By John Hall from Grierson’s Metaphysical and Lyric Poems of the Seventeenth Century
The ‘tennis-ball of error’ must come from the instability of life – the back and forth of which Hall hits on throughout the poem. In that sense it’s simply a more specific – but still striking for unexpectedness – variant of the traditional ‘fortune’s plaything’ idea.
Alternate title for this post would be “Like children crying for some Mercury”
On an Hour-Glass
MY life is measur’d by this glass, this glass
By all those little sands that thorough pass.
See how they press, see how they strive, which shall
With greatest speed and greatest quickness fall.
See how they raise a little mount, and then 5
With their own weight do level it again.
But when th’ have all got thorough, they give o’er
Their nimble sliding down, and move no more.
Just such is man, whose hours still forward run,
Being almost finish’d ere they are begun; 10
So perfect nothings, such light blasts are we,
That ere we’re aught at all, we cease to be.
Do what we will, our hasty minutes fly,
And while we sleep, what do we else but die?
How transient are our joys, how short their day! 15
They creep on towards us, but fly away.
How stinging are our sorrows! where they gain
But the least footing, there they will remain.
How groundless are our hopes, how they deceive
Our childish thoughts, and only sorrow leave! 20
How real are our fears! they blast us still,
Still rend us, still with gnawing passions fill;
How senseless are our wishes, yet how great!
With what toil we pursue them, with what sweat!
Yet most times for our hurts, so small we see, 25
Like children crying for some Mercury.
This gapes for marriage, yet his fickle head
Knows not what cares wait on a marriage bed:
This vows virginity, yet knows not what
Loneness, grief, discontent, attends that state. 30
Desires of wealth another’s wishes hold,
And yet how many have been chok’d with gold?
This only hunts for honour, yet who shall
Ascend the higher, shall more wretched fall.
This thirsts for knowledge, yet how is it bought? 35
With many a sleepless night, and racking thought.
This needs will travel, yet how dangers lay
Most secret ambuscados in the way?
These triumph in their beauty, though it shall
Like a pluck’d rose or fading lily fall. 40
Another boasts strong arms: ’las! giants have
By silly dwarfs been dragg’d unto their grave.
These ruffle in rich silk: though ne’er so gay,
A well-plum’d peacock is more gay than they.
Poor man! what art? A tennis-ball of error, 45
A ship of glass toss’d in a sea of terror;
Issuing in blood and sorrow from the womb,
Crawling in tears and mourning to the tomb:
How slippery are thy paths! How sure thy fall!
How art thou nothing, when th’ art most all!