George Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, 1.6a

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Proposition:

Secondly, Godliness ought to be every man’s main business, because it is a work of the greatest concernment and weight. 

He here argues that the proposition is true. First, he restates it. This is “the tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you have told them.”

Things that are of most stress call for our greatest strength. Our utmost pains ought to be laid out upon that which is of highest price: man’s diligence about any work must be answerable to the consequence of the work. 

Varying the form of his argumentation, he here argues from the negative and does so in a mildly mocking manner. The first two examples are of people putting in tremendous effort to achieve a very small reward. The third example does not concern a wholly trivial event: at least you could eat the cooked egg. The example works by showing a complete mismatch between the effort expended and the result.

Also notice the structuring: he prefaces each example with a proverb or epigram: I have underscored the introductory proverb to make the structure clear: 

The folly of man seldom appears more than in being very busy about nothing, in making a great cry where there is little wool; like that empty fellow that shewed himself to Alexander—having spent much time, and taken much pains at it beforehand—and boasted that he could throw a pea through a little hole, expecting a great reward; but the king gave him only a bushel of peas for a recompense suitable to his diligent negligence or his busy idleness. 

Things that are vain and empty are unworthy of our care and industry. The man that by hard labour and hazard of his life did climb up to the top of the steeple to set an egg on end, was deservedly the object of pity and laughter. 

We shall think him little better than mad that should make as great a fire for the roasting of an egg as for the roasting of an ox.

He then pivots on the argument by stating it as a positive matter: we should give our best efforts to the most important ends. The illustration is curious, because rather than being an illustration which contains an argument in favor of our position, it is a picture of great burdens (and thus ends) requiring a great effort:

On the other side, the wisdom of men never presenteth itself to our view in livelier colours than in giving those affairs which are of greatest concernment precedency of time and strength. 

Of brutes man may learn this lesson: When the cart is empty, or hath but little lading, the team goeth easily along, they play upon the road; but when the burden is heavy, or the cart stuck, they pull, and draw, and put forth all their strength.

Notice how his many illustrations do not all function in same manner. This varying of the function of the illustrations helps by both avoiding tedium but also by addressing different readers. I find some illustrations more compelling or useful than others. But not all readers will have my personal response to the illustration.

He now applies the general proposition (our greatest effort should be directed to our greatest concern) to the question of godliness. He contends that godliness is our chief concern, because godliness effects not just our immediate existence, but rather eternal life. We 

Now godliness is, amongst all man’s works, of the greatest weight. The truth is, he hath no work of weight but this; this is the one thing necessary, and in this one thing are man’s all things. 

Our unchangeable weal or woe in the other world is wrapped up in our diligence or negligence about this; our earthly businesses, be they about food or raiment, about honours or pleasures, or whatsoever, are but toys and trifles, but baubles and butterflies, to this. As candles before the sun, they must all disappear and give place to this.

It is Your Life To prove the importance of godliness, Swinnock notes that this work of godliness is a matter of our life. To prove this he takes an argument taken from Moses’ Farewell Address. At the the end of Moses’ time with he ends with the note that the commandments set before them “is your life.”

Moses, a pious and tender father, when leaving them, in his swan-like song, gives savoury advice to his children. We need not doubt but his spiritual motions were quickest when his natural motions were slowest; that the stream of grace ran with full strength when it was to empty itself into the ocean of glory. Mark what special counsel he gives them who were committed to his special care: Deut. 32:46, ‘Set your hearts to all the words which I command you this day; for it is not a vain thing; because it is your life.’ 

In which words we have, 1. A commandment; and, 2. An argument. 

Here Swinnock draws Moses’ commandments to Swinnock’s thesis: the commandments are the instructions in godliness. Thus, to do the commandments is to exercise themselves to godliness:

The commandment is, ‘Set your hearts to all the words which I command you this day;’ that is, ‘Exercise yourselves to godliness.’ 

Here he presses on the point which marks many: I hear and understand but I do not do.

He doth not say, lend them your ears, to listen to them slightly; or let them have your tongues, to speak of them cursorily. No; it is not, set your heads, but set your hearts, to all the words, &c. He doth not say, Let your works be according to these words, or let your feet ever make them your walk; no, it is not set your hands, but set your hearts to the words that I speak unto you. Make it your business, and then your ears and tongues, your feet, your heads, your hands, and all will be employed about them to the purpose. 

The commandments are a matter of life and death:

But what special argument doth Moses urge for the enforcement of this great work? Surely that which I am speaking of, the weight of it: ‘Set your hearts to all the words which I command you this day; for it is not a vain thing; because it is your life,’ ver. 47.

Swinnock here uses an image to understand Moses’ work. If the heart of Israelites were wood, then it is very hard wood to split indeed.

(Mr. August Vogel Chops Wood)

Moses had experience that the hearts of the Israelites were exceeding knotty wood, and therefore he useth a heavy beetle to drive home the wedge: it is not a vain thing; it is life. As if he had said, Were it a matter of small moment, ye might laze and loiter about it; but it behoves you to bestir yourselves lustily to follow it, laboriously to set your hearts to it; for it is as much worth as your lives; that pearl of matchless price is engaged and at stake in your pursuit of godliness. 

At this point he gives a number of examples of how people will act to save their life. The implication is that if we would work so hard for our natural life, should we not work 

Life, though but natural, is of so much value that men will sacrifice their honours and pleasures, their wealth and liberty, and all to it.

The Egyptians parted with their costly jewels willingly to redeem their lives, as Calvin observeth. The widow in the Gospel spared none of her wealth to obtain health, which is much inferior to life: ‘Skin for skin, and all that a man hath, will he give for his life.’ 

Throw but a brute [an animal] into the water to drown it, how will it labour, and toil, and sweat, to preserve its life! View a man on his death-bed, when a distemper is, like a strong enemy, fighting to force life out of the field, how doth nature then, with all the might and strength it hath, strive and struggle to keep its ground! What panting and breathing, what sweating and working of all the parts do you behold! 

Here he applies the analogy: We work so hard to preserve our natural life which we must lose no matter the effort, then we should take greater care to preserve not the union of soul and body, but the union of our life and our Savior:

And no wonder—the man laboureth for life. If there be such labour for a natural life, that is but umbra vitæ, a shadow to this the substance, which is but the union of the body and soul, and lieth under a necessity of dissolution; what labour doth a spiritual life deserve, that consisteth in the soul’s union and communion with the blessed Saviour, and which neither men nor devils, neither death nor hell, shall ever deprive a believer of, but in spite of all it will grow and increase till it commence eternal life? 

Here he returns to his original proposition: It is your life:

Well might Moses expect that such a heavy weight as this should make great impression, and sink deep into their affections: ‘For it is not a vain thing; because it is your life.’

Edward Taylor, Meditation 32, Stanza 4

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Fourth Stanza

Then Grace, my Lord, wrought in thy heart a vent

Thy soft soft hand to this hard work did go  (20)

And to the milk white Throne of Justice went 

And entered bond that Grace might overflow

Hence did thy Person to my nature tie

And bleed through human veins to satisfy.

Summary: This stanza turns to the means by which the grace of God was actually conveyed. The paradox and wonder of the Christian Gospel is laid out. The grace of God was provided with his own blood (as Paul puts in Acts 20:28, “the church of God which he obtained with his own blood”). In line 19, the blood comes from a vent in the heart of God. In line 24, that blood was shed through “human veins”. And in a further paradox, this pardon and mercy were obtained from the “Throne of Justice.”

Notes: 

First, note the agent of this work:

Then Grace, my Lord, wrought in thy heart a vent

Thy soft soft hand to this hard work did go  

In line 19, the agent is “grace” – as if it were an actor. In line 20, it is God’s own “hand” (his own agency). Placing “grace” as the primary motivation for this action is foregrounded in Ephesians: 

Ephesians 1:2–10 (AV) 

Grace be to you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenlyplaces in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:

Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. 

In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; Wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; 

Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: 10 That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him:

And:

Ephesians 2:1–8 (AV) 

And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. 

But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in hiskindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 

Note also the same movement of thought in Ephesians 2 as in Taylor’s poem: I am in rebellion (“Children of disobedience”), but God has shown me grace in Jesus Christ. 

This hard work: Is the death of Christ. The love of God, the grace of God is the motivation; God himself is the actor:

John 10:17–18 (AV)

17 Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. 18 No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.

This work of mercy is done at the Throne of Justice: God’s mercy is not contrary to God’s justice: In forgiving the rebel, God establishes justice. The penalty of sin is fulfilled by Christ.

This then brings us to the couplet:

Hence did thy Person to my nature tie

And bleed through human veins to satisfy.

Two things are present here: Again we come to a paradox of the Incarnation. God fulfills the demands of the Law which were imposed upon human beings by becoming a human being: Thus, the penalty of death was paid by a human being  on behalf of human beings.

And in so doing, the Son “tied” himself to human nature in the person of Jesus (which is of two natures and one person). 

Justice bleeds mercy. God bleeds as a man. Grace is shown to the rebellious. The innocent gives life for the guilty. God is the agent of fulfilling justice and mercy at the same moment. 

Yahweh Elohim in the Old Testament, though just, holy, zealous for his honor, and full of ire against sin, is also gracious, merciful, eager to forgive, and abounding in steadfast love (Exod. 20:5–6; 34:6–7; Deut. 4:31; Ps. 86:15; etc.). In the New Testament God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the God of all grace and mercy (Luke 6:36; 2 Cor. 1:3; 1 Peter 5:10). There is no antithesis between the Father and Christ. As full of love, merciful, and ready to forgive as Christ is, so is the Father. It is his words that Christ speaks, his works he does. The Father is himself the Savior (σωτηρ; Luke 1:47; 1 Tim. 1:1; Titus 3:4–5), the One who in Christ reconciles the world to himself, not counting its trespasses against it (2 Cor. 5:18–19). Christ, therefore, did not first by his work move the Father to love and grace, for the love of the Father is antecedent and comes to manifestation in Christ, who is himself a gift of God’s love (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8; 8:32; 1 John 4:9–10).

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 368.

Musical:

There are two lines which deserve special consideration. First, 

Thy soft soft hand to this hard work did go  

First, the repetition of “soft” slows down the line and creates a contrast with “hard”. The accented words are soft soft hand … hard work … go. We have an extra accent in this line. The emphatic ‘soft’ thus helps to underscore the paradox: 

Next note the  hand … hard work. Hand and hard come on opposite sides of the line pause, which is an element of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry: it holds the halfs of the line closely together. Next the “r” of “hard”  is picked up in work. 

The opening of the couplet begins with an accented “Hence.” This draws the conclusion from the proceeding passage. The conclusion is not a logical deduction but rather the working out of this work of grace: To fulfill justice, extend mercy, rescue me, My Lord tied his nature to mine.

George Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, 1.5

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In this fifth chapter, Swinnock contends that the purpose of our creation was to worship God. Hence, our final cause must be godliness.

I come in the third place to the reasons, Why godliness should be every man’s main and principal business.

God created us for the purpose of godliness: this was the ‘final cause’ for our creation. Although not explicitly set forth here, Aristotle’s fourth cause sets the basis for this argument. Aristotle broke causation down into four elements: For instance, if someone were to carve a statue, the artist, the hammer, and the stone would all contribute to the creation of the final statue: each would be a cause of what was created. But there is a fourth cause, the final cause which is the point of the whole thing. The point of God’s creation is to Glorify God and enjoy him forever. 

First, Because it is God’s chief end in sending man into, and continuing him in, this world.  It is without question, that the work should be for that end to which it is appointed, and for which it is maintained by a sovereign and intelligent workman. 

Analogous principle: a servant has a duty to fulfill that end whichhas been set out by his master. We are not our own master, and we are not at liberty to determine our own actions. 

Where the master hath authority to command, there his end and errand must be chiefly in the servant’s eye. Zeno well defines liberty to be ἐξουσία αὐτοπραγίας [authority over one’s own conduct] a power to act and practise at a man’s own pleasure; opposite to which, servitude must be a determination to act at, and according to, the will of another. 

A servant is, as the orator saith well, nomen officii, a word that speaks one under command; he is not one that moveth of himself, but the master’s living instrument, according to the philosopher, to be used at his pleasure. 

Now he applies the principle: If God has authority over us then our obedience must correspond to his authority:

According to the title or power which one hath over another, such must the service be. Where the right is absolute, the obedience must not be conditional; God having therefore a perfect sovereignty over his creatures, and complete right to all their services, his end and aim, his will and word, must be principally minded by them. Paul gathers this fruit from that root: ‘The God whose I am, and whom I serve,’ Acts 27:23. His subjection is founded on God’s dominion over him.

Having established the principle that a servant owes due obedience to his master, Swinnock returns to the principle of this chapter:

Now the great end to which man is designed by God, is the exercising himself to godliness.

God erected the stately fabric of the great world for man, but he wrought the curious piece of the little world [man] for himself. Of all his visible works he did set man apart for his own worship. 

Here is an important move in the argument. By being made for godliness, human beings were made for something more than the world. The world was made for human beings, but human beings were made for God. Godliness will then entail something more than merely getting by in the world on such terms are convenient or acceptable to us.

The force of this argument is apparent when it is raised in the opposite direction. When a standard for godly living is raised, we can object to it on the ground that it does not seem to create problems or have negative consequences. Such an argument would sound like this, “Why do you think X is wrong, who does it hurt?” Such an argument has implicit it in the proposition that the only final cause for a human being is oneself, and that only final cause for a rule must be ease or immediate good. This is incidentally, similar to the nature of therapy: The purpose of therapy is help you feel good about whatever you are doing. As long as you do not violate the right of consent in another person, you have fulfilled your moral obligations. 

The nature of godliness will not correspond to the therapeutic, consent-based morality. The final cause, the purpose of godliness is not that you should feel good right now. There may be some immediate pleasure or happiness from godliness, but 

godliness will not necessary entail immediate goods. Restraint, humility, kindness, chastity are not considered immediate goods.

The trouble is that our subjective emotional response is not identical to the ends for which God has created human beings. 

Swinnock’s argument that we are made for something more than this world, explains why immediate emotional response may not be a good indicator of highest end. To the extent our judgment is based upon an evaluation of what is best for me right now, my judgment will be impaired. He needs to establish this point early on, because the course of godliness will not always match my feelings or subjective evaluation.

Man, saith one, is the end of all in a semicircle, intimating that all things in the world were made for man, and man was made for God. It is but rational to suppose that if this world was made for us, we must be made for more than this world. 

It is an ingenious observation of Picus Mirandula, God created the earth for beasts to inhabit, the sea for fish, the air for fowls, the heavens for angels and stars, man therefore hath no place to dwell and abide in, but the Lord alone.

The great God, according to his infinite wisdom, hath designed all his creatures to some particular ends, and hath imprinted in their natures an appetite and propensity towards that end, as the point and scope of their being.2

He here gives a great many examples from nature showing a conformity of all things to their purpose.

Yea, the very inanimate and irrational creatures are serviceable to those ends and uses in their several places and stations. Birds build their nests exactly, bringing up their young tenderly. Beasts scramble and scuffle for their fodder, and at last become man’s food. The sun, moon, and stars move regularly in their orbs, and by their light and influence advantage the whole world. The little commonwealth of bees work both industriously and wonderfully for the benefit of mankind. 

Flowers refresh us with their scents; trees with their shade and fruits; fire moveth upward; earth falleth downward, each by nature hastening to its centre; thunder and winds, being exhalations drawn up from the earth by the heavenly bodies, are wholly at, though stubborn and violent creatures, the call and command of the mighty possessor of heaven and earth; and with them, as with besoms, he sweeps and purifieth the air; fish sport up and down in rivers; rivers run along, sometimes seen, sometimes secret, never ceasing or tiring till they empty themselves into the ocean; the mighty sea, like a pot of water, by its ebbing and flowing purgeth itself, boileth and prepareth sustenance for living creatures. 

Through this womb of moisture, this great pond of the world, as Bishop Halltermeth it, men travel in moveable houses, from country to country, transporting and exchanging commodities [ships and trading]. Thus the almighty Creator doth, γεωμετρεῖν, as Plato saith, observe a curious comely order in all his work, and appoints them to some use according to their nature. 

Since all created things are suitable to their ends, it must be so with human beings:

Surely much more is man, the point in which all those lines meet, designed to some noble end, suitable to the excellency of his being; and what can that be, but to worship the glorious and blessed God, and the exercising himself to godliness?

‘The Lord made all things for himself,’ Prov. 16:4. God made things without life and reason to serve him passively and subjectively, by administering occasion to man to admire and adore his Maker; but man was made to worship him actively and affectionately, as sensible of, and affected with, that divine wisdom, power, and goodness which appear in them.

Here Swinnock expressly raises the question of Aristotle’s causes:

As all things are of him as the efficient cause [God is the agent of causation] , so all things must necessarily be for him as the final cause [the end of everything which God makes is God’s glory]. 

But man in an especial manner is predestinated and created for this purpose: Isa. 43:17, ‘Thou art mine; I have created him for my glory; I have formed him, yea, I have made him.’ There is both the author and the end of our creation: the author, ‘I have created him;’ the end, ‘for my glory.’ As man is the most exact piece, on which he bestowed most pains, so from him he cannot but expect most praise. Lactantius accounteth religion the most proper and essential difference between men and beasts.[1] The praises which beasts give God are dumb, their sacrifices are dead; but the sacrifices of men are living, and their praises lively.

Here Swinnock plays on the idea of the natural world as a theater of God’s Glory. The world as theater is certainly well known from Shakespeare. But the matter of a theater for God’s glory goes at least back to Calvin: “Therefore, however fitting it may be for man seriously to turn his eyes to contemplate God’s works, since he has been placed in this most glorious theater to be a spectator of them, it is fitting that he prick up his ears to the Word, the better to profit.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 72.

God did indeed set up the admirable house of the visible world (flooring it with the earth, watering it with the ocean, and ceiling it with the pearly heavens) for his own service and honour; but the payment of this rent[2] is expected from the hands of man, the inhabitant. He was made and put into this house upon this very account, that he might, as God’s steward, gather his rents from other creatures, and pay in to the great landlord his due and deserved praise. 

Note again this understanding of the image of God: We could look to the image in terms of the capacity to reflect God. But Swinnock here emphasizes the natre of image as the reflection (rather than the capacity to reflect):

Man is made as a glass, to represent the perfections that are in God. A glass can receive the beams of the sun into it, and reflect them back again to the sun. The excellencies of God appear abundantly in his works; man is made to be the glass where these beams of divine glory should be united and received, and also from him reflected back to God again.

A return to the final cause argument: If the human being is capable of worship and reflection, then the final cause of the human being must be congruent with that capacity. If we were merely fit for animal-actions, then there would have been no need to have made us as we are:

Oh, how absurd is it to conceive that God should work a body so ‘curiously in the lowest parts of the earth,’ embroider it with nerves, veins, variety and proportion of parts, (miracles enough, saith one, between head and foot to fill a volume,) and then enliven it with a spark of his own fire, a ray of his own light, an angelical and heaven-born soul, and send this picture of his own perfections, this comely creature, into the world, merely to eat, and drink, and sleep, or to buy, and sell, and sow, and reap. Surely the only wise God had a higher end and nobler design in forming and fashioning man with so much care and cost.

The upright figure of man’s body, as the poetical heathen could observe, may mind him [put him in mind to do so] of looking upward to those blessed mansions above; and that fifth muscle in his eye, whereby he differeth also from other creatures, who have only four—one to turn downward, another to hold forwards, a third to turn the eye to the right hand, a fourth to turn the eye to the left; but no unreasonable creature can turn the eye upward as man can—may admonish him of viewing those superior glories, and exercising himself to godliness, it being given him for this purpose, saith the anatomist, that by the help thereof he might behold the heavens.

Conclusion: we were made for the purpose of godliness:

Thus the blessed God, even by sensible demonstrations, speaks his mind and end in making man; but the nature of man’s soul being a spiritual substance, doth more loudly proclaim God’s pleasure, that he would have it conversant about spiritual things. He made it a heavenly spark, that it might mount and ascend to heaven.

Living at the time Swinnock, it was simply known that human beings were made to fit into a particular place in the world. 

A philosopher may get riches, saith Aristotle, but that is not his main business; a Christian may, nay, must follow his particular calling, but that is not his main business, that is not the errand for which he was sent into the world. God made particular callings for men, but he made men for their general callings. 

It was a discreet answer of Anaxagoras Clazamenius to one that asked him why he came into the world; That I might contemplate heaven.[3]

Heaven is my country, and for that is my chiefest care. May not a Christian upon better reason confess that to be the end of his creation, that he might seek heaven, and be serviceable to the Lord of heaven, and say, as Jerome, I am a miserable sinner, and born only to repent. [See, Phil. 3:2, “But our citizenship is in heaven.”]

The Jewish Talmud propounds this question, Why God made man on the Sabbath eve? and gives this answer: That he might presently enter upon the command of sanctifying the Sabbath, and begin his life with the worship of God, which was the chief reason and end why it was given him.


2 The ancient philosophers, and the old divines among the pagans, did portray their gods in wood and stone with musical instruments, not that they believed the gods to be fiddlers, or lovers of music, but to shew that nothing is more agreeable to the nature of God, than to do all in a sweet harmony and proportion.—Plutarch.

[1]

“It follows that I show for what purpose God made man himself. As He contrived the world for the sake of man, so He formed man himself on His own account, as it were a priest of a divine temple, a spectator of His works and of heavenly objects. For he is the only being who, since he is intelligent and capable of reason, is able to understand God, to admire His works, and perceive His energy and power; for on this account he is furnished with judgment, intelligence, and prudence. On this account he alone, beyond the other living creatures, has been made with an upright body and attitude, so that he seems to have been raised up for the contemplation of his Parent. On this account he alone has received language, and a tongue the interpreter of his thought, that he may be able to declare the majesty of his Lord. Lastly, for this cause all things were placed under his control, that he himself might be under the control of God, their Maker and Creator. If God, therefore, designed man to be a worshipper of Himself, and on this account gave him so much honour, that he might rule over all things; it is plainly most just that he should worship Him who bestowed upon him such great gifts, and love man, who is united with us in the participation of the divine justice.”

Lactantius, “A Treatise on the Anger of God,” in Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. William Fletcher, vol. 7, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 271.

[2] For this same idea, see, “The setting forth of his glory is a rent due to him from all creatures. We are to praise him both in word and deed, in mind, and heart, and practice, which we can never do unless we understand the dignity of his person.” Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 1 (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1870), 432.

[3] “When some one asked him if the hills at Lampsacus would ever become sea, he replied, “Yes, it only needs time.” Being asked to what end he had been born, he replied, “To study sun and moon and heavens.” To one who inquired, “You miss the society of the Athenians?” his reply was, “Not I, but they miss mine.”” Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, ed. R. D. Hicks (Kansas City Missouri: Harvard University Press, November 1, 2005), 141. ἐρωτηθείς ποτε εἰς τί γεγέννηται, “εἰς θεωρίαν,” ἔφη, “ἡλίου καὶ σελήνης καὶ οὐρανοῦ.” Diogenes Laertius, “Lives of Eminent Philosophers,” ed. R. D. Hicks (Kansas City Missouri: Harvard University Press, November 1, 2005), 140.

Edward Taylor, Meditation 32, Third Stanza

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Third Stanza 

Eternal love an object mean did smite

Which by the Prince of Darkness was beguiled,

That from this love it ran and swelled with spite. (15)

And in the way of filth was all defiled

Yet must be reconciled, cleansed and begraced

Or from the fruits of God’s first love displaced.

Summary: Eternal love rescued the poet. The poet was unworthy of such love. This rescue and reconciliation were necessary or the poet would have been lost. 

Notes:

Here he continues with the striking metaphor of the violent overthrow brought about by God’s love.  In the first stanza, he spoke of God’s grace being a torment to him as he sought to find words to express this wonder. 

In this stanza he uses a similar metaphor: Eternal love, which is another way to refer to God’s grace, actually strikes him violently as in a war. He could only be stopped by a violent act of God overthrowing his rebellion.

In this way, there is a relationship between this poem and Donne’s sonnet, Batter my heart

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you 

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend 

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. 

I, like an usurp’d town to another due, 

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end; 

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, 

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue. 

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain, 

But am betroth’d unto your enemy; 

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, 

Take me to you, imprison me, for I, 

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, 

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The work of God’s love is violent from the perspective of the poet in his state of rebellion. God to redeem the poet and show him love, had to first overcome the utter refusal to be reconcile to God. Note the elements of the poet’s pre-conversion status:

Which by the Prince of Darkness was beguiled,

That from this love it ran and swelled with spite

And in the way of filth was all defiled

The poet had been taken over to the enemies camp: he had been seduced, beguiled by the Prince of Darkness. (For this name for the devil, consider Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress, “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him.”

The poet did not merely refuse God’s love but actively rejects such love to the point of running away from God. And, he did not merely run away, but he actively hated God. He describes himself as having “swelled with spite.” This is an interesting phrase because it plays off the idiom “swell with pride.”  To swell with pride was a phrase used by other writers, for instance, “See the difference between an heart that is swelled with pride, and that which is ballasted with humility>”

Thomas Watson, The Select Works of the Rev. Thomas Watson, Comprising His Celebrated Body of Divinity, in a Series of Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, and Various Sermons and Treatises (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 510.

But this phrase, “swell with spite” is exceptionally rare. Even an internet search came back with only one use of the phrase. I found nothing in the published books catalogued by Google, and nothing in the writings of the contemporary Puritans. 

The poet describes himself as being stuffed with spite for God. 

And so he was a member of the opposing forces. He sought to evade God at all costs and he hated God. Finally, he was morally corrupt:

And in the way of filth was all defiled

Here again he plays upon a common idiom, “Way of life.”  Here is an apropos example of the common idiom: “Who would lose that which is certain and present, for the hope or fear of that which is to come and doubtful, when they suspect or believe it not fully? No wonder they go on still in the paths that lead down to the chambers of death, and are prejudiced against the ways of life. But why are men such infidels as to future things?” Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 2 (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1871), 367.

But rather than being in the “way of life,” the poet was in the way of filth. 

Think again about the picture painted here: A man seething with hatred is running away from a fearsome enemy. In his struggle to escape his enemy, he is plunged into an open sewer, wading through the refuse and vermin, defiled – disgusting. And then his enemy overtakes and smites him in the midst of rebellion and escape. 

But what is the nature of this attack, “Eternal love.” 

Now consider the necessity mentioned in these lines:

Yet must be reconciled, cleansed and begraced

Or from the fruits of God’s first love displaced.

There are two sorts of necessity: One sort is merely conditional necessity. In this instance, if God does not rescue Taylor, Taylor will not be rescued. It is as simple as that. “He must be reconciled” or he will be lost as a conditional matter.

But there is a second sort of necessity, the necessity of compulsion. Taylor speaks of a sort of compulsion in the love of God. 

Edward Taylor, Meditation 32, Second Stanza

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Stanza Two

But plunged I am, my mind is puzzled

When I would spin my fancy thus unspun

In finest twine of praise I’m muzzled

My tazzled thoughts twirled into snick-snarls run. (10)

Thy grace my lord is such a glorious things

It doth confound me when I would it sing. 

Summary: The quatrain speaks directly of his inability to form adequate thoughts of the subject matter. He then turns to God confesses, that the glorious nature of grace overwhelms his capacity to speak on the subject. 

Notes

The quatrain which lays out his frustration demonstrates in itself the difficulty he is having. Imagine one who says that he is quite frightened and is perfectly composed: the proposition and the person would not match. Here, the proposition and the presentation do match.

The concept is relatively simple: The image is of one spinning yarn from wool. The act of bringing his imaginative powers – his “fancy” – into an orderly and fit presentation of verse is like wool being spun into yarn. And yet, rather than an orderly creation of yarn, his yarn has “unspun.” His fancy has not resulted in an orderly poem, but his imagination has “unspun.”

In finest twine of praise I’m muzzled

My tazzled thoughts twirled into snick-snarls run.

Drawing together his image of spinning yarn with the work of creating a poem is a “twine of praise.” But here, rather than the production of praise, there is nothing, “I’m muzzled.” Which is ironic, because this muzzled poem is speaking. 

The ninth line is wonderful. There is a spinning of thoughts, but they, they are twirled, but they are also “tazzled.” 

Tazzle is an uncommon word. A glossary of the dialect of the hundred of Lonsdale. Together with an essay on some leading characteristics spoken in the six northern counties of England. Ed. by J. C. Atkinson, defines “tazzle” as a wicked, drunken person. That definition does not help much but, The The English Dialect Dictionary, Being the Complete Vocabulary of All Dialect Words Still in Use, Or Known to Have Been in Use During the Last Two Hundred Years: T-Z. Supplement. Bibliography. Grammar, published in 1905, and edited by Joseph Wright

has “tazzle” a dialect formation of “teazle” to entangle. Thus, “tangled, fuzzy, twisted, knotted; a tangle, a state of disorder, esp. used of hair.” Which meets the case: this thoughts are tangled up. 

They are not merely tazzled, they are twirled and finally in a snick-snarl, which is exactly as it sounds. 

The poem which runs through my mind as a comparative exercise is Shakespeare’s sonnet 23 with the lines

Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,

Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart

The very desire and necessity of the poem makes the poem impossible to construct. The glorious grace of God is such that what poem could address such glory?

The couple makes an interesting move. He has been describing his jumbled thoughts, apparently to a reader. But at the couplet he turns from the human audience and directly addresses God:

Thy grace my lord is such a glorious things

It doth confound me when I would it sing. 

Here we come to a confession: At this point is matches most closely with the tone of sonnet 23. It is the very desire to speak which has tied my tongue.

Poetical:

As a final point, to describe the effects of sound and sense would be take away from their effect. Rather than comprehended this particular stanza must merely spoken and experienced.  Although not the sing-song chant of Dr. Seuss, I delight in sounds and sense is evident. Another possible comparison would be some poetry of Lewis Carol, like Jabberwocky.

Kuyper, Common Grace, 1.20

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In this chapter, Kuyper considers the issue of original righteousness in Adam when created. To explain man as the image of God, Kuyper uses the language of a mirror (as Lints in Identity and Idolatry). When God created humanity, at the moment of creation, the reflection was there: “In creating man, God makes for himself a mirror in which he wants to see his own image as clearly as the nature of the creaturely makes this possible.” This was not an addition to Adam, but was inherent in Adam.

Here is a critical distinction between the Reformed and Roman positions. The original righteousness of Adam was not a gracious addition to nature.  The importance of this doctrinal distinction was addressed in the previous chapters, here and here

Kuyper next contends that the matters of creation can be in a state of maturity: particularly with respect to the formation of Adam. That is, God did not create a baby and then wait 20 years for the baby to be an adult.

Having considered the creation of the body, Kuyper turns to the soul, Adam’s spiritual existence. He makes mention here of the relatively new discipline of psychology as a “soul science” (this volume was originally published in 1902).  He then asks the pointed question, What do we really know about the essence of the soul – beyond what is said in Scripture? We can look at effects, but what is happening there in the soul is a kind of mystery. 

As an aside, it would be difficult to say that we know all that much more than Kuyper. Certainly there have been behavioral observations and untold thousands of college freshman have been duped into disclosing their willingness to lie or their preference for this or that in response to graduate students’ experiments. Yet, what is really happening, what is the essence is still a mystery. 

Thus, as Kuyper says we should be thankful for anything God has told us of ourselves. We know there is a development of sorts. And here he begins to make observations. 

There are elements of our maturation which begin “inside” if you will. There are native abilities, dispositions, and such which mature as the child interacts with his environment and matures. Now Adam’s body was matured, but what of his soul? Was he born with a fully matured soul? To make sense of what we are told of Adam, we must conclude that he a fully matured soul.

This then raises an issue. While I could understand a fully matured body – because the growth of a body comes from the body itself; a fully matured soul is more difficult to understand, because the maturity of the soul comes about through interaction with the environment. Again, Adam must have been fully matured in his intellectual and emotional capacity. 

Then finally what of his religious capacity—and this brings us to the question of original righteousness from a different direction. And here we must contend he was in a state of maturity and holiness. But this is not to say that he was incapable of further growth or maturation. Just as an old scholar can still learn, despite having obtained to righteousness, even so Adam was able to further mature.

And so when we speak of original righteousness, we mean that he not defect of morality nor inclination away from the law of God. He was no double-minded but rather of full accord with his position as a creature before, created for God’s glory, to display God as in a mirror. This is what is meant by “original righteousness.”

“Thus in paradise there was spiritual perfection, though not yet the final consummation, in the three spheres of intellect, morality, and religious life.”

Edward Taylor, Meditation 32

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Thy grace, dear Lord’s my golden wrack, I find

Screwing my fancy into ragged rhymes, 

Tuning thy praises in my feeble mind

Until I come to strike them on my chimes. 

Were I an angel bright, and borrow could (5)

King David’s harp, I would them play on gold.

Summary: In this stanza, the poet speaks of how painful it is for him to write these mediatory poems. If he had access to David’s greater gift, he would use it. 

General Notes:  What a remarkable introduction to a poem. The grace of God is both a wrack and screw. These implements of torture were in actual use by the English government (of which Taylor was a subject, even though he lived in the New England) at the time was written.

This does make an interesting discussion of Taylor’s creative process: He is faced with an extraordinary good. He finds himself compelled to translate the beauty with which he is faced into poetry. 

However, this process has two effects upon him. As has been the case many of the meditations, the contemplation of the grace of God causes in him an overwhelming sense of his own unworthiness and sinfulness. 

In this poem he references a related though distinct response: Here he finds himself inadequate to the process. He is unable to adequately make the translation.

The compulsion to write, to sense of sin and the inability to match the original he experiences like an implement of torture. In fact, when it comes to actual creation of the poem, the process is a torment, because he is the one operating the screw. 

Instrument Of Torture Stock Photos and Pictures | Getty Images

These responses are interestingly not inconsistent with the biblical account. 

This coming into knowing contact with the holy has a profound effect. Consider two stories of the disciples making a realization of the true nature of Jesus:

Luke 5:1–10 (AV) 

And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret, And saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken: 10 And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. 

Or in Mark 4, when Jesus stills the storm:

Mark 4:40–41 (AV) 

40 And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith? 41 And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? 

But more to the point in this particular stanza are two instances from the prophet Jeremiah. In chapter 20, the prophet has determined that he will no longer speak because it has become too painful for him:

Jeremiah 20:7–9 (AV) 

O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived: thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me. For since I spake, I cried out, I cried violence and spoil; because the word of the LORD was made a reproach unto me, and a derision, daily. Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay

And the Lord speaking to the prophet:

Jeremiah 23:29 (AV) 

29 Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? 

The pain of the first three gives way to an expression: First, there is tuning (line 4) and then striking the music on chimes (line 5). What we have with the poem before us is the tune struck out on chimes. 

The only adequate response to such grace would be found in a heavenly access ot David’s prophetic poetry. Only in heaven could there be sufficient skill and language for this task.

Poetics:

The stanza used is a quatrain of iambic pentameter followed by a couplet. The rhyme scheme is ABABCC.

The effect of the first three lines is striking:

Thy grace, dear Lord’s my golden wrack, I find

Screwing my fancy into ragged rhymes, 

Tuning thy praises in my feeble mind

Until I come to strike them on my chimes. 

There are two pauses in the first line, one after the first foot (thy grace) and at the last foot (I find). By using two pauses and breaking at the last foot, the words “I find” are joined to the second line. The second and third lines begin with an accented syllable. The iamb at the end of line one followed the accented first syllable in line two drives the poem along, almost as if it were falling downstairs.

By repeating the accent on the first syllable of the third line, it creates a parallel structure. Screwing: tuning. 

What is interesting with the second verb is we move from torment to music: It is as the poem begins with the tuning.

The end rhythms of the second and third lines also match: RAGged RHYMES/FEEble MIND. 

Since all end rhymes contain a long “I”, (find/rhyme/mind/chimes) there are full and near rhymes on every line.

The final couplet work similar to the couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet: there is a discontinuance and comment in the couplet upon that which proceeds. 

Here he moves from the discussion of his own creative process to an aside of what could be: If I were David, if I were an angel, this would be better. 

George Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, 1.4e

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The prior post in this series may be found here.

C. True Godliness Perseveres 

1. It is like a man’s labor.

2. They start and finish strong.

3.  They are constant in their work.

Thirdly, To exercise ourselves to godliness, implieth to persevere in it with constancy to our dissolution. 

1. It is like a man’s labor.

Here he again uses an analogy of one’s work to both illustrate and prove his point. It is interesting in considering this analogy for a modern reader, because we are directed not to working until we end or our life, but rather to retire. 

Men follow their trades, and open their shops, till death shut their eyes, and gives them a writ of ease; men pursue their earthly works, till death sound a retreat, and command their appearance in the other world. Many a one hath breathed out his last in the midst of his labour: his life and his labour have ended together.

This verse is a passage which I have to realize does not reference one’s vocation but the calling in the service of the Lord. 

 ‘Let every man abide in the calling whereto he is called,’ saith the apostle, 1 Cor. 7:24.

Then cites to an interesting passage from Psalm 104. There are number of instances of the Lord’s management of the natural world, the moon and sun, the night animals, and then the sun rising and the animals returning. Finally, “Man goes out to his work and to his labor until evening.”

They who make religion their business, are constant, immoveable, and do ‘always abound in the work of the Lord.’ Their day of life is their day of labour;’ the sun ariseth, and man goeth to his labour until the evening,’ Ps. 104:23

Death only is their night of resting, when they die in the Lord; then, and not till then, they ‘rest from their labours.’ 

2. They start and finish strong. 

Saints are compared to palm-trees, because they flourish soon; to cedars, because they continue long; they often set out with the first, but always hold on to the last.2 The philosopher being asked in his old age why he did not give over his studies, answered, When a man is to run a race of forty furlongs, he will not sit down at the thirty-ninth, and lose the prize. The pious soul is faithful unto death, and enjoyeth a crown of life. As Cæsar, he is always marching forward, and thinks nothing done whilst anything remains undone.

3. They are constant in their work.

He begins this aspect of perseverance with a quotation from the letters to the Church of Revelation. The Lord addresses seven churches, which he either praises or chastises for various points of their conduct. The first church addressed, which begisn with a commendation: their “toil and patient endurance”; their labor in which they have “not grown weary”. 

As they are fervent in their work, so they are constant at their work. The church of Ephesus had letters testimonial from heaven; ‘For my name’s sake thou hast laboured, and hast not fainted,’ Rev. 2:3.

His reference to “baths” must be to warm springs of some sort. While the physics in the end is mistaken (there is nothing in the water of the springs which makes them warm: they merely have a constant supply of heat from the earth beneath), the analogy is plain. It is in the nature of spring to be warm. It is thus in the nature of a godly man to be constant setting toward godliness. 

Water in the baths is always warm; as long as there is water, there is heat. Not so our ordinary water; though this may be warmed by the fire at present, yet if taken off it returns to its former coldness, nay, it is colder than before, because the spirits which kept it from the extremity of cold, are by the fire boiled out of it. The reason is plain; the heat of the baths is from an inward principle, and therefore is permanent; the heat of the latter is from an external cause, and therefore is inconstant.

At this point, he begins a series of comparisons and contrasts. The gist of these comparisons is that an action which does not flow from an “inward principle” will not be continuous in its operation. 

First comparison: a godliness based upon conscience:

That warmth of piety which proceeds from an inward principle of a purified conscience, is accompanied with perseverance; but that profession which floweth from an outward motive, where men, as chameleons, take their colour from that which stands next them, their religion from those they have their dependence upon, is of short duration.

A constancy based upon sincerity:

A man that minds religion by the by is like Nebuchadnezzar’s image, he hath a head of gold, but feet of clay. His beginning may be like Nero’s first five years, full of hope and encouragement, but afterwards, as a carcase, he is more filthy and unsavoury every day than other. His insincerity causeth his inconstancy. Trees unsound at the root, will quickly cease their putting forth of fruit. Such men, if godliness enjoy a summer of prosperity, may like a serpent creep on the ground, and stretch themselves at length, to receive the warmth of the sun, but if winter come he will creep into some ditch or dunghill, lest he should take cold.

A godliness must be based upon a calling or settled desire. If I go out to sea merely for pleasure, I will turn around at any difficulty. If I set out for some greater task, I will suffer a great deal of difficulty. If godliness is based merely some immediate ease, it will not last. It must be a means to an end sufficient to weather the conflict it will bring.

He phrases this in three consecutive images of one setting out on a path which may meet with difficulty. Because the end of the journey is of sufficient merit and importance, they are willing to fight through the conflicts. Although he does not use the image here, this is quite similar to Bunyan’s use of the picture of man who puts on armor to fight his way into a palace: violent men are taking heaven by force:

Travellers that go to sea merely to be sea-sick, or in sport, if there arise a black cloud or storm, their voyage is at an end, they hasten to the harbour; they came not to be weather-beaten, or to hazard themselves amongst the boisterous billows, but only for pleasure: but the merchant that is bound for a voyage, whose calling and business it is, is not daunted at every wave and wind, but drives through all with resolution. 

The implied argument could also be understood: If a man will risk his live and ease for money, why will he not do so for heaven? This is contrasted to those who stop short. Like Pliable in Pilgrim’s Progress, they stop their travel when it becomes unpleasant:

He that only pretends towards religion, if a storm meet him in the way to heaven, he leaves it, and takes shelter in the earth; as a snail, he puts out his head to see what weather is abroad, (what countenance religion hath at court, whether great men do smile or frown upon the ways of God,) and if the heavens be lowering, he shrinks into his shell, esteeming that his only safety. 

But they that make godliness their business, do not steer their course by such cards—they follow their trade, though they meet with many trials; as resolved travellers, whether the ways be fair or foul, whether the weather be clear or cloudy, they will go on towards their heavenly Canaan; ‘They go from strength to strength, till they appear before God in Sion,’ Ps. 84:8.

When men follow godliness by the by and in jest, they take it to farm, and accept leases of it for a time; but if the times come to be such, that in their blind judgments it prove a hard pennyworth, they throw it up into their landlords’ hands—Vadat Christus, as he said, cum suo evangelio; but men that make religion their business, take it as their freehold, as their fee-simple, which they enjoy, and esteem it their privilege so to do, for the whole term of their lives; ‘I have chosen thy statutes as my heritage for ever: I have inclined my heart to perform thy statutes always unto the end,’ Ps. 119:1112.

This final argument varies the illustration by referring to the inward principle, not the external circumstances, which motivate the apparent acts of godliness. When godliness is motivated by something that can be obtained by a show of piety, the godliness will end as soon as the external motivation is exhausted. 

The godliness of an unsound professor is like the light of a candle, fed with gross and greasy matter, as profit and honour and pleasure, which continueth burning till that tallowy substance be wasted, but then goeth out and leaves a stench behind it; the holiness of a true Christian is like the light of the sun, which hath its original in heaven, and is fed from above, and thereby ‘shines brighter and brighter to perfect day,’ Prov. 4:18.


2 True saints in youth always prove angels in age.—B. Hall Medit. cent. 1.

Robert Browning, Incident of the French Camp, Stanzas 4 & 5

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IV. 

“Well,” cried he, “Emperor, by God’s grace 
“We’ve got you Ratisbon! 
“The Marshal’s in the market-place, 
“And you’ll be there anon 
“To see your flag-bird flap his vans 
“Where I, to heart’s desire, 
“Perched him!” The chief’s eye flashed; his plans 
Soared up again like fire.
 

In this stanza we hear from the boy, who, as we learned above, was shot threw. The boy is an extasy it seems. The tight lips of the third stanza were from his effort to make the announcement –not grim determination.

The Marshall is Lannes. The French have taken the city. The “flag-bird” is Napoleon’s eagle. 

And here we come to the summit of the boy’s joy: 

Where I, to heart’s desire,

Perched him!

It was the desire of the boy to perch the Emperor’s flag.  The boy was no fighting for something abstract, like his country. He was fighting for someone concrete, the “chief.”

It is Napoleon’s plan that are his joy. So both the boy and Napoleon can join in the same hope.


V. 

The chief’s eye flashed; but presently 
Softened itself, as sheathes 
A film the mother-eagle’s eye 
When her bruised eaglet breathes; 
“You’re wounded!” “Nay,” the soldier’s pride 
Touched to the quick, he said: 
“I’m killed, Sire!” And his chief beside 
Smiling the boy fell dead.

Here the Emperor is made human for a moment. The description of the tear forming in Napoleon’s eyes makes for an interesting basis of sympathy. 

His eyes at first flashed – with victory. Then the eye soften when it took in the boy. 

The language of a mother eagle with her eaglet is appropriate – because Napoleon’s symbol was the eagle. It was the eagle flag which the boy posted in the town. 

He finally notices that the boy is wounded. He blurts out, “You’re wounded!”

And here comes the surprise – at the end of the poem. This is the “incident”. It is why the story was so remarkable that the unnamed French soldier is telling this to you. 

He has spoken of the precarious position of Napoleon. Of the boy’s announcement. Of the surprising sympathy of Napoleon. 

But this surprise works almost as if a joke:

Napoleon says, You are wounded. 

The boy says, Nope, I’m not wounded! I’m dead!

And then the boy falls smiling, down.

The only explanation for the boy’s action is given as

                        the soldier’s pride 
Touched to the quick,

The boy is not a soldier in this instant, he is a soldier.  The boy has become something important in his own eyes – and since he has honored the Napoleon, that pride and accomplishment is objectively true. 

The boy then dies, smiling before the “chief.”

Note the use of the S’s and B’s to structure the lines:

The chief’S eye flaShed; but presently 
Softened itSelf, as SheatheS 
A film the mother-eagle’s eye 
When her Bruised eaglet Breathes; 
“You’re wounded!” “Nay,” the Soldier’S pride 
Touched to the quick, he Said: 
“I’m killed, Sire!” And his chief beSide 
Smiling the boy fell dead.

Also by ending the poem and the line on the word “dead,” Browning drives home the “punch-line” (if you will). 

Robert Browning, Incident of the French Camp, Stanzas 2 & 3

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II. 
Just as perhaps he mused “My plans 
“That soar, to earth may fall, 
“Let once my army-leader Lannes 
“Waver at yonder wall,”— 
Out ‘twixt the battery-smokes there flew 
A rider, bound on bound 
Full-galloping; nor bridle drew 
Until he reached the mound.
 

The second stanza breaks up into two even sections of four lines each. The first four lines concern Napoleon’s apparent dialogue with himself. But this is where Browning’s subtly comes in:

“Just as perhaps he mused.”

The poem works with two different frames of reference. It is in fact a second person account in which you personally addressed by a French soldier a short way from the battle. The whole is being explained to you by him (I guess it is possible that Browning has in mind a female camp follower of some sort, but the closeness to the battle makes that unlikely; hence a male soldier – there were not female fighters in Napoleon’s ranks.

Now this soldier reporter speaks in a tone similar to a third person narrator and it would be easy to think this so. But pay attention: He does not know what is actually in the Emperor’s mind. So our narrator gives us a supposition.  You are being invited to follow in his supposition. While told a story with an almost objectivity, you are being asked to see the event through the understanding of an unnamed soldier.

Here, just like the first stanza, we see Napoleon not as master of Europe, but rather as a man in a precarious place wholly dependent upon others. Napoleon may rise on this win or be crashed. And all depends upon Lannes, his Marshall. If Lannes fails, then Napoleon fails. If the army fails, the emperor fails. 

The image from the first stanza of an worried sovereign on a little mound, comes back here as an echo. What sort of mound does the emperor stand upon? We will soon see that he stands upon the backs of the dead. His Kingdom is in the hands of Lannes.

The soldier who has just lived through this battle is asking you to understand the emperor in a particular manner. This is not a lecture on war, or class structure, or any similar thing. This is a invitation to view Napoleon’s battles from the eyes of those who fight and die or live.

Moreover, it is never precisely vicious concerning Napoleon. There is a constant strain of the precarious nature of the leader’s position. His glory is as contingent as the life of everyone else. The poem is neither jingoistic, nor is it anti-war. Instead, by the use of this narrator, Browning causes of to empathize, to feel the world through the eyes of this other people.

This brings us to the second half of the stanza: A messenger in full haste rushes up to the “mound.” He has been riding his horse with abandon.  And so just as Napoleon is concerning himself with whether the day will be won, tidings come.


III. 

Then off there flung in smiling joy, 
And held himself erect 
By just his horse’s mane, a boy: 
You hardly could suspect— 
(So tight he kept his lips compressed, 
Scarce any blood came through) 
You looked twice ere you saw his breast 
Was all but shot in two. 

An English poet of this time cannot be assumed to have ignorance of Shakespeare. And so the dim echo of Macbeth in this scene is likely haunting the background. The King is upon the scene of the battle anxious for information as to how the battle has gone. 

DUNCAN

What bloody man is that? He can report,
As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt
The newest state.

MALCOLM

This is the sergeant
Who like a good and hardy soldier fought
‘Gainst my captivity. Hail, brave friend!
Say to the king the knowledge of the broil
As thou didst leave it.

Sergeant

Doubtful it stood;
As two spent swimmers, that do cling together
And choke their art. The merciless Macdonwald–
Worthy to be a rebel, for to that
The multiplying villanies of nature
Do swarm upon him–from the western isles
Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied;
And fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling,
Show’d like a rebel’s whore: but all’s too weak:
For brave Macbeth–well he deserves that name–
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour’s minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements.


The sergeant is played in Browning’s poem by the boy. Macbeth cuts a man’s chest in two. The boy himself as been cut in two. Both Kings, Duncan and Napoleon, have their kingdom’s and lives in the hands of other men whose death keeps them alive (although not in Browning’s mind, there is something vampire like where the King’s life is maintained by the loss of other’s blood). 

The reference to a “boy” in the battle is poignant. As Napoleon’s wars increased, he continued to obtain younger soldiers to replenish the men who had died. 

What is not suspected: The boy’s bloody condition. In the movement of the words, there is a hint that the messenger being a boy might have been the surprise. 

The boy’s face and chest are odds with one-another. The boy holds his lips so tightly together that “scarce any blood came through”. This is suggestive but not entirely clear: Does he me that no blood was in his lips and thus his lips were white? Or is there a wound somewhere which is being hidden, is he bleeding from his mouth. 

Whatever the precise reference, by looking at his bloodless lips you do not suspect the ravaged chest.