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IT is a hard and nice subject for a man to write of himself; it grates his own heart to say any thing of disparagement, and the reader's ears to hear any thing of praise from him. There is no danger from me of offending him in this kind: neither my mind, nor my body, nor my fortune, allow me any materials for that vanity. It is sufficient for my own contentment that they have preserved me from being scandalous or remarkable on the defective side. But besides that I shall here speak of myself only in relation to the subject of these Essays, and shall be likelier thereby to fall into the contempt, than to rise up to the estimation of most people.
As far as my memory can return back into my past life, before I knew, or was capable of guessing what the world, or the glories or business of it were, the natural affections of my soul gave me a secret bent or aversion from them, as some
plants are said to turn away from others, by an
antipathy inperceptible to themselves, and inscrutable to man's understanding. Even when I was a very young boy at school, instead of running about on holidays, and playing with my fellows, I was wont to steal from them, and walk into the fields, either alone, or with a book, or with some one companion, if I could find any of the same temper. I was then, too, so much an enemy to all constraint, that my masters could never prevail on me, by any persuasions or encouragement, to learn without book the common rules of grammar, in which they dispensed with me. alone, because they found I made a shift to do the usual exercise out of my own reading and observation. That I was then of the same mind as I am now (which I confess I wonder at myself) may appear by the latter end of an ode, which I made when I was but thirteen years old, and which was then printed with many other verses. The beginning of it is boyish, but of this part which I here set down, (if a very little were corrected) I should hardly now be much ashamed.
This only grant me, that my means may lie
Not for great deeds, but good alone;
Acquaintance I would have, but when't depends
Books should, not business, entertain the light,
And sleep, as undisturb'd as death,
My house a cottage more
Than palace, and should fitting be
For all my use, no luxury.
My garden painted o'er
With nature's hand, not art's; and pleasures yield,
Thus would I double my life's fading space;
Those unbought sports, this happy state,
To-morrow let my sun his beams display,
You may see by it, I was even then acquainted with the poets (for the conclusion is taken out of Horace) and perhaps it was the immature and immoderate love of them which stamped first, or rather engraved, these characters in me: they were like letters cut into the bark of a young tree, which with the tree grow still proportionably. But how this love came to be produced in me so early is a hard question. I believe I can tell the particular little chance that
ille potens sui,
Lætusque deget, cui licet in diem
Nube polum, Pater, occupato,
Vel sole puro.
Od. III. xxix. 41.
filled my head first with such chimes of verse, as have never since left ringing there; for I remember, when I began to read, and to take some pleasure in it, there was wont to be in my mother's parlour (I know not by what accident, for she herself never in her life read any book but of devotion), but there was wont to be Spenser's works. This I happened to fall upon, and was infinitely delighted with the stories of the knights, and giants, and monsters, and brave houses, which I found every where there (though my understanding had little to do with all this); and by degrees with the tinkling of the rhyme and dance of the numbers; so that I think I had read him all over before I was twelve years old, and was thus made a poet before I reached the age of reflection.
With these affections of mind, and my heart wholly set upon letters, I went to the university; but was soon torn from thence by that violent public storm, which would suffer nothing to stand where it did, but rooted up every plant, even from the princely cedars, to me the hyssop. Yet I had as good fortune as could have befallen me in such a tempest; for I was cast by it into the family of one of the best persons, and into the court of one of the best princesses, of the world.* Now though I was here engaged in
When the queen and family of Charles the first retired into France, Cowley followed them to Paris,
ways most contrary to the original design of my life, that is, into much company, and no small business, and into a daily sight of greatness, both militant and triumphant (for that was the state then of the English and French courts) yet all this was so far from altering my opinion that it only added the confirmation of reason to that, which was before but natural inclination. I saw plainly all the paint of that kind of life, the nearer I came to it; and that beauty, which I did not fall in love with, when, for aught I knew, it was real, was not like to bewitch or entice me, when I saw that it was adulterate. I met with several great persons whom I liked very well, but could not perceive that any part of their greatness was to be liked or desired, no more than I would be glad or content to be in a storm though I saw many ships which rid safely and bravely in it; a storm did not much agree with my inclination, if it did with my courage.
Though I was in a crowd of as good company as could be found any where; though I was in business of great and honourable trust, though I eat at the best table, and enjoyed the best conveniences for present subsistence that ought to be desired by a man of my condition in banish
became secretary to lord Germain, afterwards earl of St. Albans, and was employed in cyphering and decyphering the letters which passed between the king and queen.