Poem by John Aikin, M.D.

Your Monday Blessing today comes from the pen of John Aikin, M.D. (1747 – 1822) the subject of this year’s Warrington Academy Service at Cairo Street Unitarian Chapel. This is from his “Epistle to the Rev. W Enfield, Ll. D.” Rev. Enfield is a colleague of mine, having served as minister to Cairo Street Chapel from 1770 to 1785. I read this poem while sitting in Aikin’s elbow-chair, which still graces the front of our chapel.
In this excerpt from the poem – which has a bit of a Shakespearean flavour, both due to the pentameter and the philosophical subject matter – Aikin considers the various paths of life available to us in life: contemplation, wonderment in nature, activity in business, and so on – and ponders which may be the right one, if any path of life can be said to the best. Not coming to any firm conclusions, he closes the poem counting his blessings in life: words of love, inspiration within us, and friendship – the remembrances of friends in our life, and even better yet, the friend entire”, i.e. having those friends with us. The full poem can be read at John Aikin, “Epistle to Rev. Enfield”

Here’s the excerpt:

What, then, is man’s chief bliss? to lift the soul,
By lonely contemplation, to the source
Of good and fair, with Reason’s essence pure
To feed the thought; and on the trivial scene
Of sublunary things look down unmnv’d,
Self-honour’d, self-dependent or to call
Each potent energy to active use,
And urge the flying moments with the weight
Of strong exertion, pressing ardent on
To some bright point of distance, or to steal
With loitering foot along the vale obscure,

And pluck gay flowers, and dally with the time
In careless sport, and song, and converse sweet,
Delightful interchange ! or, plodding on,
With rule in hand, with grave and measur’d step,
To pace the level, line-drawn avenue,
Where business, meals, and sleep, in order due,
Like shrubs and statues in a Dutchman’s walk,
Succeed unvaried? Say, in which of these,
The paths of human life, her fairy tread
Has Happiness imprinted? Shall we try,
By beating wide the ground, to catch a glimpse
Of the still-flying phantom; or pursue
With heedful diligence one chosen track?

For me, whom Fate has destin’d to the round
Of sober business, and as sober joys ;
Whose roving wing is dipt ; whose eager eye,
Agaze for distant wonders, must contract
Its narrowed focus to a map and book ;

Who, for the vivid flash of living wit
And voice-clad eloquence, must court the beams
That shine in faint reflection from the page;
How shall I best preserve the genial flame
Alive within my breast? How trim the lamp
And clear from gathering dregs and vapours dim ?

Soon, soon, the brief delights ot sense must fail

And buoyant spirits, from the rapid tide
Of youthful blood evolv’d, wax tame and dull.
What then shall save me from the palsying grasp
Of cold Indifference, leagued with sick Disgust,
Slack Listlessness, and sullen Melancholy!
Terrific group! Will poring o’er the leaves
Of sage Philosophy, with elbow chair,
Fire side, and winking taper, chase away

These black intruders? Ah! too well I know,
Already know, how hang the heavy hours
Of studious indolence that only seeks
In thoughts of other men to lose its own.

Then shall I seize the quill? screw high each chord
That vibrates in the brain; dilate the breast
With mighty heavings; rouse the throbbing heart
With keen emotions; touch with noble fire,
And pour the glowing torrrent on the page ?
Or, arm’d with patient industry, lead on
To slow maturity some fair design,
The child of use and knowledge, which may stand
A monument for ages such as thine.
Where learning, sense, and lucid order, clad
In clear expression, frame a perfect whole.
Or rather, pens and books thrown far aside,
Relume Ambition’s fire, with desperate plunge
Rush in the crowd, and elbowing on my way
Thro’ friends, thro’ foes, and fierce Contention’s din,
Catch at some gilded prize, some meteor gay,
And, having touch’d it drop!

Thus void of certain aim, not straying wide,
Perplex’d, not lost, I take my dubious way.
And wilt not thou a friendly arm extend
To point my footsteps, and with cheering voice
Exhort to steadfast march and hold advance ?
Long, in the prime of manhood, side by side
We ran, and joy’d to give the mutual hand
In paths obscure and rugged : sever’d now
I miss the dear companion of my road,
And wander lonely. Yet, what Fate allows,
Let me noc want; the frequent words of love,
The prudent counsel, admonition kind,
And all the freeoVfiowings of the soul,
In letter’d intercourse; and, sometimes, too,
More valu’d, as more rare, the Friend entire.

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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