EPISTLE TO CEAN BERMUDEZ, ON THE VAIN DESIRES AND STUDIES OF MEN
Arise, Bermudo, bid thy soul beware:
Thee raging Fortune watches to ensnare;
And, lulling others’ hopes in dreams supine,
A fell assault she meditates on thine.
The cruel blow which suffer’d from her rage
Thy poor estate will not her wrath assuage,
Till from thy breast her fury may depose
The blissful calm to innocence it owes.
Such is her nature, that she loathes the sight
Of happiness for man in her despite.
Thus to thine eyes insidious she presents
The phantasies of good, with which she paints
The road to favour, and would fain employ
Her arts thy holds of virtue to destroy.
Ah! heed her not. See her to rob thee stand
Ev’n of the happiness now in thy hand.
’Tis not of her; she cannot it bestow:
She makes men fortunate;—but happy? No.
Thou think’st it strange! Dost thou the names confound
Of Fortune with felicity as bound?
Like the poor idiots, who so foolish gaze
On the vain gifts and joys which she displays,
So cunning to exchange for real good.
O cheat of human wisdom! say withstood,
What does she promise, but what beings born
To our high destiny should hold in scorn?
In reason’s balance her best offers weigh,
And see what worthless lightness they betray.
There are who, burning in the track of fame,
Wear themselves ruthless for a sounding name.
Buy it with blood, and fire, and ruin wide;
And if with horrid arm is death descried,
Waving his pennon as from some high tower,
Their hearts swell proud, and trampling fierce they scour
The field o’er brothers’ bodies as of foes!
Then sing a triumph, while in secret flows
The tear they shed as from an anguish’d heart.
Less lofty, but more cunning on his part,
Another sighs for ill-secure command:
With flatteries solicitously plann’d,
Follows the air of favour, and his pride
In adulation vile he serves to hide,
To exalt himself; and if he gain his end
His brow on all beneath will haughty bend;
And sleep, and joy, and inward peace, the price
To splendour of command, will sacrifice:
Yet fears the while, uncertain in his joy,
Lest should some turn of Fortune’s wheel destroy
His power in deep oblivion overthrown.
Another seeks, with equal ardour shown,
For lands, and gold in store. Ah! lands and gold,
With tears how water’d, gain’d with toils untold!
His thirst unquench’d, he hoards, invests, acquires;
But with his wealth increased are his desires;
And so much more he gains, for more will long:
Thus, key in hand, his coffers full among;
Yet poor he thinks himself, and learns to know
His state is poor, because he thinks it so.
Another like illusion his to roam
From wife and friends, who flying light and home,
To dedicate his vigils the long night
In secret haunts of play makes his delight,
With vile companions. Betwixt hope and fear
His anxious breast is fluctuating drear.
See, with a throbbing heart and trembling hand,
There he has placed his fortune, all to stand
Upon the turning of a die! ’Tis done:
The lot is cast; what is it? has he won?
Increased is his anxiety and care!
But if reverse, O Heaven! in deep despair,
O’erwhelm’d in ruin, he is doom’d to know
A life of infamy, or death of woe.
And is he happier, who distracted lies
A slave beneath the light of beauty’s eyes?
Who fascinated watches, haunts, and prays,
And at the cost of troubles vast essays,
’Mid doubts and fears, a fleeting joy to gain?
Love leads him not: his breast could ne’er profane
Admit Love’s purer flame; ’tis passion’s fire
Alone that draws him, and in wild desire
He blindly headlong follows in pursuit:
And what for all his toils can he compute?
If gain’d at length, he only finds the prize
Bring death and misery ev’n in pleasure’s guise.
Then look on him, abandon’d all to sloth,
Who vacant sees the hours pass long and loth
O’er his so useless life. He thinks them slow,
Alas! and wishes they would faster go.
He knows not how to employ them; in and out
He comes, and goes, and smokes, and strolls about,
To gossip; turns, returns, with constant stress
Wearying himself to fly from weariness.
But now retired, sleep half his life employs,
And fain would all the day, whose light annoys.
Fool! wouldst thou know the sweetness of repose?
Seek it in work. The soul fastidious grows
Ever in sloth, self-gnawing and oppress’d,
And finds its torment even in its rest.
But if to Bacchus and to Ceres given,
Before his table laid, from morn to even,
At ease he fills himself, as held in stall:
See him his stomach make his god, his all!
Nor earth nor sea suffice his appetite;
Ill-tongued and gluttonous the like unite:
With such he passes his vain days along,
In drunken routs obscene, with toast and song,
And jests and dissolute delights; his aim
To gorge unmeasured, riot without shame.
But soon with these begins to blunt and lose
Stomach and appetite: he finds refuse
Offended Nature, as insipid food,
The savours others delicacies view’d.
Vainly from either India he seeks
For stimulants; in vain from art bespeaks
Fresh sauces, which his palate will reject;
His longings heighten’d, but life’s vigour wreck’d;
And thus worn out in mid career the cost,
Before life ends he finds his senses lost.
O bitter pleasures! O, what madness sore
Is theirs who covet them, and such implore
Humbly before a lying deity!
How the perfidious goddess to agree
But mocks them! Though perhaps at first she smile,
Exempt from pain and misery the long while
She never leaves them, and in place of joy
Gives what they ask, with weariness to cloy.
If trusted, soon is found experience taught
What ill-foreseen condition they have sought.
Niggard their wishes ever to fulfil,
Fickle in favour, vacillating still,
Inconstant, cruel, she afflicts today,
And casts down headlong to distress a prey,
Whom yesterday she flatter’d to upraise:
And now another from the mire she sways
Exalted to the clouds; but raised in vain,
With louder noise to cast him down again.
Seest thou not there a countless multitude,
Thronging her temple round, and oft renew’d,
Seeking admittance, and to offer fraught
With horrid incense, for their idol brought?
Fly from her; let not the contagion find
The base example enter in thy mind.
Fly, and in virtue thy asylum seek
To make thee happy: trust the words I speak.
There is no purer happiness to gain
Than the sweet calm the just from her attain.
If in prosperity their fortunes glide,
She makes them free from arrogance and pride;
In mid estate be tranquil and content;
In adverse be resign’d whate’er the event:
Implacable, if Envy’s hurricane
O’erwhelm them in misfortunes, even then
She hastes to save them, and its rage control;
With lofty fortitude the nobler soul
Enduing faithful; and if raised to sight,
At length they find the just reward requite,
Say is there aught to hope for prize so great
As the immortal crown for which they wait?
But is this feeling then, I hear thee cry,
That elevates my soul to virtue high,
This anxious wish to investigate and know,
Is it blameworthy as those passions low?
Why not to that for happiness repair?
Wilt thou condemn it? No, who would so dare,
That right would learn his origin and end?
Knowledge and Virtue, sisters like, descend
From heaven to perfect man in nobleness;
And far removing him, Bermudo, yes!
From vice and error, they will make him free,
Approaching even to the Deity.
But seek them not, in that false path to go
Which cunning Fortune will to others show.
Where then? to Wisdom’s temple only haste;
There thou wilt find them. Her invoke; and traced,
See how she smiles! press forward; learn to use
The intercession of the kindly Muse
To make her be propitious. But beware,
That in her favour thou escape the snare,
The worship, which the vain adorer pays.
She never him propitiously surveys,
Who insolently seeking wealth or fame,
Burns impure incense on her altar’s flame.
Dost thou not see how many turn aside
From her of learning void, but full of pride?
Alas for him, who seeking truth, for aid
Embraces only a delusive shade!
In self conceit who venturing to confide,
Nor virtue gain’d, nor reason for his guide,
Leaves the right path, precipitate to stray
Where error’s glittering phantoms lead the way!
Can then the wise hope happiness to feel
In the chimæras sought with so much zeal?
Ah, no! they all are vanities and cheats!
See him, whom anxious still the morning greets,
Measuring the heavens, and of the stars that fly
The shining orbits! With a sleepless eye,
Hasty the night he reckons, and complains
Of the day’s light his labour that detains;
Again admires night’s wonders, but reflects
Ne’er on the hand that fashion’d and directs.
Beyond the moons of Uranus he bends
His gaze; beyond the Ship, the Bear, ascends:
But after all this, nothing more feels he:
He measures, calculates, but does not see
The heavens obeying their great Author’s will,
Whirling around all silent; robbing still
The hours from life, ungratefully so gone,
Till one to undeceive him soon draws on.
Another, careless of the stars, descries
The humble dust, to scan and analyse.
His microscope he grasps, and sets, and falls
On some poor atom; and a triumph calls,
If should the fool the magic instrument
Of life or motion slightest sign present,
Its form to notice, in the glass to pore,
What his deluded fancy saw before;
Yields to the cheat, and gives to matter base
The power, forgot the Lord of all to trace.
Thus raves the ingrate.
Another the meanwhile
To scrutinize pretends, in learning’s style,
The innate essence of the soul sublime.
How he dissects it, regulates in time!
As if it were a subtile fluid, known
To him its action, functions, strength and tone;
But his own weakness shows in this alone.
’Twas given to man to view the heavens on high,
But not in them the mysteries of the sky;
Yet boldly dares his reason penetrate
The darksome chaos, o’er it to dilate.
With staggering step, thus scorning heavenly light,
In error’s paths he wanders, lost in night.
Confused, but not made wise, he pores about,
Betwixt opinion wavering and doubt.
Seeking for light, and shadows doom’d to feel,
He ponders, studies, labours to unseal
The secret, and at length finds his advance;
The more he learns, how great his ignorance.
Of matter, form, or motion, or the soul,
Or moments that away incessant roll,
Or the unfathomable sea of space,
Without a sky, without a shore to trace,
Nothing he reaches, nothing comprehends,
Nor finds its origin, nor where it tends;
But only sinking, all absorb’d may see
In the abysses of eternity.
Perhaps, thence stepping more disorder’d yet,
He rushes his presumptuous flight to set
Ev’n to the throne of God! with his dim eyes
The Great Inscrutable to scrutinize;
Sounding the gulf immense, that circles round
The Deity, he ventures o’er its bound.
What can he gain in such a pathless course
But endless doubts, his ignorance the source?
He seeks, proposes, argues, thinking vain.
The ignorance that knew to raise, must fain
Be able to resolve them. Hast thou seen
Attempts that e’er have more audacious been?
What! shall an atom such as he excel
To comprehend the Incomprehensible?
Without more light than reason him assign’d,
The limits of immensity to find?
Infinity’s beginning, middle, end?
Dost Thou, Eternal Lord, then condescend
To admit man to Thy councils, or to be
With his poor reason in Thy sanctuary?
A task so great as this dost Thou confide
To his weak soul? ’Tis not so, be relied,
My friend. To know God in His works above,
To adore Him, melt in gratitude and love;
The blessings o’er thee lavish’d to confess,
To sing His glory, and His name to bless;—
Such be thy study, duty and employ;
And of thy life and reason such the joy.
Such is the course that should the wise essay,
While only fools will from it turn away.
Wouldst thou attain it? easy the emprise;
Perfect thy being, and thou wilt be wise:
Inform thy reason, that its aid impart
Thee truth eternal: purify thy heart,
To love and follow it: thy study make
Thyself, but seek thy Maker’s light to take:
There is high Wisdom’s fountain found alone:
There thou thy origin wilt find thee shown;
There in His glorious work to find the place
’Tis thine to occupy: there thou mayst trace
Thy lofty destiny, the crown declared
Of endless life, for virtue that’s prepared.
Bermudo, there ascend: there seek to find
That truth and virtue in the heavenly mind,
Which from His love and wisdom ever flow.
If elsewhere thou dost seek to find them, know,
That darkness only thou wilt have succeed,
In ignorance and error to mislead.
Thou of this love and wisdom mayst the rays
Discern in all His works, His power and praise
That tell around us, in the wondrous scale
Of high perfection which they all detail;
The order which they follow in the laws,
That bind and keep them, and that show their cause,
The ends of love and pity in their frame:
These their Creator’s goodness all proclaim.
Be this thy learning, this thy glory’s view;
If virtuous, thou art wise and happy too.
Virtue and truth are one, and in them bound
Alone may ever happiness be found.
And they can only, with a conscience pure,
Give to thy soul to enjoy it, peace secure;
True liberty in moderate desires,
And joy in all to do thy work requires;
To do well in content, and calmly free:
All else is wind and misery, vanity.
Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos
Translated by James Kennedy
James Kennedy. "Modern poets and poetry of Spain" (1860). Produced by Cornell University Library, 1992.