Say, why are beauties prais’d and honour’d most, the wise man’s passion, and the vain man’s toast?

From Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, Canto 5. I think this is my favorite of of Pope’s bathetic appropriations from ancient epic – if only for how core a scene the original has become for interpreting the social politics of epic or epic-informed culture.

Then grave Clarissa graceful wav’d her fan;
Silence ensu’d, and thus the nymph began.

       “Say, why are beauties prais’d and honour’d most,
The wise man’s passion, and the vain man’s toast?
Why deck’d with all that land and sea afford,
Why angels call’d, and angel-like ador’d?
Why round our coaches crowd the white-glov’d beaux,
Why bows the side-box from its inmost rows?
How vain are all these glories, all our pains,
Unless good sense preserve what beauty gains:
That men may say, when we the front-box grace:
‘Behold the first in virtue, as in face!’
Oh! if to dance all night, and dress all day,
Charm’d the smallpox, or chas’d old age away;
Who would not scorn what housewife’s cares produce,
Or who would learn one earthly thing of use?
To patch, nay ogle, might become a saint,
Nor could it sure be such a sin to paint.
But since, alas! frail beauty must decay,
Curl’d or uncurl’d, since locks will turn to grey,
Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a man, must die a maid;
What then remains but well our pow’r to use,
And keep good humour still whate’er we lose?
And trust me, dear! good humour can prevail,
When airs, and flights, and screams, and scolding fail.
Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll;
Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.”

Here is Pope’s own rendering of the relevant scene in the Iliad – bk 12 310-328 between Sarpedon (speaking) and Glaucus. This one, from his full translation, is a slight revision from an earlier selection of episodes. My edition – the Twickenham v.2 – points out that the parody is closer to a translation by John Denham, though I haven’t found a readily available digital copy to check.

Then casting on his friend an ardent look,
Fired with the thirst of glory, thus he spoke:
“Why boast we, Glaucus! our extended reign,
Where Xanthus’ streams enrich the Lycian plain,
Our numerous herds that range the fruitful field,
And hills where vines their purple harvest yield,
Our foaming bowls with purer nectar crown’d,
Our feasts enhanced with music’s sprightly sound?
Why on those shores are we with joy survey’d,
Admired as heroes, and as gods obey’d,
Unless great acts superior merit prove,
And vindicate the bounteous powers above?
’Tis ours, the dignity they give to grace;
The first in valour, as the first in place;
That when with wondering eyes our martial bands
Behold our deeds transcending our commands,
Such, they may cry, deserve the sovereign state,
Whom those that envy dare not imitate!
Could all our care elude the gloomy grave,
Which claims no less the fearful and the brave,
For lust of fame I should not vainly dare
In fighting fields, nor urge thy soul to war.
But since, alas! ignoble age must come,
Disease, and death’s inexorable doom,
The life, which others pay, let us bestow,
And give to fame what we to nature owe;
Brave though we fall, and honour’d if we live,
Or let us glory gain, or glory give!”

and the Greek because it is always prettiest.

Γλαῦκε τί ἢ δὴ νῶϊ τετιμήμεσθα μάλιστα
ἕδρῃ τε κρέασίν τε ἰδὲ πλείοις δεπάεσσιν
ἐν Λυκίῃ, πάντες δὲ θεοὺς ὣς εἰσορόωσι,
καὶ τέμενος νεμόμεσθα μέγα Ξάνθοιο παρ᾽ ὄχθας
καλὸν φυταλιῆς καὶ ἀρούρης πυροφόροιο;
τὼ νῦν χρὴ Λυκίοισι μέτα πρώτοισιν ἐόντας
ἑστάμεν ἠδὲ μάχης καυστείρης ἀντιβολῆσαι,
ὄφρά τις ὧδ᾽ εἴπῃ Λυκίων πύκα θωρηκτάων:
οὐ μὰν ἀκλεέες Λυκίην κάτα κοιρανέουσιν
ἡμέτεροι βασιλῆες, ἔδουσί τε πίονα μῆλα
οἶνόν τ᾽ ἔξαιτον μελιηδέα: ἀλλ᾽ ἄρα καὶ ἲς
ἐσθλή, ἐπεὶ Λυκίοισι μέτα πρώτοισι μάχονται.
ὦ πέπον εἰ μὲν γὰρ πόλεμον περὶ τόνδε φυγόντε
αἰεὶ δὴ μέλλοιμεν ἀγήρω τ᾽ ἀθανάτω τε
ἔσσεσθ᾽, οὔτέ κεν αὐτὸς ἐνὶ πρώτοισι μαχοίμην
οὔτέ κε σὲ στέλλοιμι μάχην ἐς κυδιάνειραν:
νῦν δ᾽ ἔμπης γὰρ κῆρες ἐφεστᾶσιν θανάτοιο
μυρίαι, ἃς οὐκ ἔστι φυγεῖν βροτὸν οὐδ᾽ ὑπαλύξαι,
ἴομεν ἠέ τῳ εὖχος ὀρέξομεν ἠέ τις ἡμῖν.

Plus a bonus parallel from Milton’s Paradise Lost 2.450

Wherefore do I assume
These royalties and not refuse to reign,
Refusing to accept as great a share
Of hazard as of honour, due alike to him
Who reigns, and so much to him due
Of hazard more, as he above the rest
High honour’d sits.

I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore

This started when I remembered last year’s Advent Carol service at Westminster where I’d ended up sitting next to Isaac Newton’s tomb and the whole time kept trying to reconstruct the wording of a famous quote I’d frequently seen attributed to him:

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me

I then forgot until today to look up the source. It turns out to have several but none are Newton’s own writings. The usual citation is to an 1855 work – Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton by David Brewster (pg. 407) – that provides no originating source. But there is a much earlier work – Anecdotes, Observations and Characters, of Books and Men by the Rev. Joseph Spence (pg. 41) – from the mid 18th century that presents it as something Newton said “a little before he died” and sources the report to Andrew Michael Ramsay while also in a footnote connecting the imagery to this passage from Milton’s Paradise Regained (4.322-330)


who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and judgment equal or superior
(And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek)
Uncertain and unsettl’d still remains,
Deep verst in books and shallow in himself,
Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys,
And trifles for choice matters, worth a spunge;
As Children gathering pibles on the shore.

But – so as not to bundle it too neatly – I notice that Ramsay’s Wikipedia biography (for what it is worth) puts him in France at the time of Newton’s death (1727).

Or let my Lamp at midnight hour

From John Milton’s Il Penseroso

Or let my Lamp at midnight hour,
Be seen in som high lonely Towr,
Where I may oft out-watch the Bear,
With thrice great Hermes, or unsphear
The spirit of Plato to unfold
What Worlds, or what vast Regions hold
The immortal mind that hath forsook
Her mansion in this fleshly nook:

And malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man

Quoted misleadingly out of context from From A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad:

LXII – Terence, this is stupid stuff

‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make, 5
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow. 10
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’

Why, if ’tis dancing you would be, 15
There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse, 20
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot 25
To see the world as the world’s not.
And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:
The mischief is that ’twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where, 30
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I’ve lain, 35
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet, 40
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure 45
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
’Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale: 50
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head 55
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast, 60
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more, 65
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat; 70
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told. 75
Mithridates, he died old.

The reference is to Milton’s proem and invocation in Book 1 of Paradise Lost

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, [ 5 ]
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.