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The Progress of Error - Poem by By William Cowper (1782)

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The Progress of Error

1782 
William Cowper 
(1731-1800)

Si quid loquar audiendum.--Hor. Lib. iv. Od. 2. 
[If my voice can aught avail. --tr. John Conington]

The Argument

Rise of error, 1--Man endowed with free-will, 23--Motives to action, 45--Allurements of pleasure, 57--Music, 63--The chase, 82--Such amusements unsuited to the clerical character, 96--Occiduus, an inconsistent pastor, 124--His pernicious example, 142--Sabbath desecration, 152--Cards and dancing, 169--The trifler, as well as the drunkard, condemned, 199--Gluttony, 209--Sensual pleasures, 225--Lawful and virtuous pleasures, 243--Pleasures in excess pernicious, 269--The pen a dangerous implement, 301--Corrupting tendency of some works of imagination, 307--Apostrophe to Chesterfield, 335--Importance of early education, 353--Foreign travel, 369--Its effects, 401--Accomplishments take place of virtue, 417--Qualities required in the critic of the sacred volume, 452--Invocation to the press, 460--Effects of enthusiasm, 470--Partiality of authors for their literary progeny, 516--The dunce impatient of contradiction, 536--Faults of the life and errors of the understanding reciprocally produce each other, 564--Evil habits unrestrained lead to destruction, 580.

SING, Muse (if such a theme, so dark, so long, 
May find a Muse to grace it with a song), 
By what unseen and unsuspected arts 
The serpent Error twines round human hearts; 
Tell where she lurks, beneath what flowery shades, 
That not a glimpse of genuine light pervades, 
The poisonous, black, insinuating worm 
Successfully conceals her loathsome form. 
Take, if ye can, ye careless and supine! 
Counsel and caution from a voice like mine;           10 
Truths, that the theorist could never reach, 
And observation taught me, I would teach. 
    Not all whose eloquence the fancy fills, 
Musical as the chime of tinkling rills, 
Weak to perform, though mighty to pretend, 
Can trace her mazy windings to their end; 
Discern the fraud beneath the specious lure, 
Prevent the danger, or prescribe the cure. 
The clear harangue, and cold as it is clear, 
Falls soporific on the listless ear;                             20 
Like quicksilver, the rhetoric they display, 
Shines as it runs, but, grasp'd at, slips away. 
    Placed for his trial on this bustling stage, 
From thoughtless youth to ruminating age, 
Free in his will to choose or to refuse, 
Man may improve the crisis, or abuse: 
Else, on the fatalist's unrighteous plan, 
Say, to what bar amenable were man 
With nought in charge, he could betray no trust; 
And, if he fell, would fall because he must;              30 
If love reward him, or if vengeance strike, 
His recompence in both unjust alike. 
Divine authority within his breast 
Brings every thought, word, action, to the test 
Warns him or prompts, approves him or restrains, 
As reason, or as passion, takes the reins. 
Heaven from above, and conscience from within, 
Cries in his startled ear--Abstain from sin! 
The world around solicits his desire, 

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