The Task: from Book I: The Sofa

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Thou know'st my praise of nature most sincere,And that my raptures are not conjur'd upTo serve occasions of poetic pomp,But genuine, and art partner of them all.How oft upon yon eminence our paceHas slacken'd to a pause, and we have borneThe ruffling wind, scarce conscious that it blew,While admiration, feeding at the eye,And still unsated, dwelt upon the scene.Thence with what pleasure have we just discern'dThe distant plough slow moving, and besideHis lab'ring team, that swerv'd not from the track,The sturdy swain diminish'd to a boy!Here Ouse, slow winding through a level plainOf spacious meads with cattle sprinkled o'er,Conducts the eye along its sinuous courseDelighted. There, fast rooted in his bank,Stand, never overlook'd, our fav'rite elms,That screen the herdsman's solitary hut;While far beyond, and overthwart the streamThat, as with molten glass, inlays the vale,The sloping land recedes into the clouds;Displaying on its varied side the graceOf hedge-row beauties numberless, square tow'r,Tall spire, from which the sound of cheerful bellsJust undulates upon the list'ning ear,Groves, heaths and smoking villages remote.Scenes must be beautiful, which, daily view'd,Please daily, and whose novelty survivesLong knowledge and the scrutiny of years.Praise justly due to those that I describe.


But though true worth and virtue, in the mildAnd genial soil of cultivated life,Thrive most, and may perhaps thrive only there,Yet not in cities oft: in proud and gayAnd gain-devoted cities. Thither flow,As to a common and most noisome sewer,The dregs and feculence of every land.In cities foul example on most mindsBegets its likeness. Rank abundance breedsIn gross and pamper'd cities sloth and lust,And wantonness and gluttonous excess.In cities vice is hidden with most ease,Or seen with least reproach; and virtue, taughtBy frequent lapse, can hope no triumph thereBeyond th' achievement of successful flight.I do confess them nurseries of the arts,In which they flourish most; where, in the beamsOf warm encouragement, and in the eyeOf public note, they reach their perfect size.Such London is, by taste and wealth proclaim'dThe fairest capital of all the world,By riot and incontinence the worst.There, touch'd by Reynolds, a dull blank becomesA lucid mirror, in which Nature seesAll her reflected features. Bacon thereGives more than female beauty to a stone,And Chatham's eloquence to marble lips.


God made the country, and man made the town.What wonder then that health and virtue, giftsThat can alone make sweet the bitter draughtThat life holds out to all, should most aboundAnd least be threaten'd in the fields and groves?Possess ye therefore, ye who, borne aboutIn chariots and sedans, know no fatigueBut that of idleness, and taste no scenesBut such as art contrives, possess ye stillYour element; there only ye can shine,There only minds like yours can do no harm.Our groves were planted to console at noonThe pensive wand'rer in their shades. At eveThe moonbeam, sliding softly in betweenThe sleeping leaves, is all the light they wish,Birds warbling all the music. We can spareThe splendour of your lamps, they but eclipseOur softer satellite. Your songs confoundOur more harmonious notes: the thrush departsScared, and th' offended nightingale is mute.There is a public mischief in your mirth;It plagues your country. Folly such as yours,Grac'd with a sword, and worthier of a fan,Has made, which enemies could ne'er have done,Our arch of empire, steadfast but for you,A mutilated structure, soon to fall.

© William Cowper