Thursday, September 20, 2007


My Little Zoar

Abraham Cowley's essay The Garden, addressed to John Evelyn, starts out thus:
I never had any other desire so strong, and so like to covetousness, as that one which I have had always, that I might be master at last of a small house and large garden, with very moderate conveniences joined to them, and there dedicate the remainder of my life only to the culture of them and the study of nature.

And there (with no design beyond my wall) whole and entire to lie,
In no unactive ease, and no unglorious poverty.

Or, as Virgil has said, shorter and better for me, that I might there studiis florere ignobilis otii, though I could wish that he had rather said nobilis otii when he spoke of his own. But several accidents of my ill fortune have disappointed me hitherto, and do still, of that felicity; for though I have made the first and hardest step to it, by abandoning all ambitions and hopes in this world, and by retiring from the noise of all business and almost company, yet I stick still in the inn of a hired house and garden, among weeds and rubbish, and without that pleasantest work of human industry—the improvement of something which we call (not very properly, but yet we call) our own. I am gone out from Sodom, but I am not arrived at my little Zoar. "Oh, let me escape thither (is it not a little one!), and my soul shall live."
In the references to Sodom and Zoar, Cowley recalls Genesis 13.10:
And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar.
Cowley expressed much the same sentiments (and even used the same phrase "a small house and large garden") in his poem The Wish:
Well then!  I now do plainly see
This busy world and I shall ne'er agree.
The very honey of all earthly joy
Does of all meats the soonest cloy;
          And they, methinks, deserve my pity
Who for it can endure the stings,
The crowd and buzz and murmurings,
          Of this great hive, the city.

Ah, yet, ere I descend to the grave
May I a small house and large garden have;
And a few friends, and many books, both true,
Both wise, and both delightful too!
          And since love ne'er will from me flee,
A Mistress moderately fair,
And good as guardian angels are,
          Only beloved and loving me.

O fountains!  when in you shall I
Myself eased of unpeaceful thoughts espy?
O fields!  O woods!  when, when shall I be made
The happy tenant of your shade?
          Here's the spring-head of Pleasure's flood:
Here's wealthy Nature's treasury,
Where all the riches lie that she
          Has coin'd and stamp'd for good.

Pride and ambition here
Only in far-fetch'd metaphors appear;
Here naught but winds can hurtful murmurs scatter,
And naught but Echo flatter.
          The gods, when they descended, hither
From heaven did always choose their way:
And therefore we may boldly say
          That 'tis the way too thither.

How happy here should I
And one dear She live, and embracing die!
She who is all the world, and can exclude
In deserts solitude.
          I should have then this only fear:
Lest men, when they my pleasures see,
Should hither throng to live like me,
          And so make a city here.
In ancient times, Horace and Martial had similar wishes. The wish of Horace (Satires 2.6.1-4, tr. John Conington) came true:
This used to be my wish: a bit of land,
A house and garden with a spring at hand,
And just a little wood. The gods have crowned
My humble vows; I prosper and abound:
Nor ask I more.

Hoc erat in votis: modus agri non ita magnus,
hortus ubi et tecto vicinus iugis aquae fons
et paulum silvae super his foret. auctius atque
di melius fecere. bene est. nil amplius oro.
Martial 10.47 has attracted many English translators. Here is Ben Jonson's version, followed by the original Latin:
The things that make the happy life, are these,
Most pleasant Martial; substance got with ease,
Not laboured for, but left thee by thy sire;
A soil, not barren; a continual fire;
Never at law; seldom in office gowned;
A quiet mind; free powers; and body sound;
A wise simplicity; friends alike-stated;
Thy table without art, and easy-rated;
Thy night not drunken, but from cares laid waste;
No sour, or sullen bed-mate, yet a chaste;
Sleep, that will make the darkest hours swift-paced;
Will to be, what thou art; and nothing more:
Nor fear thy latest day, nor wish therefore.

Vitam quae faciant beatiorem,
iucundissime Martialis, haec sunt:
res non parta labore sed relicta;
non ingratus ager, focus perennis;
lis numquam, toga rara, mens quieta;
vires ingenuae, salubre corpus;
prudens simplicitas, pares amici;
convictus facilis, sine arte mensa;
nox non ebria sed soluta curis;
non tristis torus et tamen pudicus;
somnus qui faciat breves tenebras:
quod sis esse velis nihilque malis;
summum nec metuas diem nec optes.

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