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ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Nereides: Eclogue VIII.

Nereides: or Sea-Eclogues.

Rev. William Diaper


William Diaper begins a second series of seven eclogues with a materialist's account of change in the natural and mental world. Ino and Cete bind old Proteus, who sings the creation of the world and the essential wateriness of things: "Long roll'd the sea, before the earth appear'd, | No pastures yet were seen, no bleating flocks were heard, | 'Till th' ocean's constant motion closer prest | An earthy scum, which gathering still increas'd; | But here th' intrinsic fluids still remain, | And hardest mettle will its flux regain."

Henry Marion Hall: "Virgil's 'seizing of Proteus' motive is rendered when Ino and Cete, a merman and a nereid, find that sea-god sleeping near his scaly herd, just as occurs in the fourth georgic. Of course they grasp the old fellow and insist on his singing a song, to which he is forced to assent. He chants an account of the history of the universe modernized (from that given by Virgil's Silenus, when caught by the shepherds in the sixth bucolic) to embody the theories of Diaper's day" Idylls of Fishermen (1944) 161.

Dorothy Broughton notes much similarity between Virgil's sixth Eclogue and Diaper's eighth: "In the former Chromis and Mnasyllus find Silenus asleep in a cave, and by binding him with wreaths force him to prophesy. The resultant speech is a blend of science and mythology, relating the birth of the world and how the hardening of the earth's crust sundered Nereus into separate seas. Silenus goes on to re-tell old myths, but without the didactic purpose of Proteus in Sea-Eclogue VIII" Complete Works (1952) xxvii.



PROTEUS.

Proteus had sent his scaly herd to feed,
And slumber'd on a bed of slimy weed;
Ino and Cete thither chanc'd to stray,
They saw, and seiz'd him as he sleeping lay:
Anxious for flight, now flashing flame he seems,
Now softly glides away in melting streams.
But they fast held him, till he smiling said,
"With songs, nay more than songs you shall be paid."
He then began—
To sing of truths unknown, unheard before,
While all the sea was still, and winds were heard no more.
He sung the world's first birth, and wondrous frame,
How bodies all from one great fluid came.
Of different parts compos'd, a liquid mass
Incessant mov'd in the unbounded space:
(The essence of a fluid is confest
To move, and to be solid is to rest)
And as they flow, all fluids ever bend
To fly around, and to a circle tend;
Thus a true chaos did at first arise
From moving globules of a different size;
But finer atoms were more free to move,
And with the sluggish parts too active strove
Till they had prest them down from those above:
'Twas then th' unsullied light did first appear,
And the bright aether shone unmixt with grosser air.
At length by tedious time, and slow degrees
Was form'd the center of unfathom'd seas,
Made of large globules, which th' aerial sphere
By motion thrust from it, and settled here;
Then first the ocean knew his constant place,
And th' azure deep unvail'd his smiling face.
'Tis motion makes (when different bodies meet)
What gravity we call, and pressing weight;
While restless fluids ever drive below
Bodies more solid, or that move too slow.
Long roll'd the sea, before the earth appear'd,
No pastures yet were seen, no bleating flocks were heard,
'Till th' ocean's constant motion closer prest
An earthy scum, which gathering still increas'd;
But here th' intrinsic fluids still remain,
And hardest mettle will its flux regain.
Whene'er dissolv'd the parts their freedom know,
And with new joy again they love to flow.

He sung, how Heaven, displeas'd with earthy man,
Disturb'd the seas; how all the mass began
To move enrag'd; the motion thus increas'd,
The sinking earth down to the center press'd;
Such was the antient deluge, when the flood
Pour'd o'er the plains, and on the mountains stood;
While earth-born mortals too absurdly teach
That solid bodies to the centre reach.
E'er land was seen, the ocean had its birth,
And now th' abyss supports the shallow crust of earth.

Thus Proteus sung, and sung — yet more divine,
How souls unbody'd act, and how incline;
That knowledge now is at the best no more,
But a research of what we knew before.
The soul as yet to no dull body join'd,
Sees all idea's in th' eternal mind;
The native beams are sullied and obscur'd,
And quench'd at once, in grosser clay immur'd,
'Till, rouz'd at length by thought, and studious care,
Like latent sparks with sudden light they glare.
Gladly the conscious mind the hint pursues,
And rising images with wonder views;
Now finds she long before existence had,
And that those truths were rather found than made.
Thus science grafted does on ignorance grow;
Men lose to find, and turn unwise to know.
Folly their fancy'd knowledge does create;
The greatest hardship this of human fate,
With pain they learn, what they with ease forget.

The God thus ended his mysterious lay,
When ruddy to the waves, sunk the declining day.

[Nichols, Select Collection (1780-84) 5:236-38]