To The Royal Society

Original Text: 
Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal-Society of London (London: by T.R. for J. Martyn and J. Allestry, 1667). Wing 5032. sci Fisher Rare Book Library
2Of all that human knowledge which has bin
3Unforfeited by man's rebellious sin,
4     Though full of years he do appear,
5(Philosophy, I say, and call it, he,
6For whatso'ere the painter's fancy be,
7     It a male-virtue seems to me)
8Has still been kept in nonage till of late,
9Nor manag'd or enjoy'd his vast estate:
10Three or four thousand years one would have thought,
11To ripeness and perfection might have brought
12     A science so well bred and nurst,
13And of such hopeful parts too at the first.
14But, oh, the guardians and the tutors then,
15(Some negligent, and some ambitious men)
16     Would ne'er consent to set him free,
17Or his own natural powers to let him see,
18Lest that should put an end to their authority.
19  That his own business he might quite forget,
20They' amus'd him with the sports of wanton wit,
21With the desserts of poetry they fed him,
22Instead of solid meats t' encrease his force;
23Instead of vigorous exercise they led him
24Into the pleasant labyrinths of ever-fresh discourse:
25     Instead of carrying him to see
26The riches which do hoarded for him lie
27     In Nature's endless treasury,
28     They chose his eye to entertain
29     (His curious but not covetous eye)
30With painted scenes, and pageants of the brain.
31Some few exalted spirits this latter age has shown,
32That labour'd to assert the liberty
33(From guardians, who were now usurpers grown)
34Of this old minor still, captiv'd Philosophy;
35     But 'twas rebellion call'd to fight
36     For such a long oppressed right.
38     Whom a wise King and Nature chose
39     Lord Chancellor of both their laws,
40And boldly undertook the injur'd pupil's cause.
41  Authority, which did a body boast,
42Though 'twas but air condens'd, and stalk'd about,
43Like some old giant's more gigantic ghost,
44     To terrify the learned rout
45With the plain magic of true reason's light,
46     He chas'd out of our sight,
47Nor suffer'd living men to be misled
48     By the vain shadows of the dead:
49To graves, from whence it rose, the conquer'd phantom fled;
50     He broke that monstrous god which stood
51In midst of th' orchard, and the whole did claim,
52     Which with a useless scythe of wood,
53     And something else not worth a name,
54     (Both vast for show, yet neither fit
55     Or to defend, or to beget;
56     Ridiculous and senseless terrors!) made
57Children and superstitious men afraid.
58     The orchard's open now, and free;
59Bacon has broke that scarecrow deity;
60     Come, enter, all that will,
61Behold the ripen'd fruit, come gather now your fill.
62     Yet still, methinks, we fain would be
63     Catching at the forbidden tree,
64     We would be like the Deity,
65When truth and falshood, good and evil, we
66Without the senses aid within our selves would see;
67     For 'tis God only who can find
68     All Nature in his mind.
69  From words, which are but pictures of the thought,
70Though we our thoughts from them perversely drew
71To things, the mind's right object, he it brought,
73He sought and gather'd for our use the true;
74And when on heaps the chosen bunches lay,
75He press'd them wisely the mechanic way,
76Till all their juice did in one vessel join,
77Ferment into a nourishment divine,
78     The thirsty soul's refreshing wine.
79Who to the life an exact piece would make,
80Must not from other's work a copy take;
81     No, not from Rubens or Vandyke;
82Much less content himself to make it like
83Th' ideas and the images which lie
84In his own fancy, or his memory.
85     No, he before his sight must place
86     The natural and living face;
87     The real object must command
88Each judgment of his eye, and motion of his hand.
89From these and all long errors of the way,
90In which our wand'ring predecessors went,
91And like th' old Hebrews many years did stray
92     In deserts but of small extent;
93Bacon, like Moses, led us forth at last,
94     The barren wilderness he past,
95     Did on the very border stand
96     Of the blest promis'd land,
97And from the mountain's top of his exalted wit,
98     Saw it himself, and shew'd us it.
99But life did never to one man allow
100Time to discover worlds, and conquer too;
101Nor can so short a line sufficient be
102To fathom the vast depths of Nature's sea:
103     The work he did we ought t' admire,
104And were unjust if we should more require
105From his few years, divided 'twixt th' excess
106Of low affliction, and high happiness.
107For who on things remote can fix his sight,
108That's always in a triumph, or a fight?
109  From you, great champions, we expect to get
110These spacious countries but discover'd yet;
111Countries where yet in stead of Nature, we
112Her images and idols worshipp'd see:
113These large and wealthy regions to subdue,
114Though learning has whole armies at command,
115     Quarter'd about in every land,
116A better troop she ne're together drew.
117     Methinks, like Gideon's little band,
118     God with design has pick'd out you,
119To do these noble wonders by a few:
120When the whole host he saw, they are (said he)
121     Too many to o'ercome for me;
122     And now he chooses out his men,
123     Much in the way that he did then:
124     Not those many whom he found
125     Idly extended on the ground,
126     To drink with their dejected head
127The stream just so as by their mouths it fled:
128     No, but those few who took the waters up,
129And made of their laborious hands the cup.
166  With courage and success you the bold work begin;
167     Your cradle has not idle bin:
168None e're but Hercules and you could be
169At five years age worthy a history.
170     And ne're did fortune better yet
171     Th' historian to the story fit:
172     As you from all old errors free
173And purge the body of philosophy;
175Has vindicated eloquence and wit.
176His candid style like a clean stream does slide,
177     And his bright fancy all the way
178     Does like the sun-shine in it play;
179It does like Thames, the best of rivers, glide,
180Where the god does not rudely overturn,
181     But gently pour the crystal urn,
182And with judicious hand does the whole current guide.
183'T has all the beauties Nature can impart,
184And all the comely dress without the paint of art.


1] Cowley was an early and important member of the Royal Society, having been elected to membership on March 4, 1661. By 1665 the Society had grown strong enough to feel that its history should be written, a task which was assigned to Thomas Spratt, who requested Cowley to write the prefatory ode. Back to Line
37] Bacon: Cowley distinguishes only two periods in the history of philosophy, the one before Bacon, and the other beginning with him. It is the coming of Bacon which puts to rout the "guardians" and "usurpers" of authority, freeing philosophy from the "vain shadows of the dead." (line 48). Cf. Dryden's tribute to Bacon in To My Honor'd Friend Dr. Charleton.
Zeuxis, a celebrated Greek painter, was said to have painted grapes so life-like that birds pecked at them. Back to Line
72] Zeuxis, a celebrated Greek painter, was said to have painted grapes so life-like that birds pecked at them. Back to Line
174] he: Sprat. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
N. J. Endicott
RPO Edition: 
2RP 1.455.