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The few by Nature form'd, with learning fraught,
Born to instruct, as others to be taught,
Must study well the sacred page; and see
Which doctrine, this, or that, does best agree
With the whole tenour of the work divine:
And plainliest points to Heaven's reveal'd design;
Which exposition flows from genuine sense,
And which is forc'd by wit and eloquence.
Not that tradition's parts are useless here:
When general, old, disinterested, clear:
That ancient fathers thus expound the page,
Gives truth the reverend majesty of age:
Confirms its force by biding every test;
For best authorities, next rules, are best.
And still the nearer to the spring we go
More limpid, more unsoil'd, the waters flow,
Thus first traditions were a proof alone;
Could we be certain such they were, so known:
But since some flaws in long descent may be,
They make not truth, but probability.
Ev'n Arius and Pelagius durst provoke
To what the centuries preceding spoke.
Such difference is there in an oft-told tale:
But truth, by its own sinews will prevail.
Tradition written therefore more commends
Authority, than what from voice descends:
And this, as perfect as its kind can be,
Rolls down to us the sacred history:
Which, from the universal church receiv'd,
Is try'd, and after, for itself believ'd.
The partial papists would infer from hence
Their church, in last resort, should judge the sense.
But first they would assume, with wondrous art,
Themselves to be the whole, who are but part
Of that vast frame the church; yet grant they were
The handers-down, can they from thence infer
A right t' interpret? or would they alone,
Who brought the present, claim it for their own?
The book's a common largess to mankind;
Not more for them than every man design'd:
The welcome news is in the letter found;
The carrier's not commission'd to expound.
It speaks itself, and what it does contain,
In all things needful to be known is plain,
In times o'ergrown with rust and ignorance,
A gainful trade their clergy did advance :
When want of learning kept the laymen low,
And none but priests were authoris'd to know:
When what small knowledge was, in them did dwell;
And he a god who could but read and spell;
Then mother-church did mightily prevail :
She parcel'd out the Bible by retail:
But still expounded what she sold or gave;
To keep it in her power to damn and save:
Scripture was scarce, and, as the market went,
Poor laymen took salvation on content;
As needy men take money good or bad:
God's word they had not, but the priest's they had. Yet whate'er false conveyances they made,
The lawyer still was certain to be paid.
In those dark times they learn'd their knack so well, That by long use they grew infallible :
At last a knowing age began t' inquire
If they the book, or that did them inspire:
And, making narrower search, they found, though late,
That what they thought the priest's, was their estate:
Taught by the will produc'd, the written word,
How long they had been cheated on record.
Then every man who saw the title fair,
Claim'd a child's part, and put in for a share:
Consulted soberly his private good;
And sav'd himself as cheap as e'er he could.
'Tis true, my friend, and far be flattery hence,
This good had full as bad a consequence :
The book thus put in every vulgar hand,
Which each presum'd he best could understand,
The common rule was made the common prey;
And at the mercy of the rabble lay.
The tender page with horny fists was gall'd;
And he was gifted most that loudest bawl'd:
The spirit gave the doctoral degree:
And every member of a company
Was of his trade, and of the Bible free.
Plain truths enough for needful use they found;
But men would still be itching to expound :
Each was ambitious of th' obscurest place,
No measure ta'en from knowledge, all from grace.
Study and pains were now no more their care;
Texts were explain'd by fasting and by prayer:
This was the fruit the private spirit brought;
Occasion'd by great zeal and little thought.
While crowds unlearn'd, with rude devotion warm,
About the sacred viands buz and swarm.
The fly-blown text creates a crawling brood;
And turns to maggots what was meant for food.
A thousand daily sects rise up and die;
A thousand more the perish'd race supply:
So all we make of Heaven's discover'd will,
Is, not to have it, or to use it ill.
The danger's much the same; on several shelves
If others wreck us, or we wreck ourselves.
What then remains, but, waving each extreme, The tides of ignorance and pride to stem? Neither so rich a treasure to forego;
Nor proudly seek beyond our power to know: Faith is not built on disquisitions vain;
The things we must believe are few and plain :
But, since men will believe more than they need,
And every man will make himself a creed,
In doubtful questions 'tis the safest way
To learn what unsuspected ancients say:
For 'tis not likely we should higher soar
In search of Heaven, than all the church before :
Nor can we be deceiv'd, unless we see
The Scripture and the fathers disagree.
If after all they stand suspected still,
For no man's faith depends upon his will;
'Tis some relief, that points not clearly known
Without much hazard may be let alone :
And, after hearing what our church can say,
If still our reason runs another way,
That private reason 'tis more just to curb,
Than by disputes, the public peace disturb,
For points obscure are of small use to learn:
But common quiet is mankind's concern.
Thus have I made my own opinions clear:
Yet neither praise expect, nor censure fear:
And this unpolish'd rugged verse I chose;
As fittest for discourse, and nearest prose :
For while from sacred truth I do not swerve,
Tom Sternhold's or Tom Shadwell's rhymes will
TO SIR GODFREY KNELLER,
PRINCIPAL PAINTER TO HIS MAJESTY.
ONCE I beheld the fairest of her kind,
And still the sweet idea charms my mind:
True, she was dumb; for Nature gaz'd so long,
Pleas'd with her work, that she forgot her tongue;
But, iling, said, "She still shall gain the prize;
I only have transferr'd it to her eyes.'
Such are thy pictures, Kneller: such thy skill,
That Nature seems obedient to thy will;
Comes out, and meets thy pencil in the draught; Live there, and wants but words to speak her
At least thy pictures look a voice; and we
Imagine sounds, deceiv'd to that degree,
We think 'tis somewhat more than just to see.
Shadows are but privations of the light;
Yet, when we walk, they shoot before the sight;
With us approach, retire, arise, and fall;
Nothing themselves, and yet expressing all.
Such are thy pieces, imitating life
So near, they almost conquer in the strife;
And from their animated canvass came,
Demanding souls, and loosen'd from the frame.