A poem by John Dryden

A Panegyrical Poem, Dedicated To The Memory Of The Late Countess Of Abingdon.

To The Right Honourable The Earl Of Abingdon, &C.

MY LORD,--The commands, with which you honoured me some months ago, are now performed: they had been sooner; but betwixt ill health, some business, and many troubles, I was forced to defer them till this time. Ovid, going to his banishment, and writing from on shipboard to his friends, excused the faults of his poetry by his misfortunes; and told them, that good verses never flow but from a serene and composed spirit. Wit, which is a kind of Mercury, with wings fastened to his head and heels, can fly but slowly in a damp air. I therefore chose rather to obey you late than ill: if at least I am capable of writing anything, at any time, which is worthy your perusal and your patronage. I cannot say that I have escaped from a shipwreck; but have only gained a rock by hard swimming, where I may pant a while and gather breath: for the doctors give me a sad assurance, that my disease never took its leave of any man, but with a purpose to return. However, my lord, I have laid hold on the interval, and managed the small stock, which age has left me, to the best advantage, in performing this inconsiderable service to my lady's memory. We, who are priests of Apollo, have not the inspiration when we please; but must wait until the god comes rushing on us, and invades us with a fury which we are not able to resist: which gives us double strength while the fit continues, and leaves us languishing and spent at its departure. Let me not seem to boast, my lord, for I have really felt it on this occasion, and prophesied beyond my natural power. Let me add, and hope to be believed, that the excellency of the subject contributed much to the happiness of the execution; and that the weight of thirty years was taken off me while I was writing. I swam with the tide, and the water under me was buoyant. The reader will easily observe that I was transported by the multitude and variety of my similitudes; which are generally the product of a luxuriant fancy, and the wantonness of wit. Had I called in my judgment to my assistance, I had certainly retrenched many of them. But I defend them not; let them pass for beautiful faults amongst the better sort of critics: for the whole poem, though written in that which they call Heroic verse, is of the Pindaric nature, as well in the thought as the expression; and, as such, requires the same grains of allowance for it. It was intended, as your lordship sees in the title, not for an elegy, but a panegyric: a kind of apotheosis, indeed, if a heathen word may be applied to a Christian use. And on all occasions of praise, if we take the ancients for our patterns, we are bound by prescription to employ the magnificence of words, and the force of figures, to adorn the sublimity of thoughts. Isocrates amongst the Grecian orators, and Cicero, and the younger Pliny, amongst the Romans, have left us their precedents for our security; for I think I need not mention the inimitable Pindar, who stretches on these pinions out of sight, and is carried upward, as it were, into another world.

This, at least, my lord, I may justly plead, that if I have not performed so well as I think I have, yet I have used my best endeavours to excel myself. One disadvantage I have had; which is, never to have known or seen my lady: and to draw the lineaments of her mind, from the description which I have received from others, is for a painter to set himself at work without the living original before him: which, the more beautiful it is, will be so much the more difficult for him to conceive, when he has only a relation given him of such and such features by an acquaintance or a friend, without the nice touches, which give the best resemblance, and make the graces of the picture. Every artist is apt enough to flatter himself (and I amongst the rest) that their own ocular observations would have discovered more perfections, at least others, than have been delivered to them: though I have received mine from the best hands, that is, from persons who neither want a just understanding of my lady's worth, nor a due veneration for her memory.

Dr Donne, the greatest wit, though not the greatest poet of our nation, acknowledges, that he had never seen Mrs Drury, whom he has made immortal in his admirable "Anniversaries." I have had the same fortune, though I have not succeeded to the same genius. However, I have followed his footsteps in the design of his panegyric; which was to raise an emulation in the living, to copy out the example of the dead. And therefore it was, that I once intended to have called this poem "The Pattern:" and though, on a second consideration, I changed the title into the name of the illustrious person, yet the design continues, and Eleonora is still the pattern of charity, devotion, and humility; of the best wife, the best mother, and the best of friends.

And now, my lord, though I have endeavoured to answer your commands; yet I could not answer it to the world, nor to my conscience, if I gave not your lordship my testimony of being the best husband now living: I say my testimony only; for the praise of it is given you by yourself. They who despise the rules of virtue both in their practice and their morals, will think this a very trivial commendation. But I think it the peculiar happiness of the Countess of Abingdon to have been so truly loved by you while she was living, and so gratefully honoured after she was dead. Few there are who have either had, or could have, such a loss; and yet fewer who carried their love and constancy beyond the grave. The exteriors of mourning, a decent funeral, and black habits, are the usual stints of common husbands: and perhaps their wives deserve no better than to be mourned with hypocrisy, and forgot with ease. But you have distinguished yourself from ordinary lovers, by a real and lasting grief for the deceased; and by endeavouring to raise for her the most durable monument, which is that of verse. And so it would have proved, if the workman had been equal to the work, and your choice of the artificer as happy as your design. Yet, as Phidias, when he had made the statue of Minerva, could not forbear to engrave his own name, as author of the piece: so give me leave to hope, that, by subscribing mine to this poem, I may live by the goddess, and transmit my name to posterity by the memory of hers. It is no flattery to assure your lordship, that she is remembered, in the present age, by all who have had the honour of her conversation and acquaintance; and that I have never been in any company since the news of her death was first brought me, where they have not extolled her virtues, and even spoken the same things of her in prose, which I have done in verse.

I therefore think myself obliged to thank your lordship for the commission which you have given me: how I have acquitted myself of it, must be left to the opinion of the world, in spite of any protestation which I can enter against the present age, as incompetent or corrupt judges. For my comfort, they are but Englishmen, and, as such, if they think ill of me to-day, they are inconstant enough to think well of me to-morrow. And after all, I have not much to thank my fortune that I was born amongst them. The good of both sexes are so few, in England, that they stand like exceptions against general rules: and though one of them has deserved a greater commendation than I could give her, they have taken care that I should not tire my pen with frequent exercise on the like subjects; that praises, like taxes, should be appropriated, and left almost as individual as the person. They say, my talent is satire: if it be so, it is a fruitful age, and there is an extraordinary crop to gather. But a single hand is insufficient for such a harvest: they have sown the dragons' teeth themselves, and it is but just they should reap each other in lampoons. You, my lord, who have the character of honour, though it is not my happiness to know you, may stand aside, with the small remainders of the English nobility, truly such, and, unhurt yourselves, behold the mad combat. If I have pleased you and some few others, I have obtained my end. You see I have disabled myself, like an elected speaker of the house: yet like him I have undertaken the charge, and find the burden sufficiently recompensed by the honour. Be pleased to accept of these my unworthy labours, this paper-monument; and let her pious memory, which I am sure is sacred to you, not only plead the pardon of my many faults, but gain me your protection, which is ambitiously sought by, my lord, your lordship's most obedient servant,


* * * * *

As when some great and gracious monarch dies,
Soft whispers, first, and mournful murmurs rise
Among the sad attendants; then the sound
Soon gathers voice, and spreads the news around,
Through town and country, till the dreadful blast
Is blown to distant colonies at last;
Who then, perhaps, were offering vows in vain,
For his long life, and for his happy reign:
So slowly, by degrees, unwilling fame
Did matchless Eleonora's fate proclaim,
Till public as the loss the news became.

The nation felt it in the extremest parts,
With eyes o'erflowing, and with bleeding hearts;
But most the poor, whom daily she supplied,
Beginning to be such, but when she died.
For, while she lived, they slept in peace by night,
Secure of bread, as of returning light;
And with such firm dependence on the day,
That need grew pamper'd, and forgot to pray:
So sure the doll, so ready at their call,
They stood prepared to see the manna fall.

Such multitudes she fed, she clothed, she nursed,
That she herself might fear her wanting first.
Of her five talents, other five she made;
Heaven, that had largely given, was largely paid:
And in few lives, in wondrous few, we find
A fortune better fitted to the mind.
Nor did her alms from ostentation fall,
Or proud desire of praise; the soul gave all:
Unbribed it gave; or, if a bribe appear,
No less than heaven--to heap huge treasures there.

Want pass'd for merit at her open door;
Heaven saw, He safely might increase His poor,
And trust their sustenance with her so well,
As not to be at charge of miracle.
None could be needy, whom she saw, or knew;
All in the compass of her sphere she drew:
He, who could touch her garment, was as sure,
As the first Christians of the apostles' cure.
The distant heard, by fame, her pious deeds,
And laid her up for their extremest needs;
A future cordial for a fainting mind;
For, what was ne'er refused, all hoped to find,
Each in his turn; the rich might freely come,
As to a friend; but to the poor 'twas home.
As to some holy house the afflicted came,
The hunger-starved, the naked and the lame;
Want and diseases fled before her name.
For zeal like her's her servants were too slow;
She was the first, where need required, to go;
Herself the foundress and attendant too.

Sure she had guests sometimes to entertain,
Guests in disguise, of her great Master's train:
Her Lord himself might come, for aught we know;
Since in a servant's form He lived below:
Beneath her roof He might be pleased to stay;
Or some benighted angel, in his way,
Might ease his wings, and, seeing heaven appear
In its best work of mercy, think it there:
Where all the deeds of charity and love
Were, in as constant method as above,
All carried on; all of a piece with theirs;
As free her alms, as diligent her cares;
As loud her praises, and as warm her prayers.

Yet was she not profuse; but feared to waste,
And wisely managed, that the stock might last;
That all might be supplied, and she not grieve,
When crowds appear'd, she had not to relieve:
Which to prevent, she still increased her store;
Laid up, and spared, that she might give the more.
So Pharaoh, or some greater king than he,
Provided for the seventh necessity:
Taught from above his magazines to frame,
That famine was prevented ere it came.
Thus Heaven, though all-sufficient, shows a thrift
In His economy, and bounds His gift:
Creating, for our day, one single light;
And his reflection, too, supplies the night.
Perhaps a thousand other worlds, that lie
Remote from us, and latent in the sky,
Are lighten'd by his beams, and kindly nursed;
Of which our earthly dunghill is the worst.

Now, as all virtues keep the middle line,
Yet somewhat more to one extreme incline,
Such was her soul; abhorring avarice,
Bounteous, but almost bounteous to a vice:
Had she given more, it had profusion been,
And turn'd the excess of goodness into sin.

These virtues raised her fabric to the sky;
For that, which is next heaven, is Charity.
But, as high turrets, for their airy steep,
Require foundations in proportion deep;
And lofty cedars as far upward shoot,
As to the nether heavens they drive the root:
So low did her secure foundation lie,
She was not humble, but Humility.
Scarcely she knew that she was great, or fair,
Or wise, beyond what other women are;
Or, which is better, knew, but never durst compare:
For to be conscious of what all admire,
And not be vain, advances virtue higher.
But still she found, or rather thought she found,
Her own worth wanting, others' to abound;
Ascribed above their due to every one--
Unjust and scanty to herself alone.

Such her devotion was, as might give rules
Of speculation to disputing schools,
And teach us equally the scales to hold
Betwixt the two extremes of hot and cold;
That pious heat may moderately prevail,
And we be warm'd, but not be scorch'd with zeal:
Business might shorten, not disturb, her prayer;
Heaven had the best, if not the greater share.
An active life long orisons forbids;
Yet still she pray'd, for still she pray'd by deeds.

Her every day was Sabbath; only free
From hours of prayer, for hours of charity:
Such as the Jews from servile toil released;
Where works of mercy were a part of rest;
Such as blest angels exercise above,
Varied with sacred hymns and acts of love:
Such Sabbaths as that one she now enjoys,
Even that perpetual one, which she employs
(For such vicissitudes in heaven there are)
In praise alternate, and alternate prayer.
All this she practised here; that when she sprung
Amidst the choirs, at the first sight she sung:
Sung, and was sung herself in angels' lays;
For, praising her, they did her Maker praise.
All offices of heaven so well she knew,
Before she came, that nothing there was new:
And she was so familiarly received,
As one returning, not as one arrived.

Muse, down again precipitate thy flight!
For how can mortal eyes sustain immortal light?
But as the sun in water we can bear--
Yet not the sun, but his reflection there,
So let us view her, here, in what she was,
And take her image in this watery glass:
Yet look not every lineament to see;
Some will be cast in shades, and some will be
So lamely drawn, you'll scarcely know 'tis she.
For where such various virtues we recite,
'Tis like the milky-way, all over bright,
But sown so thick with stars,'tis undistinguish'd light.

Her virtue, not her virtues, let us call;
For one heroic comprehends them all:
One, as a constellation is but one,
Though 'tis a train of stars, that, rolling on,
Rise in their turn, and in the zodiac run:
Ever in motion; now 'tis faith ascends,
Now hope, now charity, that upward tends,
And downwards with diffusive good descends.

As in perfumes composed with art and cost,
'Tis hard to say what scent is uppermost;
Nor this part musk or civet can we call,
Or amber, but a rich result of all;
So she was all a sweet, whose every part,
In due proportion mix'd, proclaim'd the Maker's art.
No single virtue we could most commend,
Whether the wife, the mother, or the friend;
For she was all, in that supreme degree,
That as no one prevail'd, so all was she.
The several parts lay hidden in the piece;
The occasion but exerted that, or this.

A wife as tender, and as true withal,
As the first woman was before her fall:
Made for the man, of whom she was a part;
Made to attract his eyes, and keep his heart.
A second Eve, but by no crime accursed;
As beauteous, not as brittle, as the first:
Had she been first, still Paradise had been,
And Death had found no entrance by her sin:
So she not only had preserved from ill
Her sex and ours, but lived their pattern still.

Love and obedience to her lord she bore;
She much obey'd him, but she loved him more:
Not awed to duty by superior sway,
But taught by his indulgence to obey.
Thus we love God, as author of our good;
So subjects love just kings, or so they should.
Nor was it with ingratitude return'd;
In equal fires the blissful couple burn'd;
One joy possess'd them both, and in one grief they mourn'd.
His passion still improved; he loved so fast
As if he fear'd each day would be her last.
Too true a prophet to foresee the fate
That should so soon divide their happy state;
When he to heaven entirely must restore
That love, that heart, where he went halves before.
Yet as the soul is all in every part,
So God and he might each have all her heart.

So had her children too; for charity
Was not more fruitful, or more kind than she:
Each under other by degrees they grew;
A goodly perspective of distant view.
Anchises look'd not with so pleased a face,
In numbering o'er his future Roman race,
And marshalling the heroes of his name,
As, in their order, next to light they came.
Nor Cybele, with half so kind an eye,
Survey'd her sons and daughters of the sky;
Proud, shall I say, of her immortal fruit?
As far as pride with heavenly minds may suit.
Her pious love excell'd to all she bore;
New objects only multiplied it more.
And as the chosen found the pearly grain
As much as every vessel could contain;
As in the blissful vision each shall share
As much of glory as his soul can bear;
So did she love, and so dispense her care.
Her eldest thus, by consequence, was best,
As longer cultivated than the rest.
The babe had all that infant care beguiles,
And early knew his mother in her smiles:
But when dilated organs let in day
To the young soul, and gave it room to play,
At his first aptness, the maternal love
Those rudiments of reason did improve:
The tender age was pliant to command;
Like wax it yielded to the forming hand:
True to the artificer, the labour'd mind
With ease was pious, generous, just, and kind;
Soft for impression, from the first prepared,
Till virtue with long exercise grew hard:
With every act confirm'd, and made at last
So durable as not to be effaced,
It turn'd to habit; and, from vices free,
Goodness resolved into necessity.

Thus fix'd she virtue's image, that's her own,
Till the whole mother in the children shone;
For that was their perfection: she was such,
They never could express her mind too much.
So unexhausted her perfections were,
That, for more children, she had more to spare;
For souls unborn, whom her untimely death
Deprived of bodies, and of mortal breath;
And (could they take the impressions of her mind)
Enough still left to sanctify her kind.

Then wonder not to see this soul extend
The bounds, and seek some other self, a friend:
As swelling seas to gentle rivers glide,
To seek repose, and empty out the tide;
So this full soul, in narrow limits pent,
Unable to contain her, sought a vent
To issue out, and in some friendly breast
Discharge her treasures, and securely rest:
To unbosom all the secrets of her heart,
Take good advice, but better to impart:
For 'tis the bliss of friendship's holy state,
To mix their minds, and to communicate;
Though bodies cannot, souls can penetrate.
Fix'd to her choice, inviolably true,
And wisely choosing, for she chose but few.
Some she must have; but in no one could find
A tally fitted for so large a mind.

The souls of friends, like kings in progress, are
Still in their own, though from the palace far:
Thus her friend's heart her country dwelling was
A sweet retirement to a coarser place;
Where pomp and ceremonies enter'd not,
Where greatness was shut out, and business well forgot.

This is the imperfect draught; but short as far
As the true height and bigness of a star
Exceeds the measures of the astronomer.
She shines above, we know; but in what place,
How near the throne, and Heaven's imperial face,
By our weak optics is but vainly guess'd;
Distance and altitude conceal the rest.

Though all these rare endowments of the mind
Were in a narrow space of life confined,
The figure was with full perfection crown'd;
Though not so large an orb, as truly round.

As when in glory, through the public place,
The spoils of conquer'd nations were to pass,
And but one day for triumph was allow'd,
The consul was constrain'd his pomp to crowd;
And so the swift procession hurried on,
That all, though not distinctly, might be shown:
So in the straiten'd bounds of life confined,
She gave but glimpses of her glorious mind:
And multitudes of virtues pass'd along;
Bach pressing foremost in the mighty throng,
Ambitious to be seen, and then make room
For greater multitudes that were to come.

Yet unemploy'd no minute slipp'd away;
Moments were precious in so short a stay.
The haste of heaven to have her was so great,
That some were single acts, though each complete;
But every act stood ready to repeat.

Her fellow-saints with busy care will look
For her bless'd name in Fate's eternal book;
And, pleased to be outdone, with joy will see
Numberless virtues, endless charity:
But more will wonder at so short an age,
To find a blank beyond the thirtieth page;
And with a pious fear begin to doubt
The piece imperfect, and the rest torn out.
But 'twas her Saviour's time; and, could there be
A copy near the Original, 'twas she.

As precious gums are not for lasting fire,
They but perfume the temple, and expire:
So was she soon exhaled, and vanish'd hence;
A short sweet odour, of a vast expense.
She vanish'd, we can scarcely say she died;
For but a now did heaven and earth divide:
She pass'd serenely with a single breath;
This moment perfect health, the next was death:
One sigh did her eternal bliss assure;
So little penance needs, when souls are almost pure.
As gentle dreams our waking thoughts pursue;
Or, one dream pass'd, we slide into a new;
So close they follow, such wild order keep,
We think ourselves awake, and are asleep:
So softly death succeeded life in her,
She did but dream of heaven, and she was there.

No pains she suffer'd, nor expired with noise;
Her soul was whisper'd out with God's still voice;
As an old friend is beckon'd to a feast,
And treated like a long-familiar guest.
He took her as He found, but found her so,
As one in hourly readiness to go:
Even on that day, in all her trim prepared;
As early notice she from heaven had heard,
And some descending courier from above
Had given her timely warning to remove;
Or counsell'd her to dress the nuptial room,
For on that night the Bridegroom was to come.
He kept His hour, and found her where she lay
Clothed all in white, the livery of the day.
Scarce had she sinn'd in thought, or word, or act;
Unless omissions were to pass for fact:
That hardly death a consequence could draw,
To make her liable to nature's law:
And, that she died, we only have to show
The mortal part of her she left below:
The rest, so smooth, so suddenly she went,
Look'd like translation through the firmament;
Or, like the fiery car, on the third errand[1] sent.

O happy soul! if thou canst view from high,
Where thou art all intelligence, all eye;
If, looking up to God, or down to us,
Thou find'st that any way be pervious,
Survey the ruins of thy house, and see
Thy widow'd, and thy orphan family:
Look on thy tender pledges left behind;
And, if thou canst a vacant minute find
From heavenly joys, that interval afford
To thy sad children, and thy mourning lord.
See how they grieve, mistaken in their love,
And shed a beam of comfort from above;
Give them, as much as mortal eyes can bear,
A transient view of thy full glories there;
That they with moderate sorrow may sustain
And mollify their losses in thy gain:
Or else divide the grief; for such thou wert,
That should not all relations bear a part,
It were enough to break a single heart.

Let this suffice: nor thou, great saint, refuse
This humble tribute of no vulgar Muse:
Who, not by cares, or wants, or age depress'd,
Stems a wild deluge with a dauntless breast;
And dares to sing thy praises in a clime
Where vice triumphs, and virtue is a crime;
Where even to draw the picture of thy mind,
Is satire on the most of human kind:
Take it, while yet 'tis praise; before my rage,
Unsafely just, break loose on this bad age;
So bad, that thou thyself hadst no defence
From vice, but barely by departing hence.

Be what, and where thou art: to wish thy place,
Were, in the best, presumption more than grace.
Thy relics (such thy works of mercy are)
Have, in this poem, been my holy care.
As earth thy body keeps, thy soul the sky,
So shall this verse preserve thy memory;
For thou shalt make it live, because it sings of thee.

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