An Epistle To Joseph Hill, Esq.

A poem by William Cowper

Dear Joseph,--five and twenty years ago--
Alas, how time escapes!--'tis even so--
With frequent intercourse, and always sweet
And always friendly, we were wont to cheat
A tedious hour--and now we never meet.
As some grave gentleman in Terence says
('Twas therefore much the same in ancient days),
"Good lack, we know not what to-morrow brings--
Strange fluctuation of all human things!"
True. Changes will befall, and friends may part,
But distance only cannot change the heart:
And were I called to prove the assertion true,
One proof should serve--a reference to you.

Whence comes it, then, that in the wane of life,
Though nothing have occurred to kindle strife,
We find the friends we fancied we had won,
Though numerous once, reduced to few or none?
Can gold grow worthless that has stood the touch?
No. Gold they seemed, but they were never such.
Horatio's servant once, with bow and cringe,
Swinging the parlour-door upon its hinge,
Dreading a negative, and overawed
Lest he should trespass, begged to go abroad.
"Go, fellow!--whither?"--turning short about--
"Nay. Stay at home; you're always going out."--
"'Tis but a step, sir; just at the street's end."
"For what?"--"An please you, sir, to see a friend."
"A friend!" Horatio cried, and seemed to start;
"Yea, marry shalt thou, and with all my heart--
And fetch my cloak, for though the night be raw
I'll see him too--the first I ever saw."

I knew the man, and knew his nature mild,
And was his plaything often when a child;
But somewhat at that moment pinched him close,
Else he was seldom bitter or morose.
Perhaps, his confidence just then betrayed,
His grief might prompt him with the speech he made;
Perhaps 'twas mere good-humour gave it birth,
The harmless play of pleasantry and mirth.
Howe'er it was, his language in my mind
Bespoke at least a man that knew mankind.

But not to moralise too much, and strain
To prove an evil of which all complain
(I hate long arguments, verbosely spun),
One story more, dear Hill, and I have done.
Once on a time, an emperor, a wise man.
No matter where, in China or Japan,
Decreed that whosoever should offend
Against the well-known duties of a friend,
Convicted once, should ever after wear
But half a coat, and show his bosom bare;
The punishment importing this, no doubt,
That all was naught within and all found out.

Oh happy Britain! we have not to fear
Such hard and arbitrary measure here;
Else could a law, like that which I relate,
Once have the sanction of our triple state,
Some few that I have known in days of old
Would run most dreadful risk of catching cold.
While you, my friend, whatever wind should blow,
Might traverse England safely to and fro,
An honest man, close buttoned to the chin,
Broad-cloth without, and a warm heart within.

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