Poetical Works of John Oldham/Some Verses on presenting a Book to Cornelia

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GO, humble gift, go to that matchless saint,
Of whom thou only wast a copy meant:
And all that's read in thee, more richly find
Comprised in the fair "volume of her mind;
That living system, where are fully writ
All those high morals, which in books we meet:[2]
Easy, as in soft air, there writ they are,
Yet firm, as if in brass they graven were.
Nor is her talent lazily to know,
As dull divines, and holy canters do;
She acts what they only in pulpits prate,
And theory to practice does translate:
Not her own actions more obey her will,
Than that obeys strict virtue's dictates still:
Yet does not virtue from her duty flow,
But she is good, because she will be so:
Her virtue scorns at a low pitch to fly,
'Tis all free choice, nought of necessity:[3]
By such soft rules are saints above confined.
Such is the tie, which them to good does bind.

The scattered glories of her happy sex
In her bright soul as in their centre mix:
And all that they possess but by retail,
She hers by just monopoly can call;
Whose sole example does more virtues shew,
Than schoolmen ever taught, or ever knew.
No act did e'er within her practice fall,
Which for the atonement of a blush could call:
'No word of hers e'er greeted any ear,
But what a saint at her last gasp might hear:
Scarcely her thoughts have ever sullied been
With the least print or stain of native sin:
Devout she is, as holy hermits are,
Who share their time 'twixt ecstasy and prayer;
Modest, as infant roses in their bloom,
Who in a blush their fragrant lives consume:
So chaste, the dead themselves are only more,
Who lie divorced from objects, and from power;[4]
So pure, could virtue in a shape appear,
'Twould choose to have no other form, but her;
So much a saint, I scarce dare call her so,
For fear to wrong her with a name too low:
Such the seraphic brightness of her mind,
I hardly can believe her womankind:
But think some nobler being does appear,
Which, to instruct the world, has left the sphere,
And condescends to wear a body here;
Or, if she mortal be, and meant to show
The greater art, by being formed below;
Sure Heaven preserved her, by the fall uncurst,
To tell how good the sex was made at first.

  1. These verses were written in September, 1676; and the three pieces immediately following these have reference, probably, to the same person, and to the same period. They are the only 'love verses' in the collection. The Parting seems to apply to Oldham's departure for Croydon, which took place a short time before; and in the lines complaining of absence, he directly alludes to the drudgeries in which he is engaged, and which leave him few opportunities of seeing the lady. Oldham's strength did not lie in pathos of tenderness; yet there is much feeling and delicacy in these little pieces, and a purity of sentiment very rare in the poetical love-making of the period.
  2. In this passage, and one or two others, Oldham appropriated, as equally applicable to the lady, certain images he had already addressed in the preceding (at that time unpublished) poem to the memory of his friend Morwent. Thus, in the Ode.—

    'Thou wast a living system where were wrote
    All those high morals which in books are sought.'

  3. Thine a far nobler pitch did fly,
    'Twas all free choice, nought of necessity.—Ode.
  4. Devout thou wast as holy hermits are,
    Which share their time 'twixt ecstasy and prayer;
    Modest as infant roses in their bloom,
    Which in a blush their lives consume,
    So chaste, the dead are only more.
    Who lie divorced from objects, and from power.—Ode.