To Sir Henry Wotton
Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls,
For thus, friends absent speak. This ease controls
The tediousness of my life; but for these
I could ideate nothing which could please,
But I should wither in one day and pass
To a bottle of hay, that am a lock of grass.
Life is a voyage, and in our lives' ways
Countries, courts, towns are rocks, or remoras;
They break or stop all ships, yet our state's such,
That, though than pitch they stain worse, we must touch.
If in the furnace of the raging Line,
Or under th' adverse icy Pole thou pine,
Thou know'st two temperate regions, girded in,
Dwell there; but oh! what refuge canst thou win
Parched in the court and in the country frozen?
Shall cities built of both extremes be chosen?
Can dung or garlic be perfume? Or can
A scorpion or torpedo cure a man?
Cities are worst of all three; of all three
(Oh knotty riddle) each is worst equally.
Cities are sepulchres; they who dwell there
Are carcasses, as if no such they were;
And courts are theatres, where some men play
Princes, some slaves, all to one end, of one clay.
The country is a desert, where no good
Gained as habits, not born, is understood;
There men become beasts and prone to all evils;
In cities, blocks; and in a lewd court, devils.
As in the first Chaos confusedly,
Each element's qualities were in the other three,
So pride, lust, covetise, being several
To these three places, yet all are in all,
And mingled thus, their issue is incestuous:
Falsehood is denizen'd; Virtue is barbarous.
Let no man say there, "Virtue's flinty wall
Shall lock vice in me; I'll do none, but know all."
Men are sponges, which, to pour out, receive;
Who know false play, rather than lose, deceive.
For in best understandings sin began;
Angels sinned first, then devils, and then man.
Only perchance beasts sin not; wretched we
Are beasts in all but white integrity.
I think if men, which in these places live,
Durst look in themselves, and themselves retrieve,
They would like strangers greet themselves, seeing then
Utopian youth grown old Italian.
Be then thine own home, and in thyself dwell;
Inn anywhere; continuance maketh hell.
And seeing the snail which everywhere doth roam,
Carrying his own house still, still is at home,
Follow (for he is easy paced) this snail,
Be thine own palace, or the world's thy jail.
And in the world's sea, do not like cork sleep
Upon the water's face; nor in the deep
Sink like a lead without a line; but as
Fishes glide, leaving no print where they pass,
Nor making sound, so closely thy course go;
Let men dispute whether thou breathe or no:
Only in this be no Galenist,—to make
Court's hot ambitions wholesome, do not take
A dram of country's dullness; do not add
Correctives, but, as chemics, purge the bad;
But, Sir, I advise not you, I rather do
Say o'er those lessons which I learn'd of you,
Whom, free from Germany schisms, and lightness
Of France, and fair Italy's faithlessness,
Having from these sucked all they had of worth,
And brought home that faith which you carried forth,
I thoroughly love; but if myself I've won
To know my rules, I have and you have
This poem is in the public domain.
The poet John Donne is known as the founder of the Metaphysical Poets, which included George Herbert and Andrew Marvell, among others.
Date Published: 1625-01-01
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/sir-henry-wotton