrary;
The gown with stiff embroidery shining,
Looks charming with a slighter lining;
Look out, if Indian figure stain,
The in-side must be rich and plain:
So you, great authors, have thought fit
To make digression temper wit:
You calm them with a milder air:
To break their points you turn their force,
And furbelow the plain discourse.

Richard, quoth Matt, these words of thine
Speak something sly and something fine;
But I shall e'en resume my theme,
However thou may'st praise or blame.

As people marry now and settle,
Fierce Love abates his usual mettle;
Worldly desires and household cares
Disturb the godhead's soft affairs:
So now, as health or temper changes,
In larger compass Alma ranges,
This day below, the next above,
As light or solid whimsies move.
So merchant has his house in Town,
And country seat near Bansted Down;
From one he dates his foreign letters,
Sends out his goods and duns his debtors:
In th' other, at his hours of leisure,
He smokes his pipe, and takes his pleasure.

And now your matrimonial Cupid,
Lash'd on by Time, grows tired and stupid:
For story and experience tell us
That man grows cold and woman jealous.
Both would their solid ends secure;
He sighs for freedom she for power:
His wishes tend abroad to roam,
And hers to domineer at home.
Thus passion flags by slow degrees,
And ruffled more delighted legs,
The busy mind does seldom go
To those once charming seats below;
For well-bred feints and future wars,
(When he last autumn lay a-dying)
Was but to gain him to appoint her
By codicil a larger jointure:
The woman finds it all a trick
That he could swoon when she was sick,
And knows that in that grief he reckon'd
One black-eyed Susan for his second.

Thus having strove some tedious years
With feign'd desires and real fears,
And tired with answers and replies
Of John affirms, and Martha lies,
Leaving this endless altercation,
The mind affects a higher station.

Poltis, that generous king of Thrace,
I think was in this very case.
All Asia now was by the ears,
And gods beat up for volunteers
To Greece and Troy, while Poltis sate
In quiet, governing his state.
And whence, said the pacific king,
Does all this noise and discord spring?
Why, Paris took Atrides' wife -
With ease I could compose this strife:
The injured hero should not lose,
Nor the young lover want, a spouse.
But Helen changed her first condition
Without her husband's just permission.
What from the dame can Paris hope?
She may as well from him elope.
Again, How can her old good man
With honour take her back again?
From hence I logically gather
The woman cannot live with either.
Now I have two right honest wives,
For whose possession no man strives:
One to Atrides I will send,
And t'other to my Trojan friend.
Each prince shall thus with honour have
What both so warmly seem to crave;
The wrath of gods and men shall cease,
And Poltis live and die in peace.

Dick, if this story pleaseth thee,
Pray thank Dan Pope, who told it me.

Howe'er swift Alma's flight may vary,
(Take this by way of corollary)
Some limbs she finds the very same
In place, and dignity, and name:
These dwell at such convenient distance,
That each may give his friend assistance.
Thus he who runs or dances, begs
The equal vigour of two legs;
So much to both does Alma trust
She ne'er regards which goes the first.
Teague could make neither of them stay,
For whilst one hand exalts the blow,
And on the earth extends the foe,
Th' other would take it wondrous ill
If in your pocket he lay still.
And when you shoot and shut one eye,
To lend the other friendly aid,
Or wink as coward, and afraid.
No, Sir; whilst he withdraws his flame,
His comrade takes the surer aim.
One moment if his beams recede,
As soon as e'er the bird is dead,
Opening again, he lays his claim
To half the profit, half the fame,
And helps to pocket up the game.
'Tis thus one tradesman slips away
To give his partner fairer play.

Some limbs again, in bulk or stature
Unlike, and not a-kin by Nature,
In concert act, like modern friends,
Because one serves the other's ends.
The arm thus waits upon the heart,
So quick to take the bully's part,
That one, though warm, decides more slow
Than th' other executes the blow:
A stander-by may chance to have it
Ere Hack himself perceives he gave it.

The amorous eyes thus always go
A strolling for their friends below;
For long before the squire and dame
Have
tete a tete
relieved their flame,
Ere visits yet are brought about,
They eye by sympathy looks out,
Knows Florimel, and longs to meet her,
And if he sees is sure to greet her,
Though at sash-window, on the stairs,
At court, nay, (authors say) at prayers -

The funeral of some valiant knight
May give this thing its proper light.
View his two gauntlets; these declare
That both his hands were used to war;
And from his two gilt spurs 'tis learn'd
His feet were equally concern'd:
But have you not with thought beheld
The sword hang dangling o'er his shield?
Which shows the breast that plate was used to
Had an ally right arm to trust to;
And by the peep holes in his crest,
Is it not virtually confess'd
That there his eye took distant aim,
And glances respect to that bright dame,
In whose delight his hope was center'd,
And for whose glove his life he ventured?

Objections to my general system
May rise, perhaps, and I have miss'd them;
But I can call to my assistance
Proximity (mark that!) and distance;
Can prove that all things, on occasion,
Love union, and desire adhesion!
That Alma merely is a scale,
And motives, like the weights prevail.
If neither side turn down or up,
With loss or gain, with fear or hope,
The balance always would hang even,
Like Mahomet's tomb, 'twixt earth and heaven.

This, Richard, is a curious case:
Suppose your eyes sent equal rays
Upon two distant pots of ale,
Not knowing which was mild or stale;
In this sad state your doubtful choice
Would never have the casting voice;
Which best nor worst you could not think,
And die you must for want of drink,
Unless some chance inclines your sight,
Setting one pot in fairer light;
Then you prefer or A or B,
As lines and angles best agree;
Your sense resolved impels your will;
She guides your hand - So drink your fill.

Have you not seen a baker's maid
Between two equal panniers sway'd?
Her tallies useless lie and idle
If placed exactly in the middle;
But forced from this unactive state
By virtue of some casual weight,
On either side you hear them clatter,
And judge of right and left hand matter.

Now, Richard, this coercive force
Without your choice must take its course.
Great kings to wars are pointed forth
Like loaded needles to the North,
And thou and I, by power unseen,
Are barely passive and suck'd in
To Henault's vaults or Celia's chamber,
As straw and paper are by amber.
If we sit down to play or set,
(Suppose at Ombre or Basset)
Let people call us cheats or fools,
Our cards and we are equal tools,
We sure in vain the cards condemn;
Ourselves both cut and shuffled them:
In vain on Fortune's aid rely;
She only is a stander-by.
Poor men! poor papers! we and they
Do some impulsive force obey,
Are but play'd with - do not play.
But space and matter we should blame;
They palm'd the trick that lost the game.

Thus to save further contradiction
Against what you may think but fiction,
I for attraction, Dick, declare,
Deny it those bold men that dare.
As well your mention as your thought
Is all by hidden impulse wrought:
Even saying that you think or walk,
How like a country squire you talk?

Mark then; - Where fancy or desire
Collects the beams of vital fire,
Into that limb fair Alma slides
And there
pro tempore
resides:
She dwells in Nicholini's tongue,
When Pyrrhus chants the heavenly song;
When Pedro does the lute command,
She guides the cunning artist's hand;
Through Macer's gullet she runs down,
When the vile glutton dines alone;
And, void of modesty and thought,
She follows Bibo's endless draught,
Through the soft sex again she ranges,
As youth, caprice, or fashion, changes:
Fair Alma, careless and serene,
In Fanny's sprightly eyes is seen.
While they diffuse their infant beams,
Themselves not conscious of their flames.
Again, fair Alma sits confess'd
On Florimel's experter breast,
When she the rising sigh constrains,
And by concealing speaks her pains.
In Cynthia's neck fair Alma glows,
When the vain thing her jewels shows;
When Jenny's stays are newly laced
Fair Alma plays about her waist;
And when the swelling hoop sustains
The rich brocade, fair Alma deigns
Into that lower space to enter,
Of the large round herself the center.

Again; that single limb or feature
(Such is the cogent force of Nature)
Which most did Alma's passion move,
In the first object of her love,
For ever will be found confess'd,
And printed on the amorous breast.

O Abelard! ill-fated youth,
Thy tale will justify this truth;
But well I weet thy cruel wrong
Adorns a nobler poet's song,
Dan Pope, for thy misfortune grieve!,
With kind concern and skill has weaved
A silken web, and ne'er shall fade
Its colours gently: as he laid
The mantle o'er thy sad distress,
And Venus shall the texture bless.
He o'er the weeping nun has drawn
Such artful folds of sacred lawn,
That Love, with equal grief and pride,
Shall see the crime he strives to hide,
And softly drawing back the veil,
The god shall to his votaries tell
Each conscious tear, each blushing grace,
That deck'd dear Eloisa's face.

Happy the poet, bless'd the lays,
Which Buckingham has deign'd to praise.

Next, Dick, as youth and habit sways,
A hundred gambols Alma plays.
If, whilst a boy, Jack run from school,
Fond of his hunting-horn and pole,
Though gout and age his speed detain,
Old John halloos his hounds again:
By his fireside he starts the hare,
And turns her in his wicker chair.
His feet, however lame, you find,
Have got the better of his mind.

If, while the Mind was in her leg,
The dance affected nimble Peg,
Old Madge bewitch'd, at sixty-one
Calls for Green Sleeves and Jumping Joan.
In public mask or private ball,
From Lincoln's-inn to Goldsmith's-Hall,
All Christmas long away she trudges,
Trips it was 'prentices and judges;
In vain her children urge her stay,
And age or palsy bar the way:
But if those images prevail,
Which whilom did affect the tail,
She still reviews the ancient scene,
Forgets the forty years between;
Awkwardly gay, and oddly merry,
Her scarf pale pink, her headknot cherry,
O'erheated with ideal rage,
She cheats her son to wed her page.

If Alma, whilst the man was young,
Slipp'd up too soon into his tongue,
Pleased with his own fantastic skill,
He lets that weapon ne'er lie still;
On any point if you dispute,
Depend upon it he'll confute:
Change sides, and you increase your pain,
For he'll confute you back again:
For one may speak with Tully's tongue,
Yet all the while be in the wrong;
And 'tis remarkable that they
talk most who have the least to say.
Your dainty speakers have the curse
To plead bad causes down to worse;
As dames who native beauty want,
Still uglier look the more they paint.

Again: if in the female sex
Alma should on this member fix,
(A cruel and a desperate case,
From which Heaven shield my lovely lass!)
For ever more all care is vain
That would bring Alma down again.
As in habitual gout or stone,
The only thing that can be done
Is to correct your drink and diet,
And keep the inward foe in quiet;
So if, for any sins of ours,
Or our forefathers, higher powers,
Severe, though just, afflict our life,
With that prime ill, a talking wife,
Till death shall bring the kind relief,
We must be patient or be deaf.

You know a certain lady, Dick,
Who saw me when I last was sick;
She kindly talk'd, at least three hours,
Of plastic forms and mental powers;
Described our pre-existing station,
Before this vile terrene creation;
And, lest I should be wearied, Madam,
To cut things short, came down to Adam;
From whence, as fast as she was able,
She drowns the world, and builds up Babel:
Through Syria, Persia, Greece, she goes,
And takes the Romans in the close.

But we'll descant on general Nature;
This is a system, not a satire.

Turn we this globe, and let us see
How different nations disagree,
In what we wear, or eat, and drink;
Nay, Dick, perhaps in what we think.
In water as you smell and taste
The soils through which it rose and past,
In Alma's manners you may read
The place where she was born and bred.

One people from their swaddling-bands
Released their infants' feet and hands:
Here Alma to these limbs was brought
And Sparta's offspring kick'd and fought.

Another taught their babes to talk
Ere they could yet in go-carts walk:
There Alma settled in the tongue,
And orators from Athens sprung.

Observe but in these neighbouring lands
The different use of mouth and hands:
As men reposed their various hopes,
In battles these, and those in tropes.

In Britain's isles, as Heylin notes,
The ladies trip in petticoats,
Which, for the honour of their nation,
They quit but on some great occasion,
Men there in breeches clad you view;
They claim that garment as their due.
In Turkey the reverse appears;
Long coats the haughty husband wears,
And greets his wife with angry speeches,
If she be seen without her breeches.

In our fantastic climes the fair
With cleanly powder dry their hair,
And round their lovely breast and head
Fresh flowers their mingled odours shed:
Your nicer Hottentots think meet
With guts and tripe to deck their feet;
With downcast looks on Totta's legs
The ogling youth most humbly begs
She would not from his hopes remove
At once his breakfast and his love;
And if the skittish nymph should fly,
He in a double sense must die.

We simple toasters take delight
To see our women's teeth look white,
And every saucy ill-bred fellow
Sneers at a mouth profoundly yellow
In China none hold women sweet,
Except their snags are black as jet:
King Chihu put nine queens to death,
Convict on statute, ivory teeth.

At Tonquin, if a prince should die,
(As Jesuits write, who never lie)
The wife, and counsellor, and priest,
Who served him most, and loved him best,
Prepare and light his funeral fire,
And cheerful on the pile expire.
In Europe 'twould be hard to find
In each degree on half so kind.

Now turn we to the farthest East,
And there observe the gentry drest.
Prince Giolo and his royal sisters,
Scarr'd with ten thousand comely blisters,
The marks remaining on the skin,
To tell the quality within:
Distinguish'd flashes deck the great,
As each excels in birth or state;
His oylet-holes are more and ampler:
The king's own body was a sampler.
Happy the climate where the beau
Wears the same suit for use and show;
And at a small expense your wife,
If once well pink'd, is cloath'd for life.

Westward again, the Indian fair
Is nicely smear'd with fat of bear:
Before you see you smell your toast,
And sweetest she who stinks the most.
The finest sparks and cleanest beaux
Drip from the shoulders to the toes.
How sleek their skins, their joints how easy!
There slovens only are not greasy.

I mention'd different ways of breeding;
Begin we in our children's reading,
To master John the English maid
A hornbrook gives of gingerbread,
And that the child may learn the better,
As he can name he eats the letter;
Proceeding thus with vast delight,
He spells and gnaws from left to right.
But show a Hebrew's hopeful son
Where we suppose the book begun,
The child would thank you for your kindness,
And read quite backward from our
finis
;
Devour he learning ne'er so fast,
Great A would be reserved the last.
An equal instance of this matter
Is in the manners of a daughter.
In Europe if a harmless maid,
By Nature and by Love betray'd,
Should ere a wife become a nurse,
Her friends would look on her the worse.
In China, Dampier's Travels tell ye,
(Look in his index for Pagelli)
Soon as the British ships unmoor,
And jolly long-boats row to shore,
Down come the nobles of the land,
Each brings his daughter in his hand,
Beseeching the mysterious tar
To make her but one hour his care:
The tender mother stands affrighted,
Les her dear daughter should be slighted,
And poor Miss Yaya dreads the shame
Of going back the maid she came.

Observe how custom, Dick, compels
The lady that in Europe dwells:
After her tea she slips away,
And what to do one need not say.
Now see how great Pomonque's queen
Behaved herself amongst the men;
Pleased with her punch, the gallant soul
First drank, then water'd in the bowl,
And sprinkled in the captain's face
The marks of her peculiar grace. -

To close this point we need not roam
For instances so far from home.
What parts gay France from sober Spain?
A little rising rocky chain.
Of men born south or north o' the hill,
Those seldom move, these ne'er stand still.
Dick, you love maps, and may perceive
Rome not far distant from Geneve.
If the good Pope remains at home,
He's the first prince in Christendom.
Choose then, good Pope, at home to stay,
Nor westward, curious, take thy way:
Thy way, unhappy, shouldst thou take
From Tiber's bank to Leman lake,
Thou art an aged priest no more,
But a young flaring painted bunny:
Thy sex is lost, thy town is gone;
No longer Rome, but Babylon.
That some few leagues should make this change,
To men unlearn'd seems mighty strange.

But need we, friend, insist on this?
Since, in the very Cantons Swiss,
All your philosophers agree,
And prove it plain, that one may be
A heretic or true believer,
On this or t'other side the rive.

Here, with an artful smile, quoth Dick -
Your proofs come mighty full and thick -

The bard, on this extensive chapter,
Wound up into poetic rapture,
Continued: Richard, cast your eye
By night upon a winter sky;
Cast it by day-light on the strand,
Which compasses fair Albion's land;
If you can count the stars that glow
Above, or sands that lie below,
Into these common places look,
Which from great authors I have took,
And count the proofs I have collected,
To have my writings well protected:
These I lay by for time of need,
And thou may'st at thy leisure read:
For standing every critic's rage,
I safely will, to future age
My system as a gift bequeath,
Victorious over spite and death.

Submitted: Monday, April 19, 2010

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