1673 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Donne

Charles Cotton, "To my old and most worthy Friend Mr. Izaak Walton, on his Life of Dr. Donne, etc." 1673; Cotton, Poems (1923) 113-17.



When, to a Nation's loss, the virtuous die,
There's justly due, from every hand and eye,
That can or write, or weep, an elegy.

Which though it be the poorest, cheapest way,
The debt we owe, great merits to defray,
Yet it is almost all that most men pay.

And these are monuments of so short date,
That, with their birth, they oft receive their fate;
Dying with those whom they would celebrate.

And though to verse great reverence is due,
Yet what most poets write, proves so untrue,
It renders truth in verse suspected too.

Something more sacred then, or more entire,
The memories of virtuous men require,
Than what may with their funeral torch expire:

This History can give; to which alone
The privilege to mate oblivion
Is granted, when denied to brass and stone.

Wherein, my Friend, you have a hand so sure,
Your truths so candid are, your style so pure,
That what you write may envy's search endure.

Your pen, disdaining to be bribed or pressed,
Flows without vanity or interest;
A virtue with which few good pens are blest.

How happy was my father, then, to see
Those men he lov'd, by him he lov'd, to be
Rescued from frailties and mortality.

Wotton and Donne, to whom his soul was knit:
Those twins of virtue, eloquence, and wit,
He saw in fame's eternal annals writ;

Where one has fortunately found a place,
More faithful to him than his marble was:
Which eating age, nor fire, shall e'er deface.

A monument, that, as it has, shall last,
And prove a monument to that defac'd;
Itself, but with the world not to be raz'd.

And even, in their flowery characters
My father's grave part of your friendship shares;
For you have honour'd his in strewing theirs.

Thus, by an office, though particular,
Virtue's whole common weal obliged are;
For in a virtuous act all good men share.

And by this act the world is taught to know,
That the true friendship we to merit owe
Is not discharg'd by compliment and show.

But yours is friendship of so pure a kind,
From all mean ends and interest so refined,
It ought to be a pattern to mankind:

For whereas most men's friendships here beneath,
Do perish with their friend's expiring breath,
Yours proves a friendship living after Death;

By which the generous Wotton, reverend Donne,
Soft Herbert, and the Church's champion,
Hooker, are rescued from oblivion.

For though they each of them his time so spent,
As raised unto himself a monument,
With which ambition might rest well content;

Yet their great works, though they can never die,
And are in truth superlatively high,
Are no just scale to take their virtues by;

Because they show not how the Almighty's grace,
By various and more admirable ways,
Brought them to be the organs of his praise.

But what their humble modesty would hide,
And was by any other means denied,
Is by your love and diligence supplied.

Wotton — a nobler soul was never bred!—
You, by your narrative's most even thread,
Through all his labyrinths of life have led;

Through his degrees of honours, and of arts,
Brought him secure from envy's venom'd darts,
Which are still levell'd at the greatest parts;

Through all the employments of his wit and spirit,
Whose great effects these kingdoms still inherit
The trials then, now trophies of his merit:

Nay, through disgrace, which oft the worthiest have;
Through all state tempests, through each wind and wave,
And laid him in an honourable grave.

And yours, and the whole world's beloved Donne,
When he a long and wild career had run
To the meridian of his glorious sun:

And being there an object of much ruth,
Led on by vanities, error and youth,
Was long ere he did find the way of truth.

By the same clue, after his youthful swing,
To serve at his God's altar here you bring,
Where once a wanton muse doth anthems sing.

And though by God's most powerful grace alone
His heart was settled in religion:
Yet 'tis by you we know how it was done;

And know, that having crucified vanities,
And fix'd his hope, he clos'd up his own eyes,
And then your friend a saint and preacher dies.

The meek and learned Hooker, too, almost
In the Church's ruins overwhelmed and lost,
Is, by your pen, recover'd from the dust.

And Herbert; he whose education,
Manners, and parts, by high applauses blown,
Was deeply tainted with ambition;

And fitted for a court, made that his aim;
At last without regard to birth or name,
For a poor country cure does all disclaim;

Where, with a soul composed of harmonies,
Like a sweet swan, he warbles as he dies,
His Maker's praise, and his own obsequies.

All this you tell us, with so good success,
That our oblig'd posterity shall profess
To have been your friend, was a great happiness.

And now, when many worthier would be proud
To appear before you, if they were allow'd,
I take up room enough to serve a crowd;

Where, to commend what you have choicely writ,
Both my poor testimony and my wit
Are equally invalid and unfit:

Yet this, and much more, is most justly due:
Were what I write as elegant as true,
To the best friend I now or ever knew.

But, my dear Friend, 'tis so, that you and I,
By a condition of mortality,
With all this great, and more proud world, must die:

In which estate, I ask no more of fame,
Nor other monument of honour claim,
Than that of your true friend to advance my name.

And if your many merits shall have bred
An abler pen, to write your life when dead;
I think an honester can not be read.
January 17, 1672-73.