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Moral Essays, Epistle II

By Alexander Pope

Of the Characters of Women


         NOTHING so true as what you once let fall,
         "Most Women have no Characters at all."
         Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,
         And best distinguish'd by black, brown, or fair.

5        How many pictures of one Nymph we view,
         All how unlike each other, all how true!
         Arcadia's Countess, here, in ermin'd pride,
         Is, there, Pastora by a fountain side.
         Here Fannia, leering on her own good man,
10       And there, a naked Leda with a Swan.
         Let then the Fair one beautifully cry,
         In Magdalen's loose hair and lifted eye,
         Or drest in smiles of sweet Cecilia shine,
         With simpering Angels, Palms, and Harps divine;
15       Whether the Charmer sinner it, or saint it,
         If Folly grow romantic, I must paint it.

         Come then, the colours and the ground prepare!
         Dip in the Rainbow, trick her off in Air;
         Choose a firm Cloud, before it fall, and in it
20       Catch, ere she change, the Cynthia of this minute.

         Rufa, whose eye quick-glancing o'er the Park,
         Attracts each light gay meteor of a Spark,
         Agrees as ill with Rufa studying Locke,
         As Sappho's diamonds with her dirty smock;
25       Or Sappho at her toilet's greasy task,
         With Sappho fragrant at an evening Masque:
         So morning Insects that in muck begun,
         Shine, buzz, and flyblow in the setting sun.

         How soft is Silia! fearful to offend;
30       The Frail one's advocate, the Weak one's friend:
         To her, Calista prov'd her conduct nice;
         And good Simplicius asks of her advice.
         Sudden, she storms! she raves! You tip the wink,
         But spare your censure; Silia does not drink.
35       All eyes may see from what the change arose,
         All eyes may see--a Pimple on her nose.

         Papillia, wedded to her amorous spark,
         Sighs for the shades--"How charming is a Park!"
         A Park is purchas'd, but the Fair he sees
40       All bath'd in tears--"Oh odious, odious Trees!"

         Ladies, like variegated Tulips, show;
         'Tis to their Changes half their charms we owe;
         Fine by defect, and delicately weak,
         Their happy Spots the nice admirer take,
45       'Twas thus Calypso once each heart alarm'd,
         Aw'd without Virtue, without Beauty charmed;
         Her tongue bewitch'd as oddly as her Eyes,
         Less Wit than Mimic, more a Wit than wise;
         Strange graces still, and stranger flights she had,
50       Was just not ugly, and was just not mad;
         Yet ne'er so sure our passion to create,
         As when she touch'd the brink of all we hate.

         Narcissa's nature, tolerably mild,
         To make a wash, would hardly stew a child;
55       Has ev'n been prov'd to grant a Lover's pray'r,
         And paid a Tradesman once to make him stare;
         Gave alms at Easter, in a Christian trim,
         And made a Widow happy, for a whim.
         Why then declare Good-nature is her scorn,
60       When 'tis by that alone she can be borne?
         Why pique all mortals, yet affect a name?
         A fool to Pleasure, yet a slave to Fame:
         Now deep in Taylor and the Book of Martyrs,
         Now drinking citron with his Grace and Chartres:
65       Now Conscience chills her, and now Passion burns;
         And Atheism and Religion take their turns;
         A very Heathen in the carnal part,
         Yet still a sad, good Christian at her heart.

         See Sin in State, majestically drunk;
70       Proud as a Peeress, prouder as a Punk;
         Chaste to her Husband, frank to all beside,
         A teeming Mistress, but a barren Bride.
         What then? let Blood and Body bear the fault,
         Her Head's untouch'd, that noble Seat of Thought:
75       Such this day's doctrine--in another fit
         She sins with Poets thro' pure Love of Wit.
         What has not fir'd her bosom or her brain?
         Caesar and Tallboy, Charles and Charlemagne.
         As Helluo, late Dictator of the Feast,
80       The Nose of Hautgout, and the Tip of Taste,
         Critick'd your wine, and analyz'd your meat,
         Yet on plain Pudding deign'd at home to eat;
         So Philomede, lecturing all mankind
         On the soft Passion, and the Taste refin'd,
85       Th' Address, the Delicacy--stoops at once,
         And makes her hearty meal upon a Dunce.

         Flavia's a Wit, has too much sense to Pray;
         To Toast our wants and wishes, is her way;
         Nor asks of God, but of her Stars, to give
90       The mighty blessing, "while we live, to live."
         Then all for Death, that Opiate of the soul!
         Lucretia's dagger, Rosamonda's bowl.
         Say, what can cause such impotence of mind?
         A spark too fickle, or a Spouse too kind.
95       Wise Wretch! with Pleasures too refin'd to please;
         With too much Spirit to be e'er at ease;
         With too much Quickness ever to be taught;
         With too much Thinking to have common Thought:
         You purchase Pain with all that Joy can give,
100      And die of nothing but a Rage to live.

         Turn then from Wits; and look on Simo's Mate,
         No Ass so meek, no Ass so obstinate.
         Or her, that owns her Faults, but never mends,
         Because she's honest, and the best of Friends.
105      Or her, whose life the Church and Scandal share,
         For ever in a Passion, or a Pray'r.
         Or her, who laughs at Hell, but (like her Grace)
         Cries, "Ah! how charming, if there's no such place!"
         Or who in sweet vicissitude appears
110      Of Mirth and Opium, Ratafie and Tears,
         The daily Anodyne, and nightly Draught,
         To kill those foes to Fair ones, Time and Thought.
         Woman and Fool are two hard things to hit;
         For true No-meaning puzzles more than Wit.

115      But what are these to great Atossa's mind?
         Scarce once herself, by turns all Womankind!
         Who, with herself, or others, from her birth
         Finds all her life one warfare upon earth:
         Shines, in exposing Knaves, and painting Fools,
120      Yet is, whate'er she hates and ridicules.
         No Thought advances, but her Eddy Brain
         Whisks it about, and down it goes again.
         Full sixty years the World has been her Trade,
         The wisest Fool much Time has ever made.
125      From loveless youth to unrespected age,
         No passion gratify'd except her Rage.
         So much the Fury still outran the Wit,
         The Pleasure miss'd her, and the Scandal hit.
         Who breaks with her, provokes Revenge from Hell,
130      But he's a bolder man who dares be well.
         Her ev'ry turn with Violence pursu'd,
         Nor more a storm her Hate than Gratitude:
         To that each Passion turns, or soon or late;
         Love, if it makes her yield, must make her hate:
135      Superiors? death! and Equals? what a curse!
         But an Inferior not dependant? worse.
         Offend her, and she knows not to forgive;
         Oblige her, and she'll hate you while you live:
         But die, and she'll adore you--Then the Bust
140      And Temple rise--then fall again to dust.
         Last night, her Lord was all that's good and great;
         A Knave this morning, and his Will a Cheat.
         Strange! by the Means defeated of the Ends,
         By Spirit robb'd of Pow'r, by Warmth of Friends,
145      By Wealth of Followers! without one distress
         Sick of herself thro' very selfishness!
         Atossa, curs'd with ev'ry granted pray'r,
         Childless with all her Children, wants an Heir.
         To Heirs unknown descends th' unguarded store,
150      Or wanders, Heav'n-directed, to the Poor.

         Pictures like these, dear Madam, to design,
         Asks no firm hand, and no unerring line;
         Some wandering touches, some reflected light,
         Some flying stroke alone can hit 'em right:
155      For how should equal Colours do the knack?
         Chameleons who can paint in white and black?

         "Yet Chloe sure was form'd without a spot--"
         Nature in her then err'd not, but forgot.
         "With ev'ry pleasing, ev'ry prudent part,
160      Say, what can Chloe want?"--She wants a Heart.
         She speaks, behaves, and acts just as she ought;
         But never, never, reach'd one gen'rous Thought.
         Virtue she finds too painful an endeavour,
         Content to dwell in Decencies for ever.
165      So very reasonable, so unmov'd,
         As never yet to love, or to be lov'd.
         She, while her Lover pants upon her breast,
         Can mark the figures on an Indian chest;
         And when she sees her Friend in deep despair,
170      Observes how much a Chintz exceeds Mohair.
         Forbid it Heav'n, a Favour or a Debt
         She e'er should cancel--but she may forget.
         Safe is your Secret still in Chloe's ear;
         But none of Chloe's shall you ever hear.
175      Of all her Dears she never slander'd one,
         But cares not if a thousand are undone.
         Would Chloe know if you're alive or dead?
         She bids her Footman put it in her head.
         Chloe is prudent--Would you too be wise?
180      Then never break your heart when Chloe dies.

         One certain Portrait may (I grant) be seen,
         Which Heav'n has varnish'd out, and made a Queen:
         The same for ever! and describ'd by all
         With Truth and Goodness, as with Crown and Ball.
185      Poets heap Virtues, Painters Gems at will,
         And show their zeal, and hide their want of skill.
         'Tis well--but, Artists! who can paint or write,
         To draw the Naked is your true delight.
         That robe of Quality so struts and swells,
190      None see what Parts of Nature it conceals:
         Th' exactest traits of Body or of Mind,
         We owe to models of an humble kind.
         If QUEENSBURY to strip there's no compelling,
         'Tis from a Handmaid we must take a Helen.
195      From Peer or Bishop 'tis no easy thing
         To draw the man who loves his God, or King:
         Alas! I copy (or my draught would fail)
         From honest Mah'met, or plain Parson Hale.

         But grant, in Public Men sometimes are shown,
200      A Woman's seen in Private life alone:
         Our bolder Talents in full light displayed;
         Your Virtues open fairest in the shade.
         Bred to disguise, in Public 'tis you hide;
         There, none distinguish twixt your Shame or Pride,
205      Weakness or Delicacy; all so nice,
         That each may seem a Virtue, or a Vice.

         In Men, we various Ruling Passions find;
         In Women, two almost divide the kind;
         Those, only fix'd, they first or last obey,
210      The Love of Pleasure, and the Love of Sway.

         That, Nature gives; and where the lesson taught
         Is but to please, can Pleasure seem a fault?
         Experience, this; by Man's oppression curst,
         They seek the second not to lose the first.

215      Men, some to Business, some to pleasure take;
         But ev'ry Woman is at heart a Rake:
         Men, some to Quiet, some to public Strife;
         But ev'ry Lady would be Queen for life.

         Yet mark the fate of a whole Sex of Queens!
220      Pow'r all their end, but Beauty all the means:
         In Youth they conquer, with so wild a rage,
         As leaves them scarce a subject in their Age:
         For foreign glory, foreign joy, they roam;
         No thought of peace or happiness at home.
225      But Wisdom's triumph is a well-tim'd Retreat,
         As hard a science to the Fair as Great!
         Beauties, like Tyrants, old and friendless grown,
         Yet hate repose, and dread to be alone,
         Worn out in public, weary ev'ry eye,
230      Nor leave one sigh behind them when they die.

         Pleasures the sex, as children Birds, pursue,
         Still out of reach, yet never out of view;
         Sure, if they catch, to spoil the Toy at most,
         To covet flying, and regret when lost:
235      At last, to follies Youth could scarce defend,
         It grows their Age's prudence to pretend;
         Asham'd to own they gave delight before,
         Reduc'd to feign it, when they give no more:
         As Hags hold Sabbaths, less for joy than spite,
240      So these their merry, miserable Night;
         Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide,
         And haunt the places where their Honour died.

         See how the World its Veterans rewards!
         A Youth of Frolics, an old Age of Cards;
245      Fair to no purpose, artful to no end,
         Young without Lovers, old without a Friend;
         A Fop their Passion, but their Prize a Sot;
         Alive, ridiculous, and dead, forgot!

         Ah Friend! to dazzle let the Vain design;
250      To raise the Thought, and touch the Heart be thine!
         That Charm shall grow, while what fatigues the Ring,
         Flaunts and goes down, an unregarded thing:
         So when the Sun's broad beam has tir'd the sight,
         All mild ascends the Moon's more sober light,
255      Serene in Virgin Modesty she shines,
         And unobserv'd the glaring Orb declines.

         Oh! blest with Temper, whose unclouded ray
         Can make tomorrow cheerful as today;
         She, who can love a Sister's charms, or hear
260      Sighs for a Daughter with unwounded ear;
         She, who ne'er answers till a Husband cools,
         Or, if she rules him, never shows she rules;
         Charms by accepting, by submitting sways,
         Yet has her humour most, when she obeys;
265      Let Fops or Fortune fly which way they will;
         Disdains all loss of Tickets, or Codille;
         Spleen, Vapours, or Smallpox, above them all,
         And Mistress of herself, though China fall.

         And yet, believe me, good as well as ill,
270      Woman's at best a Contradiction still.
         Heav'n, when it strives to polish all it can
         Its last best work, but forms a softer Man;
         Picks from each sex, to make the Favorite blest,
         Your love of Pleasure, our desire of Rest:
275      Blends, in exception to all general rules,
         Your Taste of Follies, with our Scorn of Fools:
         Reserve with Frankness, Art with Truth ally'd,
         Courage with Softness, Modesty with Pride;
         Fix'd Principles, with Fancy ever new;
280      Shakes all together, and produces--You.

         Be this a Woman's Fame: with this unblest,
         Toasts live a scorn, and Queens may die a jest.
         This Phoebus promis'd (I forget the year)
         When those blue eyes first open'd on the sphere;
285      Ascendant Phoebus watch'd that hour with care,
         Averted half your Parents' simple Pray'r;
         And gave you Beauty, but deny'd the Pelf
         That buys your sex a Tyrant o'er itself.
         The generous God, who Wit and Gold refines,
290      And ripens Spirits as he ripens Mines,
         Kept Dross for Duchesses, the world shall know it,
         To you gave Sense, Good Humour, and a Poet.