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Abraham Cowley (1618-1667):

Of Agriculture, 1650

Introductory Note

Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) was educated at Westminster School and later at Trinity College, Cambridge, from which he was ejected with most of the Masters and Fellows for refusing to sign the Solemn League and Covenant in 1644. In the same year he crossed to France in the suite of Lord Jermyn, Queen Henrietta Maria's chief officer, and remained with the royal family in exile for twelve years. After the Restoration he became a doctor of medicine, and was one of the first members of the Royal Society. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Cowley's most popular work in his own day was the collection of love poems called "The Mistress," and his so-called "Pindaric Odes" were also highly esteemed. With the decline of the taste which produced the poetry of the "Metaphysical School" to which he belonged, Cowley ceased to be read; nor is it likely that the frigid ingenuity which marks his poetic style will ever again come into favor. His "Essays," on the other hand, are written with great simplicity and naturalness, and exhibit his temperament in a most pleasing light. He is one of the earliest masters of a clear and easy English prose style, and few writers of the familiar essay surpass Cowley in grace and charm. His essay "Of Agriculture" is a delightful example of his quality. "We may talk what we please," he cries in his enthusiasm for the oldest of the arts, "of lilies, and lions rampant, and spread eagles, in fields d'or or d'argent; but, if heraldry were guided by reason, a plough in a field arable would be the most noble and ancient arms."

The Essay

The first wish of Virgil (as you will find anon by his verses) was to be a good philosopher, the second, a good husbandman: and God (whom he seem'd to understand better than most of the most learned heathens) dealt with him just as he did with Solomon; because he prayed for wisdom in the first place, he added all things else, which were subordinately to be desir'd. He made him one of the best philosophers and the best husbandmen; and, to adorn and communicate both those faculties, the best poet. He made him, besides all this, a rich man, and a man who desired to be no richer

"O fortunatus nimium, et bona qui sua novit!"1

[Footnote 1: "O fortunate exceedingly, who knew his own good fortune." Adapted from Virgil, "Georgics," II., 458.]

To be a husbandman, is but a retreat from the city; to be a philosopher, from the world; or rather, a retreat from the world, as it is man's, into the world, as it is God's.

But, since nature denies to most men the capacity or appetite, and fortune allows but to a very few the opportunities or possibility of applying themselves wholly to philosophy, the best mixture of humane2 affairs that we can make, are the employments of a country life. It is, as Columella calls it, "Res sine dubitatione proxima, et quasi consanguinea sapientiae," the nearest neighbour, or rather next in kindred, to philosophy. Varro says, the principles of it are the same which Ennius made to be the principles of all nature, Earth, Water, Air, and the Sun. It does certainly comprehend more parts of philosophy, than any one profession, art, or science, in the world besides: and therefore Cicero says, the pleasures of a husbandman, "mihi ad sapientis vitam proxime videntur accedere," come very nigh to those of a philosopher. There is no other sort of life that affords so many branches of praise to a panegyrist: the utility of it, to a man's self; the usefulness, or rather necessity, of it to all the rest of mankind; the innocence, the pleasure, the antiquity, the dignity.

[Footnote 2: Human.]

The utility (I mean plainly the lucre of it) is not so great, now in our nation, as arises from merchandise and the trading of the city, from whence many of the best estates and chief honours of the kingdom are derived: we have no men now fetcht from the plow to be made lords, as they were in Rome to be made consuls and dictators; the reason of which I conceive to be from an evil custom, now grown as strong among us as if it were a law, which is, that no men put their children to be bred up apprentices in agriculture, as in other trades, but such who are so poor, that, when they come to be men, they have not wherewithal to set up in it, and so can only farm some small parcel of ground, the rent of which devours all but the bare subsistence of the tenant: whilst they who are proprietors of the land are either too proud, or, for want of that kind of education, too ignorant, to improve their estates, though the means of doing it be as easy and certain in this, as in any other track of commerce. If there were always two or three thousand youths, for seven or eight years, bound to this profession, that they might learn the whole art of it, and afterwards be enabled to be masters in it, by a moderate stock, I cannot doubt but that we should see as many aldermen's estates made in the country, as now we do out of all kind of merchandizing in the city. There are as many ways to be rich, and, which is better, there is no possibility to be poor, without such negligence as can neither have excuse nor pity; for a little ground will, without question, feed a little family, and the superfluities of life (which are now in some cases by custom made almost necessary) must be supplied out of the superabundance of art and industry, or contemned by as great a degree of philosophy.

As for the necessity of this art, it is evident enough, since this can live without all others, and no one other without this. This is like speech, without which the society of men cannot be preserved; the others, like figures and tropes of speech, which serve only to adorn it. Many nations have lived, and some do still, without any art but this: not so elegantly, I confess, but still they live; and almost all the other arts, which are here practised, are beholding to this for most of their materials.

The innocence of this life is the next thing for which I commend it; and if husbandmen preserve not that, they are much to blame, for no men are so free from the temptations of iniquity. They live by what they can get by industry from the earth; and others, by what they can catch by craft from men. They live upon an estate given them by their mother; and others; upon an estate cheated from their brethren. They live, like sheep and kine, by the allowances of nature; and others; like wolves and foxes, by the acquisitions of rapine. And, I hope, I may affirm (without any offence to the great) that sheep and kine are very useful, and that wolves and foxes are pernicious creatures. They are, without dispute, of all men, the most quiet and least apt to be inflamed to the disturbance of the commonwealth: their manner of life inclines them, and interest binds them, to love peace: in our late mad and miserable civil wars, all other trades, even to the meanest, set forth whole troops, and raised up some great commanders, who became famous and mighty for the mischiefs they had done: but I do not remember the name of any one husbandman, who had so considerable a share in the twenty years' ruine of his country, as to deserve the curses of his countrymen.

And if great delights be joyn'd with so much innocence, I think it is ill done of men not to take them here, where they are so tame, and ready at hand, rather than hunt for them in courts and cities, where they are so wild, and the chase so troublesome and dangerous.

We are here among the vast and noble scenes of nature; we are there among the pitiful shifts of policy: we walk here in the light and open ways of the divine bounty; we grope there in the dark and confused labyrinths of humane3 malice: our senses are here feasted with the clear and genuine taste of their objects, which are all sophisticated there, and for the most part overwhelmed with their contraries. Here, pleasure looks (methinks) like a beautiful, constant, and modest wife; it is there an impudent, fickle, and painted harlot. Here, is harmless and cheap plenty; there, guilty and expenceful luxury.

[Footnote 3: Human.]

I shall only instance in one delight more, the most natural and best-natured of all others, a perpetual companion of the husbandman; and that is, he satisfaction of looking round about him, and seeing nothing but the effects and improvements of his own art and diligence; to be always gathering of some fruits of it, and at the same time to behold others ripening, and others budding: to see all his fields and gardens covered with the beauteous creatures of his own industry; and to see, like God, that all his works are good:

- Hinc atque hinc glomerantur Orcades; ipsi Agricolae tacitum pertentant gaudia pectus.4 On his heart-string a secret joy does strike.

[Footnote 4: "On this side and on that gather the Orkneys; joys pervade the silent breast of the farmer." - A parody of Virgil's "Aeneid", I. 500, 503.]

The antiquity of his art is certainly not be contested by any other. The three first men in the world, were a gardener, a plowman, and a grazier; and if any man object, that the second of these was a murtherer. I desire he would consider, that as soon as he was so, he quitted our profession, and turn'd builder. It is for this reason, I suppose, that Ecclesiasticus forbids us to hate husbandry; 'because (says he) the Most High has created it.' We were all born to this art, and taught by nature to nourish our bodies by the same earth out of which they were made, and to which they must return, and pay at last for their sustenance.

Behold the original and primitive nobility of all those great persons, who are too proud now, not only to till the ground, but almost to tread upon it. We may talk what we please of lillies, and lions rampant, and spread-eagles, in fields d'or or d'argent; but, if heraldry were guided by reason, a plough in a field arable would be the most noble and ancient arms.

All these considerations make me fall into the wonder and complaint of Columella, how it should come to pass that all arts or sciences (for the dispute, which is an art, and which a science, does not belong to the curiosity of us husbandmen) metaphysic, physic, morality, mathematics, logic, rhetoric, &c. which are all, I grant, good and useful faculties, (except only metaphysic which I do not know whether it be anything or no;) but even vaulting, fencing, dancing, attiring, cookery, carving, and such like vanities, should all have public schools and masters, and yet that we should never see or hear of any man, who took upon him the profession of teaching this so pleasant, so virtuous, so profitable, so honourable, so necessary art.

A man would think, when he's in serious humour, that it were but a vain, irrational, and ridiculous thing for a great company of men and women to run up and down in a room together, in a hundred several postures and figures, to no purpose, and with no design; and therefore dancing was invented first, and only practised antiently, in the ceremonies of the heathen religion, which consisted all in mummery and madness; the latter being the chief glory of the worship, and accounted divine inspiration: this, I say, a severe man would think; though I dare not determine so far against so customary a part, now, of good-breeding. And yet, who is there among our gentry, that does not entertain a dancing-master for his children, as soon as they are able to walk? But did ever any father provide a tutor for his son, to instruct him betimes in the nature and improvements of that land which he intended to leave him? That is at least a superfluity, and this a defect, in our manner of education; and therefore I could wish (but cannot in these times much hope to see it) that one college in each university were erected, and appropriated to this study, as well as there are to medicine and the civil law: there would be no need of making a body of scholars and fellows with certain endowments, as in other colleges; it would suffice, if, after the manner of halls in Oxford, there were only four professors constituted (for it would be too much work for only one master, or principal, as they call him there) to teach these four parts of it: First, Aration, and all things relating to it. Secondly, Pasturage. Thirdly, Gardens, Orchards, Vineyards, and Woods. Fourthly, all parts of Rural Economy, which would contain the government of Bees, Swine, Poultry, Decoys, Ponds, &c. and all that which Varro calls villaticas pastiones,5 together with the sports of the field (which ought to be looked upon not only as pleasures, but as parts of housekeeping), and the domestical conservation and uses of all that is brought in by industry abroad. The business of these professors should not be, as is commonly practised in other arts, only to read pompous and superficial lectures, out of Virgil's Georgics, Pliny, Varro, or Columella; but to instruct their pupils in the whole method and course of this study, which might be run through perhaps, with diligence, in a year or two: and the continual succession of scholars, upon a moderate taxation6 for their diet, a lodging and learning, would be a sufficient constant revenue for maintenance of the house and the professors, who should be men not chosen for the ostentation of critical literature, but for solid and experimental knowledge of the things they teach; such men, so industrious and public-spirited, as I conceive Mr. Hartlib to be, if the gentleman be yet alive: but it is needless to speak further of my thoughts of this design, unless the present disposition of the age allowed more probability of bringing it into execution. What I have further to say of the country life, shall be borrowed from the poets, who were always the most faithful and affectionate friends to it. Poetry was born among the shepherds.

[Footnote 5: The keeping of farm animals, etc.]

[Footnote 6: Charge]

Nescio qua natale solum dulcedine Musas Ducit, et immemores non sinit esse sui.

The Muses still love their own native place; 'T has secret charms, which nothing" can deface.

The truth is, no other place is proper for their work; one might as well undertake to dance in a crowd, as to make good verses in the midst of noise and tumult.

As well might corn, as verse, in cities grow; In vain the thankless glebe we plow and sow; Against th' unnatural soil in vain we strive; 'Tis not a ground, in which these plants will thrive.

It will bear nothing but the nettles and thorns of satire, which grow most naturally in the worst earth; and therefore almost all poets, except those who were not able to eat bread without the bounty of great men, that is, without what they could get by flattering of them, have not only withdrawn themselves from the vices and vanities of the grand world,

- pariter vitiisque jocisque Attius humanis exeruere caput,7

[Footnote 7: "They have raised their head above both human vices and vanities." - Ovid, "Fasti," I. 300.]

into the innocent happiness of a retired life; but have commended and adorned nothing so much by their ever-living poems. Hesiod was the first or second poet in the world that remains yet extant (if Homer, as some think, preceded him, but I rather believe they were contemporaries); and he is the first writer too of the art of husbandry: "and he has contributed (says Columella) not a little to our profession;" I suppose, he means not a little honour, for the matter of his instructions is not very important: his great antiquity is visible through the gravity and simplicity of his stile. The most acute of all his sayings concerns our purpose very much, and is couched in the reverend obscurity of an oracle.

The half is more than the whole8. The occasion of the speech is this: his brother Perses had, by corrupting some great men (great bribe-eaters he calls them), gotten from him the half of his estate. It is no matter (says he); they have not done me so much prejudice, as they imagine.

[Footnote 8: Hesiod, "Works and Days," 40.]

Unhappy they, to whom God ha'n't reveal'd, By a strong light which must their sense controul, That half a great estate's more than the whole. Unhappy, from whom still conceal'd does lye, Of roots and herbs, the wholesome luxury.

This I conceive to be honest Hesiod's meaning. From Homer, we must not expect much concerning our affairs. He was blind, and could neither work in the country nor enjoy the pleasures of it; his helpless poverty was likeliest to be sustained in the richest places; he was to delight the Grecians with fine tales of the wars and adventures of their ancestors; his subject removed him from all commerce with us, and yet, methinks, he made a shift to shew his goodwill a little. For, though he could do us no honour in the person of his hero Ulysses (much less of Achilles), because his whole time was consumed in wars and voyages; yet he makes his father Laertes a gardener all that while, and seeking his consolation for the absence of his son in the pleasure of planting, and even during his own grounds. Ye see, he did not contemn us peasants; nay, so far was he from the insolence, that he always stiles Eumaeus, who kept the hogs, with wonderful respect, ulov upoPBov, the divine swine herd; he could ha' done no more for Menelaus or Agamemnon. And Theocritus (a very antient poet, but he was one of our own tribe, for he wrote nothing but pastorals) gave the same epithete to an husbandman. The divine husbandman replied to Hercules, who was but ulos himself. These were civil Greeks, and who understood the dignity of our calling!

Among the Romans we have, in the first place, our truly divine Virgil, who, though, by the favour of Maecenas and Augustus, he might have been one of the chief men of Rome, yet chose rather to employ much of his time in the exercise, and much of his immortal wit in the praise and instructions, of a rustique life; who, though he had written, before, whole books of pastorals and georgics, could not abstain, in his great and imperial poem, from describing Evander, one of his best princes, as living just after the homely manner of an ordinary countryman. He seats him in a throne of maple, and lays him but upon a bear's skin; the kine and oxen are lowing in his court-yard; the birds under the eves of his window call him up in the morning, and when he goes aboard, only two dogs go along with him for his guard: at last, when he brings Aeneas into his royal cottage, he makes him say this memorable complement, greater than even yet was spoken at the Escurial, the Louvre, or our Whitehal:

- Haec (inquit) limina victor Alcides subiit, haec illum regia cepit: Aude, hospes, contemnere opes: et te quoque dignum Finge Deo, rebusque veni non asper agenis.

This humble roof, this rustic court, (said he) Receiv'd Alcides, crown'd with victory: Scorn not, great guest, the steps where he has trod; But contemn wealth, and imitate a God.

The next man, whom we are much obliged to, both for his doctrine and example, is the next best poet in the world to Virgil, his dear friend Horace; who, when Augustus had desired Maecenas to persuade him to come and live domestically and at the same table with him, and to be secretary of state of the whole world under him, or rather jointly with him, for he says, "ut nos in epistolis scribendis adjuvet,9 could not be tempted to forsake his Sabin, or Tiburtin mannor, for so rich and so glorious a trouble. There was never, I think, such an example as this in the world, that he should have so much moderation and courage as to refuse an offer of such greatness, and the emperor so much generosity and good-nature as not to be at all offended with his refusal, but to retain still the same kindness, and express it often to him in most friendly and familiar letters, part of which are still extant. If I should produce all the passages of this excellent author upon the several subjects which I treat of in this book, I must be obliged to translate half his works; of which I may say more truly than, in my opinion, he did of Homer.

[Footnote 9: "That he may assist us in writing letters."]

Qui, quid sit pulchrum, quid turpe, quid utile, quid non, Planius et melius Chrysippo et Crantore dicit.10

[Footnote 10: "Who says, more plainly and better than Chrysippus and Crantor, what is beautiful, what base, what useful, what the opposite of these." Horace, "Epist." I. 2. 4. Chrysippus and Crantor were noted philosophers.]

I shall content myself upon this particular theme with three only, one out of his Odes, the other out of his Satires, the third out of his Epistles; and shall forbear to collect the suffrages of all other poets, which may be found scattered up and down through all their writings, and especially in Martial's. But I must not omit to make some excuse for the bold-undertaking of my own unskillful pencil upon the beauties of a face that has been drawn before by so many great masters; especially, that I should dare to do it in Latine verses, (though of another kind), and have the confidence to translate them. I can only say that I love the matter, and that ought to cover many faults; and that I run not to contend with those before me, but follow to applaud them.

"Be your own palace or the world's your gaol."

But for artificial evils, for evils that spring from want of thought, thought must find a remedy somewhere. There has been no period of time in which wealth has been more sensible of its duties than now. It builds hospitals, it establishes missions among the poor, it endows schools. It is one of the advantages of accumulated wealth, and of the leisure it renders possible, that people have time to think of the wants and sorrows of their fellows. But all these remedies are partial and palliative merely. It is as if we should apply plasters to a single pustule of the small - pox with a view of driving out the disease. The true way is to discover and to extirpate the germs. As society is now constituted these are in the air it breathes, in the water it drinks, in things that seem, and which it has always believed, to be the most innocent and healthful. The evil elements it neglects corrupt these in their springs and pollute them in their courses. Let us be of good cheer, however, remembering that the misfortunes hardest to bear are those which never come. The world has outlived much, and will outlive a great deal more, and men have contrived to be happy in it. It has shown the strength of its constitution in nothing more than in surviving the quack medicines it has tried. In the scales of the destinies brawn will never weigh so much as brain. Our healing is not in the storm or in the whirlwind, it is not in monarchies, or aristocracies, or democracies, but will be revealed by the still small voice that speaks to the conscience and the heart, prompting us to a wider and wiser humanity.


English essays from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay. With introductions and notes. New York, Collier [c1910],  The Harvard classics v. 27.

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