Essays (Cowley)/The Danger Of Procrastination


A letter to Mr. S. L.

I am glad that you approve and applaud my design of withdrawing myself from all tumult and business of the world and consecrating the little rest of my time to those studies to which nature had so motherly inclined me, and from which fortune like a step-mother has so long detained me. But nevertheless, you say—which But is ærugo mera, a rust which spoils the good metal it grows upon. But, you say, you would advise me not to precipitate that resolution, but to stay a while longer with patience and complaisance, till I had gotten such an estate as might afford me, according to the saying of that person whom you and I love very much, and would believe as soon as another man, cum dignitate otium. This were excellent advice to Joshua, who could bid the sun stay too. But there's no fooling with life when it is once turned beyond forty. The seeking for a fortune then is but a desperate after game, it is a hundred to one if a man fling two sixes and recover all; especially if his hand be no luckier than mine. There is some help for all the defects of fortune, for if a man cannot attain to the length of his wishes, he may have his remedy by cutting of them shorter. Epicurus writes a letter to Idomeneus, who was then a very powerful, wealthy, and it seems bountiful person, to recommend to him, who had made so many men rich, one Pythocles, a friend of his, whom he desired to be made a rich man too: But I entreat you that you would not do it just the same way as you have done to many less deserving persons, but in the most gentlemanly manner of obliging him, which is not to add anything to his estate, but to take something from his desires. The sum of this is, that for the uncertain hopes of some conveniences we ought not to defer the execution of a work that is necessary, especially when the use of those things which we would stay for may otherwise be supplied, hut the loss of time never recovered. Nay, further yet, though we were sure to obtain all that we had a mind to, though we were sure of getting never so much by continuing the game, yet when the light of life is so near going out, and ought to be so precious, Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle, the play is not worth the expense of the candle. After having been long tossed in a tempest, if our masts be standing, and we have still sail and tackling enough to carry us to our port, it is no matter for the want of streamers and topgallants; utere velis, totos pande sinus. A gentleman in our late civil wars, when his quarters were beaten up by the enemy, was taken prisoner and lost his life afterwards, only by staying to put on a band and adjust his periwig. He would escape like a person of quality, or not at all, and died the noble martyr of ceremony and gentility. I think your counsel of festina lente is as ill to a man who is flying from the world, as it would have been to that unfortunate well-bred gentleman, who was so cautious as not to fly undecently from his enemies, and therefore I prefer Horace's advice before yours.

——Sapere aude; incipe.

Begin: the getting out of doors is the greatest part of the journey. Varro teaches us that Latin proverb, Portara itineri longissimam esse. But to return to Horace,

——Sapere aude;
Incipe. Vivendi qui recte prorogat horam
Rusticus expectat dum labitur amnis; at ille
Labitur, et labetur in omne volubilis ævum.

Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise;
He who defers the work from day to day,
Does on a river's bank expecting stay,
Till the whole stream which stopped him should be gone,
That runs, and as it runs, for ever will run on.

Cæsar (the man of expedition above all others) was so far from this folly, that whensoever in a journey he was to cross any river, he never went one foot out of his way for a bridge, or a ford, or a ferry; but flung himself into it immediately, and swam over; and this is the course we ought to imitate if we meet with any stops in our way to happiness. Stay till the waters are low, stay till some boats come by to transport you, stay till a bridge be built for you; you had even as good stay till the river be quite past. Persius (who, you used to say, you do not know whether he be a good poet or no, because you cannot understand him, and whom, therefore, I say, I know to be not a good poet) has an odd expression of these procrastinations, which, methinks, is full of fancy.

Jam eras hesternum consumpsimus, ecce aliud cras
egerit hos annos.

Our yesterday's to-morrow now is gone,
And still a new to-morrow does come on;
We by to-morrows draw up all our store,
Till the exhausted well can yield no more.

And now, I think, I am even with you, for your otium cum dignitate and festina lente, and three or four other more of your new Latin sentences: if I should draw upon you all my forces out of Seneca and Plutarch upon this subject, I should overwhelm you, but I leave those as triarii for your next charges. I shall only give you now a light skirmish out of an epigrammatist, your special good friend, and so, vale.

Mart. Lib. 5, Ep. 59.

To-morrow you will live, you always cry;
In what far country does this morrow lie,
That 'tis so mighty long ere it arrive?
Beyond the Indies does this morrow live?
'Tis so far-fetched, this morrow, that I fear
'Twill be both very old and very dear.
To-morrow I will live, the fool does say;
To-day itself's too late, the wise lived yesterday.

Mart. Lib. 2, Ep. 90.

Wonder not, sir (you who instruct the town
In the true wisdom of the sacred gown),
That I make haste to live, and cannot hold

Patiently out, till I grow rich and old.
Life for delays and doubts no time does give,
None ever yet made haste enough to live.
Let him defer it, whose preposterous care
Omits himself, and reaches to his heir,
Who does his father's bounded stores despise,
And whom his own. too, never can suffice:
My humble thoughts no glittering roofs require,
Or rooms that shine with ought be constant fire.
We ill content the avarice of my sight
With the fair gildings of reflected light:
Pleasures abroad, the sport of Nature yields
Her living fountains, and her smiling fields:
And then at home, what pleasure is 't to see
A little cleanly, cheerful family?
Which if a chaste wife crown, no less in her
Than fortune, I the golden mean prefer.
Too noble, nor too wise, she should not be,
No, nor too rich, too fair, too fond of me.
Thus let my life slide silently away,
With sleep all night, and quiet all the day.