What Is Man?
An extract from "Truth"
by William Cowper
How readily, upon the gospel plan
That question has its answer-What is man?
Sinful and weak, in ev'ry sense a wretch;
An instrument, whose cords, upon the stretch,
And strain'd to the last screw that he can bear,
Yield only discord in his Maker's ear:
Once the blest residence of truth divine,
Glorious as Solyma's interior shrine,
Where, in his own oracular abode,
Dwelt visibly the light-creating God;
But made long since, like Babylon of old,
A den of mischiefs never to be told:
And she, once mistress of the realms around,
Now scatter'd wide, and nowhere to be found,
As soon shall rise and reascend the throne,
By native pow'r and energy her own,
As nature, at her own peculiar cost,
Restore to man the glories he has lost.
Go-bid the winter cease to chill the year;
Replace the wand'ring comet in his sphere;
Then boast (but wait for that unhop'd for hour)
The self-restoring arm of human pow'r.
But what is man in his own proud esteem?
Hear him-himself the poet and the theme:
A monarch, cloth'd with majesty and awe;
His mind his kingdom, and his will his law;
Grace in his mien, and glory in his eyes,
Supreme on earth, and worthy of the skies,
Strength in his heart, dominion in his nod,
And, thunderbolts excepted, quite a God!
So sings he, charm'd with his own mind and form,
The song magnificent-the theme a worm!
Himself so much the source of his delight,
His Maker has no beauty in his sight.
See where he sits, contemplative and fix'd,
Pleasure and wonder in his features mix'd;
His passions tam'd, and all at his control,
How perfect the composure of his soul!
Complacency has breath'd a gentle gale
O'er all his thoughts, and swell'd his easy sail:
His books well trimm'd, and in the gayest style,
Like regimented coxcombs, rank and file,
Adorn his intellects as well as shelves,
And teach him notions splendid as themselves:
The Bible only stands neglected there-
Though that of all most worthy of his care;
And, like an infant, troublesome awake,
Is left to sleep, for peace and quiet sake.
What shall the man deserve of human kind,
Whose happy skill and industry, combin'd,
Shall prove (what argument could never yet)
The Bible an imposture and a cheat?
The praises of the libertine profess'd,
The worst of men, and curses of the best.
Where should the living, weeping o'er his woes;
The dying, trembling at the awful close;
Where the betray'd, forsaken, and oppress'd,
The thousands whom the world forbids to rest;
Where should they find, (those comforts at an end
The Scripture yields) or hope to find, a friend?
Sorrow might muse herself to madness then;
And, seeking exile from the sight of men,
Bury herself in solitude profound,
Grow frantic with her pangs, and bite the ground.
Thus often unbelief, grown sick of life,
Flies to the tempting pool, or felon knife.
The jury meet, the coroner is short,
And lunacy the verdict of the court.
Reverse the sentence, let the truth be known,
Such lunacy is ignorance alone.
They knew not, what some bishops may not know,
That Scripture is the only cure of woe.
That field of promise, how it flings abroad
Its odour o'er the Christian's thorny road!
The soul, reposing on assur'd relief,
Feels herself happy amidst all her grief,
Forgets her labour as she toils along,
Weeps tears of joy, and bursts into a song.
But the same word, that, like the polish'd share,
Ploughs up the roots of a believer's care,
Kills too the flow'ry weeds, where'er they grow,
That bind the sinner's Bacchanalian brow.
Oh, that unwelcome voice of heav'nly love,
Sad messenger of mercy from above!
How does it grate upon his thankless ear,
Crippling his pleasures with the cramp of fear!
His will and judgment at continual strife,
That civil war embitters all his life:
In vain he points his pow'rs against the skies,
In vain he closes or averts his eyes,
Truth will intrude-she bids him yet beware;
And shakes the sceptic in the scorner's chair.
Though various foes against the truth combine,
Pride above all opposes her design;
Pride, of a growth superior to the rest,
The subtlest serpent, with the loftiest crest,
Swells at the thought, and, kindling into rage,
Would hiss the cherub mercy from the stage.
And is the soul, indeed, so lost?-she cries;
Fall'n from her glory, and too weak to rise?
Torpid and dull, beneath a frozen zone,
Has she no spark that may be deem'd her own?
Grant her indebted to what zealots call
Grace undeserv'd-yet, surely, not for all!
Some beams of rectitude she yet displays,
Some love of virtue, and some pow'r to praise;
Can lift herself above corporeal things,
And, soaring on her own unborrow'd wings,
Possess herself of all that's good or true,
Assert the skies, and vindicate her due.
Past indiscretion is a venial crime;
And, if the youth, unmellow'd yet by time,
Bore on his branch, luxuriant then and rude,
Fruits of a blighted size, austere and crude,
Maturer years shall happier stores produce,
And meliorate the well concocted juice.
Then, conscious of her meritorious zeal,
To justice she may make her bold appeal;
And leave to mercy, with a tranquil mind,
The worthless and unfruitful of mankind.
Hear, then, how mercy, slighted and defied,
Retorts th' affront against the crown of pride.
Perish the virtue, as it ought, abhorr'd,
And the fool with it, who insults his Lord.
Th' atonement a Redeemer's love has wrought
Is not for you-the righteous need it not.
Seest thou yon harlot, wooing all she meets,
The worn-out nuisance of the public streets;
Herself, from morn to night, from night to morn,
Her own abhorrence, and as much your scorn!
The gracious show'r, unlimited and free,
Shall fall on her, when heav'n denies it thee.
Of all that wisdom dictates, this the drift-
That man is dead in sin, and life a gift.
Is virtue, then, unless of Christian growth,
Mere fallacy, or foolishness, or both?
Ten thousand sages lost in endless woe,
For ignorance of what they could not know?
That speech betrays at once a bigot's tongue-
Charge not a God with such outrageous wrong!
Truly, not I-the partial light men have,
My creed persuades me, well employ'd, may save;
While he that scorns the noon-day beam, perverse,
Shall find the blessing, unimprov'd, a curse.
Let heathen worthies, whose exalted mind
Left sensuality and dross behind,
Possess, for me, their undisputed lot,
And take, unenvied, the reward they sought:
But still in virtue of a Saviour's plea,
Not blind by choice, but destin'd not to see.
Their fortitude and wisdom were a flame Celestial,
though they knew not whence it came,
Deriv'd from the same source of light and grace
That guides the Christian in his swifter race.
Their judge was conscience, and her rule their law:
That rule, pursued with rev'rence and with awe,
Led them, however falt'ring, faint, and slow,
From what they knew to what they wish'd to know.
But let not him that shares a brighter day
Traduce the splendour of a noon-tide ray,
Prefer the twilight of a darker time,
And deem his base stupidity no crime;
The wretch, who slights the bounty of the skies,
And sinks, while favour'd with the means to rise,
Shall find them rated at their full amount,
The good he scorn'd all carried to account.
Marshalling all his terrors as he came;
Thunder, and earthquake, and devouring flame;
From Sinai's top Jehovah gave the law-
Life for obedience-death for ev'ry flaw.
When the great Sov'reign would his will express,
He gives a perfect rule; what can he less?
And guards it with a sanction as severe
As vengeance can inflict, or sinners fear:
Else his own glorious rights he would disclaim,
And man might safely trifle with his name.
He bids him glow with unremitting love
To all on earth, and to himself above;
Condemns th' injurious deed, the sland'rous tongue,
The thought that meditates a brother's wrong:
Brings not alone the more conspicuous part-
His conduct-to the test, but tries his heart.
H#ark! universal nature shook and groan'd,
'Twas the last trumpet-see the Judge enthron'd:
Rouse all your courage at your utmost need;
Now summon ev'ry virtue-stand, and plead.
What! silent? Is your boasting heard no more?
That self-renouncing wisdom, learn'd before,
Had shed immortal glories on your brow,
That all your virtues cannot purchase now.
All joy to the believer! He can speak-
Trembling, yet happy; confident, yet meek.
Since the dear hour that brought me to thy foot,
And cut up all my follies by the root,
I never trusted in an arm but thine ,
Nor hop'd, but in thy righteousness divine:
My pray'rs and alms, imperfect, and defil'd,
Were but the feeble efforts of a child;
Howe'er perform'd, it was their brightest part
That they proceeded from a grateful heart:
Cleans'd in thine own all-purifying blood,
Forgive their evil, and accept their good.
I cast them at thy feet-my only plea
Is what it was-dependence upon thee:
While struggling in the vale of tears below,
That never fail'd, nor shall it fail me now.
Angelic gratulations rend the skies:
Pride falls unpitied, never more to rise;
Humility is crown'd; and Faith receives the prize.