Ode Upon Liberty

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Ode Upon Liberty
by Abraham Cowley
Part of Of Liberty; often separate

Ode Upon Liberty

I.

Freedom with virtue takes her seat;
Her proper place, her only scene,
   Is in the golden mean,
She lives not with the poor, nor with the great:
The wings of those, Necessity has clipped,
   And they're in Fortune's Bridewell whipped,
   To the laborious task of bread;
These are by various tyrants captive led.
Now wild Ambition with imperious force
Rides, reins, and spurs them like th' unruly horse;
   And servile Avarice yokes them now
   Like toilsome oxen to the plough;
And sometimes Lust, like the misguiding light,
Draws them through all the labyrinths of night.
If any few among the great there be
   From the insulting passions free,
   Yet we even those too fettered see
By custom, business, crowds, and formal decency;
And wheresoe'er they stay, and wheresoe'er they go,
   Impertinences round them flow.
   These are the small uneasy things
   Which about greatness still are found,
   And rather it molest than wound
Like gnats which too much heat of summer brings;
But cares do swarm there too, and those have stings:
As when the honey does too open lie,
   A thousand wasps about it fly
Nor will the master even to share admit;
The master stands aloof, and dares not taste of it.

II.

'Tis morning, well, I fain would yet sleep on;
   You cannot now; you must be gone
   To Court, or to the noisy hail
Besides, the rooms without are crowded all;
   The steam of business does begin,
And a springtide of clients is come in.
Ah, cruel guards, which this poor prisoner keep,
   Will they not suffer him to sleep!
Make an escape; out at the postern flee,
And get some blessed hours of liberty.
With a few friends, and a few dishes dine,
   And much of mirth and moderate wine;
To thy bent mind some relaxation give,
And steal one day out of thy life to live.
Oh happy man, he cries, to whom kind Heaven
   Has such a freedom always given
Why, mighty madman, what should hinder thee
From being every day as free?

III.

In all the freeborn nations of the air,
Never did bird a spirit so mean and sordid bear
As to exchange his native liberty
Of soaring boldly up into the sky,
His liberty to sing, to perch, or fly
When, and wherever he thought good,
And all his innocent pleasures of the wood,
For a more plentiful or constant food.
   Nor ever did ambitious rage
   Make him into a painted cage
Or the false forest of a well-hung room
   For honour and preferment come.
Now, blessings on ye all, ye heroic race,
Who keep their primitive powers and rights so well
   Though men and angels fell.
Of all material lives the highest place
   To you is justly given,
   And ways and walks the nearest Heaven;
Whilst wretched we, yet vain and proud, think fit
   To boast that we look up to it.
Even to the universal tyrant Love
   You homage pay but once a year;
None so degenerous and unbirdly prove,
   As his perpetual yoke to bear.
None but a few unhappy household fowl,
   Whom human lordship does control;
   Who from their birth corrupted were
By bondage, and by man's example here.

IV.

He's no small prince who every day
   Thus to himself can say,
Now will I sleep, now eat, now sit, now walk,
Now meditate alone, now with acquaintance talk;
This I will do, here I will stay,
Or, if my fancy call me away,
My man and I will presently go ride
(For we before have nothing to provide,
Nor after are to render an account)
To Dover, Berwick, or the Cornish Mount.
   If thou but a short journey take,
   As if thy last thou wert to make,
Business must be despatched ere thou canst part.
   Nor canst thou stir unless there be
   A hundred horse and men to wait on thee,
   And many a mule, and many a cart:
   What an unwieldy man thou art!
   The Rhodian Colossus so
   A journey too might go.

V.

Where honour or where conscience does not bind,
   No other law shall shackle me?
   Slave to myself I will not be,
Nor shall my future actions be confined
   By my own present mind.
Who by resolves and vows engaged does stand
   For days that yet belong to fate,
Does like an unthrift mortgage his estate
   Before it falls into his hand;
   The bondman of the cloister so
All that he does receive does always owe.
And still as time come in it goes away,
   Not to enjoy, but debts to pay.
Unhappy slave, and pupil to a bell
Which his hour's work, as well as hour's does tell!
Unhappy till the last, the kind releasing knell.

VI.

If Life should a well-ordered poem be
   (In which he only hits the white
Who joins true profit with the best delight),
The more heroic strain let others take,
   Mine the Pindaric way I'll make,
The matter shall be grave, the numbers loose and free.
It shall not keep one settled pace of time,
In the same tune it shall not always chime,
Nor shall each day just to his neighbour rhyme.
A thousand liberties it shall dispense,
And yet shall manage all without offence
Or to the sweetness of the sound, or greatness of the sense;
Nor shall it never from one subject start,
   Nor seek transitions to depart,
Nor its set way o'er stiles and bridges make,
   Nor thorough lanes a compass take
As if it feared some trespass to commit,
   When the wide air's a road for it.
So time imperial eagle does not stay
   Till the whole carcase he devour
   That's fallen into its power;
As if his generous hunger understood
That he can never want plenty of food,
   He only sucks the tasteful blood,
And to fresh game flies cheerfully away;
To kites and meaner birds he leaves the mangled prey.

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.