Mary Masters, “The Vanity of Human Life”


“The Vanity of Human Life”


Ah! what is Life? how mutable and vain!
An Hour of Pleasure, and an Age of Pain.
Where changing Seasons are but vary’d Woes,
And with each Morning early Sorrow flows.
The busy Mind, with adverse Passions rent,                                 5
Still searches on, a Stranger to Content.
One Hour in gay and sprightly Mirth is pass’d,
The next with melancholy Shades o’ercast.
Alternate Joy, alternate Grief we know,
Yet scarce can tell, whence these Excesses flow.                         10
Elate to Day, we laugh and play and sing,
To-morrow sees a wretched, abject Thing.
With deep dejecting Cares we lie opprest,
And pensive Thoughts disturb the gloomy Breast.
Till other Thoughts revolve to our Relief,                                       15
And fansy’d Joys elude a real Grief.
Flatt’ring ourselves, we fond Ideas frame
Of Human Happiness, an empty Dream.
Yet Man, whom ev’ry Show of Bliss deceives,
Full Credit to the soothing Image gives.                                          20

We’ve found (at least we think so) what, alone,
Can give the longing Mind a Peace unknown :
Had we but That, ‘twou’d certain Ease restore,
Grant it, ye Pow’rs, and we desire no more.
Yet if kind Fate the wish’d-for Blessing grant,                                25
We’re still dissatisfy’d, and something want :
Then, with repeated Care and anxious Pain,
We seek another Trifle to attain ;
Our wonted Vigilance and Toil renew,
To gain the glorious Thing we have in view.                                   30
And, if we do the mighty Something get,
Again are we deceiv’d, ‘tis all a Cheat.
Nor will this second Disappointment prove
Severe enough, our Folly to remove.
Still with a discontented, restless Mind,                                          35
We search for That, which we can never find.
Erring before, we mourn’d; but, now, are sure
We know, what will a lasting Joy secure.

And did we err before? so err we now,
If we expect true Happiness below.                                                  40
Should Heav’n, indulgent, lavish all its Store,
And give so largely we could wish no more;
This surely would our wayward Fancy please,
And bring our weary, lab’ring Spirits Ease.
We should indeed be blest, should for a While,                              45
Our Hopes with transitory Rest beguile.
Forgetful of the Pow’r Supreme, that may,
When-e’er he pleases, snatch our Joys away.
Ah foolish Mortals, credulous and vain!
Prepare to meet the quick-returning Pain:                                       50
Still let us keep FUTURITY in View,
The Hand that gave the Gift, can take it too.

But cannot Gold afford a full Delight?
How the rich Metal glitters to the Sight!
O dazling Lustre! what would we not do,                                         55
What Toils not take, what Dangers not pursue,
For much of Thee, thou bright deluding Ill!
And in the warm Pursuit advance unweary’d still?

In search of Toys, we precious Moments waste,
For Wealth has Wings, and often flies in haste.                              60
The mighty Man, with ample Fortunes blest,
Of pond’rous Bags and stately Domes possest;
At Noon replete with all his Soul’s Desire,
At Night impov’rish’d by destructive Fire.
Such things may be, for such have often been,                              65
A thousand fatal Mischiefs lurk unseen.

The busy Merchant trafficks o’er the Main,
And rifles foreign Countries for his Gain.
Nor Earth nor Water from his Spoils are free,
To heap up Gold, he’ll compass Land and Sea.                              70
Behold him, waiting at the Ocean’s side,
While Ships from India break the flashing Tide:
Now one, long wish’d for with impatient Thought,
Is by his friendly Glass in Prospect brought.
Freighted with Gold and Silks of various Dyes,                              75
And in her Womb an Ivory Treasure lies.
See, what calm Seas, and what propitious Gales,
Support her Keel, and swell her flying Sails!
His Thoughts flow quicker, and his Heart beats high,
His Joys increasing as the Barque draws nigh.                               80
When lo! a sudden Change the Air invades,
And the Clouds thicken into sullen Shades:
Fierce Tempests beat, and angry Billows roar,
Distracting Sight to him that stands on shore.
Just ready to cast Anchor near the Coast,                                       85
Sad Terror to his soul! the Ship is lost.

Oh false and slipp’ry State of human Things!
What sad Distress one hapless Moment brings!

So JOB with more than orient Brightness drest,
The Pride and Worship of the wondring East;                               90
Sought by the Old, and honour’d by the Young,
The list’ning Ear paid Homage to his Tongue;
Princes arose, when he appear’d in Sight,
And the charm’d Eye beheld him with Delight.
For, Years he liv’d, with Health and Glory crown’d,                       95
And, like a God, dispens’d his Blessings round.
On either Hand, his Sons and Daughters sate,
And help’d to swell the Fullness of his State.
Yet this consummate Grandeur prov’d in vain,
For all was chang’d to Poverty and Pain,                                       100
His Honour blasted, and his Children slain.
Sprinkled with Dust, and prostrate on the Earth,
In Bitterness of Soul he curs’d his Birth.

Oh Impotence of Wealth! can ought avail,
Where Gold, Magnificence, and Empire fail?                                  105

Yes, something more substantial yet remains,
A Sovereign Med’cine for severest Pains:
When great Afflictions overwhelm the Mind,
When ev’ry Faculty’s to Grief resign’d;
When the whole Soul is sunk in deep Distress,                              110
FRIENDSHIP’S soft Pow’r can make its Sorrows less;
That nearest Emblem of indulgent Heav’n,
To sweeten Life’s predestin’d Ills, was giv’n.
A faithful Friend is our extremest Good,
The richest Gift, that ever Heav’n bestow’d.                                     115
When the prest Bosom heaves with weighty Cares,
This kind Companion half the Burden bears:
With healing Counsel mitigates our Woe,
Or wisely teaches how to bear the Blow.
Our Pleasures too the much-lov’d Friend divides,                          120
Adds Joy to Joy, and swells the happy Tides.

Pleas’d with my Subject, more than fond of Fame,
I much could say on this delightful Theme.
But ‘tis too copious and sublime a Strain,
More fit for YOUNG, or POPE’S unbounded Vein.                          125
The brightest Numbers that were ever penn’d,
Should celebrate the just and gen’rous Friend.
On me would partial Fortune this bestow,
‘Tis all the Happiness I’d ask below.
Yet, of a Treasure so immense possest,                                           130
Vainly we hope to be for ever blest.
Still are we govern’d by inconstant Fate,
And the first Turn may change our pleasing State:
May force us (tho’ with deep Regret) to part
From the dear, trusted Inmate of our Heart.                                   135

Oh Agony of Thought! what Breast can bear
So vast a Shock, or who the Grief declare?

DAVID alone the great Distress could paint,
And in fit Language form the just Complaint.
To his dear JONATHAN due Rites he paid,                                        140
He lov’d him living, and he mourn’d him dead.
Mourn’d him in such a graceful, moving Strain,
As all admire, and emulate in vain.
His sweet, pathetick Sorrows finely show,
The noblest Heights of Tenderness and Woe.                                  145
While sacred Leaves record the pious Theme,
A lasting Monument to Friendship’s Name.

Sometimes we more exalting Joys pursue,
And Pleasures charm us in a diff’rent View.
One beauteous Form has struck upon the Mind,                             150
A sweet Impression, casual, or design’d.
To one fix’d Centre all our Wishes move,
And the transported Heart rebounds with Love.
In that fond Passion we expect to meet
A full Content, a Happiness complete.                                               155
Then, with glad Toil and with incessant Care,
We strive to gain what seems so wond’rous fair.
Whilst the dear Object, we most highly prize,
Rejects our Vows, and mocks our promis’d Joys.
And sure we can no greater Torment prove,                                    160
Than cold Disdain repaid for constant Love.

But should our Passion meet a just Return,
And either Breast with mutual Ardor burn,
Some unforeseen Misfortune may divide,
Those faithful Hearts, which equal Love has ty’d.                           165
Then, who can dictate, or what Words can show
The agonizing Pain, the pungent Woe?

But we’ll suppose a milder Fortune still,
A present Pleasure and a distant Ill:
Our Wishes crown’d, the Prize obtain’d at last,                               170
The bright Reward of all our Labours past:
The Danger over, and absolv’d the Vow,
O, Joy too great! what can afflict us now?
Yet Time’s frail Glass is fill’d with flitting Sand,
And held too in a paralytick Hand.                                                    175
That soon may break, or That may quickly run,
Which holds a Life more precious than our own,
And then alas the Hour of Joy is done.

So JACOB, after being blest for Years,
Fair RACHEL mourn’d with unavailing Tears.                                   180
She, for whose Sake his Youth and Strength he gave,
And fourteen annual Circles liv’d a Slave;
Breathless and cold before her Lover laid,
Snatch’d from his Arms and number’d with the Dead.

And, thus, we see, ‘tis evidently plain,                                        185
What-e’er depends on Life, is weak and vain.
Gold is too fleeting, Friendship’s healing Pow’r
May be dissolv’d in one destructive Hour.
That Love’s fantastick Bliss is not sincere,
That Human Life is Hope, and Doubt, and Fear,                              190
A little Pleasure and a Load of Care.


1  mutable  “Liable or subject to change or alteration” (OED).

12  abject  “Cast off, rejected” (OED).

29  wonted  “Accustomed, customary, usual” (OED).

41  Store  “Sufficient or abundant supply” (OED).

46  beguile  “Deceive” (OED).

47  Pow’r Supreme  God.

62  Domes  “Stately buildings, mansions” (OED).

80  Barque  “A small ship” (OED).

89  JOB  Masters is paraphrasing chapters 1-3 from the Book of Job.

99  consummate  “Completed, perfected” (OED).

125  YOUNG  Edward Young (1683-1765), whose series of satires, The Universal Passion (1725-28) were much admired; POPE  Alexander Pope (1688-1744), whose Moral Essays began appearing in 1731.

138  DAVID  King of Israel (I Samuel 18:1-3).

140  JONATHAN  Son of Saul; see II Samuel 1:17-27 for David’s lament at the death of his friend.

163  Ardor  “Heat of passion or desire” (OED).

179-80  JACOB…RACHEL  Jacob was tricked by his uncle Laban into working fourteen years to win Rachel in marriage.  Masters is paraphrasing Genesis 29:15-30.

SOURCE: Poems on Several Occasions (London, 1733), pp. 193-205.  [Google Books]

Edited by Hailey Franzese










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