An Epistle To Fleetwood Shephard, Esq. Burleigh, May 14, 1689

A poem by Matthew Prior

Sir,
As once a twelvemonth to the priest,
Holy at Rome, here Antichrist,
The Spanish king presents a jennet
To show his love, that's all that's in it;
For if his Holiness would thump
His reverend bum 'gainst horse's rump,
He might be 'quipp'd from his own stable
With one more white and eke more able.

Or as with gondolas and men his
Good excellence the duke of Venice
(I wish, for rhyme, it had been the king)
Sails out, and gives the Gulf a ring,
Which trick of state he wisely maintains,
Keeps kindness up 'twixt old acquaintance,
For else, in honest truth, the sea
Has much less need of gold than he.

Or, not to rove and pump one's fancy
For popish similes beyond sea,
As folks from mudwall'd tenement
Bring landlords pepper corn for rent,
Present a turkey or a hen
To those might better spare them ten;
Even so, with all submission, I
(For first men instance, then apply)
Send you each year a homely letter,
Who may return me much a better.

Then take it, Sir, as it was writ
To pay respect, and not show wit,
Nor look askew at what is saith;
There's no petition in it, 'faith.

Here some would scratch their heads, and try
What they should write, and how, and why;
But I conceive such folks are quite in
Mistakes in theory of writing.
If once for principle 'tis laid
That thought is trouble to the head,
I argue thus: The world agrees
That he writes well who writes with ease;
Then he, by sequel logical,
Writes best who never thinks at all.

Verse comes from heaven like inward light;
Mere human pains can ne'er come by't;
The god, not we, the poem makes;
We only tell folks what he speaks.
Hence when anatomists discourse
How like brutes' organs are to ours,
They grant, if higher powers think fit,
A bear might soon be made a wit,
And that for any thing in nature,
Figs might squeak love-odes, dogs bark satire.

Memnon, though stone, was counted vocal,
But 'twas the god meanwhile that spoke all.
Rome oft has heard a cross haranguing,
With prompting priests behind the hanging:
The wooden head resolved the question,
While you and Pettis help'd the jest on.

Your crabbed rogues that read Lucretius
Are against gods you know and teach us,
The gods make not the poet; but
The thesis vice versa put,
Should Hebrew-wise be understood,
And means, the poet makes the god.

Egyptian gardeners thus are said to
Have set the leeks they after pray'd to;
And Romish bakers praised the deity,
They chipp'd while yet in its paniety.

That when you poets swear and cry
The god inspires, I rave, I die;
If inward wind does truly swell ye,
'T must be the cholic in your belly:
That writing is but just like dice,
And lucky mains make people wise:
That jumbled words, if fortune throw 'em,
Shall well as Dryden form a poem,
Or make a speech correct and witty,
As you know who, at the committee.

So atoms, dancing round the centre,
They urge, made all things at a venture.

But granting matters should be spoke
By method rather than by luck.
This may confine their younger styles
Whom Dryden pedagogues at Will's,
But never could be meant to tie
Authentic wits like you and I:
For as young children, who are tied in
Gocarts, to keep their steps from sliding,
When members knit, and legs grow stronger,
Make use of such machine no longer,
But leap pro libitu, and scout
On horse call'd Hobby, or without;
So when at school we first declaim,
Old Busby walks us in a theme,
Whose props support our infant vein,
And help the rickets in the brain;
But when our souls their force dilate,
And thoughts grow up to wit's estate,
In verse or prose we write or chat,
Not sixpence matter upon what.

'Tis not how well an author says,
But 'tis how much, that gathers praise.
Tonson, who is himself a wit,
Counts writers' merits by the sheet.
Thus each should down with all he thinks,
As boys eat bread to fill up chinks.

Kind Sir, I should be glad to see you;
I hope ye're well; so God be wi' you;
Was all I thought at first to write;
But things since then are altered quite;
Fancies flow in and Muse flies high,
So God knows when my clack will lie:
I must, Sir, prattle on, as afore,
And beg your pardon yet this half hour.

So at pure barn of loud Non-con,
Where with my grannam I have gone,
When Lobb had sifted all his text,
And I well hoped the pudding next,
Now to apply, has plagued me more
Than all his villain cant before.
For your religion; first, of her
Your friends do sav'ry things aver;
They say she's honest as your claret,
Not sour'd with cant, nor stumm'd with merit.
Your chamber is the sole retreat
Of chaplains every Sunday night;
Of grace no doubt a certain sign
When layman herds with man divine;
For if their fame be justly great
Who would no Popish nuncio treat,
That his is greater we must grant
Who will treat nuncios Protestant.
One single positive weighs more,
You know, than negatives a score.

In politics I hear you're staunch,
Directly bent against the French;
Deny to have your freeborn toe
Dragoon'd into a wooden shoe;
Are in no plots, but fairly drive at
The public welfare in your private;
And will for England's glory try
Turks, Jews, and Jesuits, to defy,
And keep your places till you die.

For me, whom wandering Fortune threw
From what I loved, the Town and you,
Let me just tell you how my time is
Past in a country life., Imprimis,
As soon as Phoebus' rays inspect us,
First, Sir, I read, and then I breakfast;
So on, till foresaid god does set,
I sometimes study, sometimes eat.
Thus of your heroes and brave boys,
With whom old Homer makes such noise,
The greatest actions I can find
Are, that they did their work and dined.

The books of which I'm chiefly fond
Are such as you have whilom conn'd,
That treat of China's civil law
And subjects' right in Golconda;
Of highway elephants at Ceylon,
That rob in clans like men o' th' Highland;
Of apes that storm or keep a town
As well almost as Count Lauzun;
Of unicorns and alligators,
Elks, mermaids, mummies, witches, satyrs,
And twenty other stranger matters,
Which, though they're things I've no concern in
Make all our grooms admire my learning.

Critiques I read on other men,
And hypers upon them again,
From whose remarks I give opinion
On twenty books, yet ne'er look in one.

Then all your wits that fleer and sham,
Down from Don Quixote to Tom Tram,
From whom I jests and puns purloin,
And slily put them off for mine,
Fond to be thoughts a country wit,
The rest, when Fate and you think fit.

Sometimes I climb my mare and kick her
To bottled ale and neighbouring vicar;
Sometimes at Stamford take a quart;
Squire Shephard's health, with all my heart.

Thus, without much delight or grief,
I fool away an idle life,
Till Shadwell from the town retires
(Choked up with fume and seacoal fires)
To bless the wood with peaceful lyric;
Then hey for praise and panegyric;
Justice restored, and nations freed;
And wreaths round William's glorious head.

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