Essays (Cowley)/The Shortness of Life and Uncertainty of Riches


If you should see a man who were to cross from Dover to Calais, run about very busy and solicitous, and trouble himself many weeks before in making provisions for the voyage, would you commend him for a cautious and discreet person, or laugh at him for a timorous and impertinent coxcomb? A man who is excessive in his pains and diligence, and who consumes the greatest part of his time in furnishing the remainder with all conveniences and even superfluities, is to angels and wise men no less ridiculous; he does as little consider the shortness of his passage that he might proportion his cares accordingly. It is, alas, so narrow a strait betwixt the womb and the grave, that it might be called the Pas de Vie, as well as the Pas de Calais. We are all ἐφήμεροι as Pindar calls us, creatures of a day, and therefore our Saviour bounds our desires to that little space; as if it were very probable that everyday should be our last, we are taught to demand even bread for no longer a time. The sun ought not to set upon our covetousness, no more than upon our anger; but as to God Almighty a thousand years are as one day, so, in direct opposition, one day to the covetous man is as a thousand years, tam brevi fortis jaculatur œvo multa, so far he shoots beyond his butt. One would think he were of the opinion of the Millenaries, and hoped for so long a reign upon earth. The patriarchs before the flood, who enjoyed almost such a life, made, we are sure, leas stores for the maintaining of it; they who lived nine hundred years scarcely provided for a few days; we who live but a few days, provide at least for nine hundred years. What a strange alteration is this of human life and manners! and yet we see an imitation of it in every man's particular experience, for we begin not the cares of life till it be half spent, and still increase them as that decreases. What is there among the actions of beasts so illogical and repugnant to reason? When they do anything which seems to proceed from that which we call reason, we disdain to allow them that perfection, and attribute it only to a natural instinct. If we could but learn to number our days (as we are taught to pray that we might) we should adjust much better our other accounts, but whilst we never consider an end of them, it is no wonder if our cares for them be without end too. Horace advises very wisely, and in excellent good words, spatio brevi spem longam reseces; from a short life cut off all hopes that grow too long. They must be pruned away like suckers that choke the mother-plant, and hinder it from bearing fruit. And in another place to the same sense, Vitæ summa brevis spem nos vetat inchoare longam, which Seneca does not mend when he says, Oh quanta dementia est spes longas inchoantium! but he gives an example there of an acquaintance of his named Senecio, who from a very mean beginning by great industry in turning about of money through all ways of gain, had attained to extraordinary riches, but died on a sudden after having supped merrily, In ipso actu benè cedentium rerum, in ipso procurrentis fortunæ impetu; in the full course of his good fortune, when she had a high tide and a stiff gale and all her sails on; upon which occasion he cries, out of Virgil:

Insere nunc Melibæa pyros, pone ordine vites:

Go to, Melibæns, now,
Go graff thy orchards and thy vineyards plant;
Behold the fruit!

For this Senecio I have no compassion, because he was taken, as we say, in ipso facto, still labouring in the work of avarice; but the poor rich man in St. Luke (whose case was not like this) I could pity, methinks, if the Scripture would permit me, for he seems to have been satisfied at last; he confesses he had enough for many years; he bids his soul take its ease; and yet for all that, God says to him, "Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee, and the things thou hast laid up, whom shall they belong to?" Where shall we find the causes of this bitter reproach and terrible judgment; we may find, I think, two, and God perhaps saw more. First, that he did not intend true rest to the soul, but only to change the employments of it from avarice to luxury; his design is to eat and to drink, and to be merry. Secondly, that he went on too long before he thought of resting; the fulness of his old barns had not sufficed him, he would stay till he was forced to build new ones, and God meted out to him in the same measure; since he would have more riches than his life could contain, God destroyed his life and gave the fruits of it to another.

Thus God takes away sometimes the man from his riches, and no less frequently riches from the man: what hope can there be of such a marriage where both parties are so fickle and uncertain; by what bonds can such a couple be kept long together?


Why dost thou heap up wealth, which thou must quit,
Or, what is worse, be left by it?
Why dost thou load thyself, when thou'rt to fly,
O man ordained to die?


Why dost thou build up stately rooms on high,

Thou who art underground to lie?
Thou sow'st and plantest, but no fruit must see;
For death, alas! is sowing thee.


Suppose, thou fortune couldst to tameness bring,

And clip or pinion her wing;
Suppose thou couldst on fate so far prevail
As not to cut off thy entail.


Yet death at all that subtlety will laugh,

Death will that foolish gardener mock
Who does a slight and annual plant engraff,
Upon a lasting stock.


Thou dost thyself wise and industrious deem;

A mighty husband thou wouldst seem;
Fond man! like a bought slave, thou, all the while
Dost but for others sweat and toil.


Officious fool! that needs must meddling be

In business that concerns not thee!
For when to future years thou extend'st thy cares,
Thou deal'st in other men's atfairs.


Even aged men, as if they truly were

Children again, for age prepare.
Provisions for long travail they design
In the last point of their short line.


Wisely the ant against poor winter hoards

The stock which summer's wealth affords,
In grasshoppers, that must at autumn die,
How vain were such an industry.


Of power and honour the deceitful light

Might half excuse our cheated sight,
If it of life the whole small time would stay,
And be our sunshine all the day.


Like lightning that, begot but in a cloud,

Though shining bright, and speaking loud,
Whilst it begins, concludes its violent race,
And where it gilds, it wounds the place.


Oh, scene of fortune, which dost fair appear

Only to men that stand not near.
Proud poverty, that tinsel bravery wears,
And like a rainbow, painted tears.


Be prudent, and the shore in prospect keep,

In a weak boat trust not the deep.
Placed beneath envy, above envying rise;
Pity great men, great things despise.


The wise example of the heavenly lark.

Thy fellow poet, Cowley, mark,
Above the clouds let thy proud music sound,
Thy humble nest build on the ground.