Tirocinium; Or, A Review of Schools

Tirocinium, PDF format

Recommending Private Tuition in Preference to an Education at School

By William Cowper

(Editor’s Preface)

My wife and I have two daughters.  We were firmly committed to homeschooling even before our firstborn entered the world, and just as firmly opposed to the State school system.  My wife (with, I trust, some help from me) homeschooled our first daughter from first to last, so that she never spent a day in a school classroom; and at the time of writing our second daughter is well on her way to completing her education in the same manner.  It was therefore with much interest and joy that I read Tirocinium, a poem by William Cowper, the great English poet, hymn writer, and sound Christian, “recommending private tuition [i.e. homeschooling] in preference to an education at school”.  He wrote this poem in 1784 – that is, two centuries before the modern homeschooling movement took off.  If State education was this bad in his day, how much worse is it now!  His biographer George Ella wrote, “Cowper denounced the school system of his day as barbaric and developed ideas of education along lines now favoured by many Christian parents.”[1]

The poem is so excellent, so full of useful and truly Christian instruction, that I decided to republish it as a pamphlet, knowing that it would be unknown to most modern readers.  Its length may discourage those believers who are not fond of poetry, but I urge you to persevere – it will richly repay careful reading and study, and will encourage and strengthen Christian parents in their resolve to teach their children at home, away from the spiritual and moral evils which are being pumped into the hearts and minds of children in schools today.

The word, “tirocinium”, is from the Latin, meaning “raw recruit”; inexperience; first attempt”; and as the title of this poem it is of course referring to schooling.

The only editing I have done is to divide the poem into a few more paragraphs than Cowper originally had, to make for easier reading, and to add some explanatory footnotes, which are marked “Editor”.   All other footnotes are Cowper’s own. – Shaun Willcock, 2021


To the
Rev. William Cawthorne Unwin,[2]
Rector of Stock in Essex,
The tutor of his two sons,
The following poem,
Recommending private tuition in preference to an education at school,
Is inscribed,
By his affectionate friend,
William Cowper.
Olney, Nov. 6th, 1784.

It is not from his form, in which we trace
Strength joined with beauty, dignity with grace,
That man, the master of this globe, derives
His right of empire over all that lives.
That form, indeed, the associate of a mind
Vast in its powers, ethereal in its kind, –
That form, the labour of Almighty skill,
Framed for the service of a free-born will,
Asserts precedence, and bespeaks control,
But borrows all its grandeur from the soul.
Hers is the state, the splendour, and the throne,
An intellectual kingdom, all her own.
For her, the Memory fills her ample page
With truths poured down from every distant age;
For her, amasses an unbounded store,
The wisdom of great nations, now no more;
Though laden, not encumbered with her spoil,
Laborious, yet unconscious of her toil,
When copiously supplied, then most enlarged,
Still to be fed, and not to be surcharged.
For her the Fancy, roving unconfined,
The present Muse of every pensive mind,
Works magic wonders, adds a brighter hue
To Nature’s scenes, than Nature ever knew.
At her command winds rise and waters roar,
Again she lays them slumbering on the shore;
With flower and fruit the wilderness supplies,
Or bids the rocks in ruder pomp arise.
For her the Judgment, umpire in the strife
That Grace and Nature have to wage through life,
Quick-sighted arbiter of good and ill,
Appointed sage preceptor to the Will,
Condemns, approves, and with a faithful voice
Guides the decision of a doubtful choice.

Why did the fiat[3] of a God give birth
To yon fair Sun and his attendant Earth?
And when descending he resigns the skies,
Why takes the gentler Moon her turn to rise,
Whom Ocean feels through all his countless waves,
And owns her power on every shore he laves?[4]
Why do the seasons still enrich the year,
Fruitful and young as in their first career?
Spring hangs her infant blossoms on the trees,
Rocked in the cradle of the western breeze;
Summer in haste the thriving charge receives,
Beneath the shade of her expanded leaves,
Till Autumn’s fiercer heats and plenteous dews
Dye them at last in all their glowing hues. –
Twere wild profusion all, and bootless waste,
Power misemployed, munificence misplaced,
Had not its author dignified the plan,
And crowned it with the majesty of man.
Thus formed, thus placed, intelligent and taught,
Look where he will, the wonders God has wrought,
The wildest scorner of his Maker’s laws
Finds in a sober moment time to pause,
To press the important question on his heart,
“Why form’d at all, and wherefore as thou art?”
If man be what he seems, this hour a slave,
The next mere dust and ashes in the grave;
Endued with reason only to descry
His crimes and follies with an aching eye;
With passions, just that he may prove, with pain,
The force he spends against their fury vain;
And if, soon after having burned, by turns,
With every lust with which frail Nature burns,
His being end where death dissolves the bond,
The tomb take all, and all be blank beyond;
Then he, of all that Nature has brought forth,
Stands self-impeached the creature of least worth,
And useless while he lives, and when he dies,
Brings into doubt the wisdom of the skies.

Truths that the learned pursue with eager thought
Are not important always as dear-bought,
Proving at last, though told in pompous strains,
A childish waste of philosophic pains;
But truths on which depends our main concern,
That ’tis our shame and misery not to learn,
Shine by the side of every path we tread,
With such a lustre he that runs may read.
’Tis true that, if to trifle life away
Down to the sunset of their latest day,
Then perish on futurity’s wide shore
Like fleeting exhalations found no more,
Were all that Heaven required of humankind,
And all the plan their destiny designed,
What none could reverence all might justly blame,
And man would breathe but for his Maker’s shame.
But Reason heard, and Nature well perused,
At once the dreaming mind is disabused.
If all we find possessing earth, sea, air,
Reflect His attributes who placed them there,
Fulfil the purpose, and appear designed
Proofs of the wisdom of the all-seeing mind,
’Tis plain the creature whom He chose to invest
With kingship and dominion o’er the rest,
Received his nobler nature, and was made
Fit for the power in which he stands arrayed,
That first or last, hereafter if not here,
He too might make his Author’s wisdom clear,
Praise Him on earth, or obstinately dumb,
Suffer His justice in a world to come.
This once believed ’twere logic misapplied
To prove a consequence by none denied,
That we are bound to cast the minds of youth,
Betimes into the mould of heavenly truth,
That taught of God they may indeed be wise,
Not ignorantly wandering miss the skies.

In early days the Conscience has in most
A quickness which in later life is lost:
Preserved from guilt by salutary fears,
Or, guilty, soon relenting into tears.
Too careless often, as our years proceed,
What friends we sort with, or what books we read,
Our parents yet exert a prudent care
To feed our infant minds with proper fare,
And wisely store the nursery by degrees
With wholesome learning, yet acquired with ease.
Neatly secured from being soiled or torn
Beneath a pane of thin translucent horn.
A book (to please us at a tender age
’Tis called a book, though but a single page)
Presents the prayer the Saviour deigned to teach,
Which children use,[5] and parsons – when they preach.[6]
Lisping our syllables, we scramble next
Through moral narrative, or sacred text,
And learn with wonder how this world began,
Who made, who marred, and who has ransomed man;
Points which, unless the Scripture made them plain,
The wisest heads might agitate in vain.

Oh thou,[7] whom, borne on Fancy’s eager wing
Back to the season of life’s happy spring,
I pleased remember, and, while memory yet
Holds fast her office here, can ne’er forget;
Ingenious dreamer, in whose well-told tale
Sweet fiction and sweet truth alike prevail;
Whose humorous vein, strong sense, and simple style,
May teach the gayest, make the gravest smile,
Witty, and well-employed, and, like thy Lord,
Speaking in parables His slighted word,
I name thee not, lest so despised a name
Should move a sneer at thy deserved fame,
Yet even in transitory life’s late day,
That mingles all my brown with sober grey,
Revere the man whose PILGRIM marks the road,
And guides the PROGRESS of the soul to God.
’Twere well with most, if books that could engage
Their childhood, pleased them at a riper age;
The man approving what had charmed the boy,
Would die at last in comfort, peace, and joy,
And not with curses on his art who stole
The gem of truth from his unguarded soul.
The stamp of artless piety impressed
By kind tuition on his yielding breast,
The youth now bearded, and yet pert and raw,
Regards with scorn, though once received with awe,
And warped into the labyrinth of lies,
That babblers, called philosophers, devise,
Blasphemes his creed, as founded on a plan
Replete with dreams, unworthy of a man.
Touch but his nature in its ailing part,
Assert the native evil of his heart,
His pride resents the charge, although the proof [8]
Rise in his forehead, and seem rank enough:
Point to the cure, describe a Saviour’s cross
As God’s expedient to retrieve his loss,
The young apostate sickens at the view,
And hates it with the malice of a Jew.

How weak the barrier of mere Nature proves,
Opposed against the pleasures Nature loves!
While self-betrayed, and wilfully undone,
She longs to yield, no sooner wooed than won.
Try now the merits of this blest exchange
Of modest truth for wit’s eccentric range.
Time was he closed as he began the day,
With decent duty, not ashamed to pray;[9]
The practice was a bond upon his heart,
A pledge he gave for a consistent part;
Nor could he dare presumptuously displease
A power, confessed so lately on his knees.
But now, farewell all legendary tales,
The shadows fly, philosophy prevails,
Prayer to the winds, and caution to the waves,
Religion makes the free by nature slaves,
Priests have invented, and the world admired,
What knavish priests promulgate as inspired,
Till Reason, now no longer overawed,
Resumes her powers, and spurns the clumsy fraud;
And common sense diffusing real day,
The meteor of the Gospel dies away.
Such rhapsodies our shrewd discerning youth
Learn from expert inquirers after truth;
Whose only care, might truth presume to speak,
Is not to find what they profess to seek.
And thus, well tutored only while we share
A mother’s lecture and a nurse’s care,
And taught at schools much mythologic stuff,[10]
But sound religion sparingly enough,
Our early notices of truth, disgraced,
Soon lose their credit, and are all effaced.

Would you your son should be a sot[11] or dunce,[12]
Lascivious, headstrong, or all these at once;
That in good time, the stripling’s finished taste
For loose expense and fashionable waste,
Should prove your ruin, and his own at last,
Train him in public with a mob of boys,
Childish in mischief only and in noise,
Else of a mannish growth, and five in ten
In infidelity and lewdness, men.
There shall he learn, ere sixteen winters old,
That authors are most useful, pawned or sold;
That pedantry is all that schools impart,
But taverns teach the knowledge of the heart;
There waiter Dick, with Bacchanalian lays,
Shall win his heart, and have his drunken praise,
His counsellor and bosom-friend shall prove,
And some street-pacing harlot his first love.

Schools, unless discipline were doubly strong,
Detain their adolescent charge too long;
The management of tyros[13] of eighteen
Is difficult, their punishment obscene.
The stout, tall captain, whose superior size
The minor heroes view with envious eyes,
Becomes their pattern, upon whom they fix
Their whole attention, and ape all his tricks.
His pride, that scorns to obey or to submit,
With them is courage; his effrontery wit;
His wild excursions, window-breaking feats,
Robbery of gardens, quarrels in the streets,
His hairbreadth ’scapes, and all his daring schemes,
Transport them, and are made their favourite themes;
In little bosoms such achievements strike
A kindred spark, they burn to do the like.

Thus, half accomplished ere he yet begin
To show the peeping down upon his chin,
And as maturity of years comes on,
Made just the adept that you designed your son,
To ensure the perseverance of his course,
And give your monstrous project all its force,
Send him to college.  If he there be tamed,
Or in one article of vice reclaimed,
Where no regard of ord’nances is shown,
Or looked for now, the fault must be his own.
Some sneaking virtue lurks in him, no doubt,
Where neither strumpets’ charms, nor drinking bout,
Nor gambling practices, can find it out.
Such youths of spirit, and that spirit too,
Ye nurseries of our boys, we owe to you:
Though from ourselves the mischief more proceeds,
For public schools ̕tis public folly feeds.
The slaves of custom and established mode,
With packhorse constancy we keep the road,
Crooked or straight, through quags or thorny dells,
True to the jingling of our leader’s bells.
To follow foolish precedents, and wink
With both our eyes, is easier than to think,
And such an age as ours balks no expense,
Except of caution and of common sense;
Else sure, notorious fact and proof so plain,
Would turn our steps into a wiser train.

I blame not those who, with what care they can,
O’erwatch the numerous and unruly clan,
Or if I blame, ̕tis only that they dare
Promise a work of which they must despair.
Have ye, ye sage intendants of the whole,
An ubiquarian presence and control,
Elisha’s eye, that when Gehazi strayed,
Went with him, and saw all the game he played?
Yes – ye are conscious; and on all the shelves
Your pupils strike upon, have struck yourselves.
Or if by nature sober, ye had then,
Boys as ye were, the gravity of men,
Ye knew at least, by constant proofs addressed
To ears and eyes, the vices of the rest.
But ye connive at what ye cannot cure,
And evils not to be endured, endure,
Lest power exerted, but without success,
Should make the little ye retain, still less.
Ye once were justly famed for bringing forth
Undoubted scholarship and genuine worth,
And in the firmament of fame still shines
A glory bright as that of all the signs,
Of poets raised by you, and statesmen, and divines.
Peace to them all! those brilliant times are fled,
And no such lights are kindling in their stead.
Our striplings shine indeed, but with such rays
As set the midnight riot in a blaze,
And seem, if judged by their expressive looks,
Deeper in none than in their surgeon’s books.

Say, Muse (for education made the song,
No Muse can hesitate or linger long)
What causes move us, knowing, as we must,
That these menageries all fail their trust,
To send our sons to scout and scamper there,
While colts and puppies cost us so much care?

Be it a weakness, it deserves some praise,
We love the play-place of our early days.
The scene is touching, and the heart is stone
That feels not at that sight, and feels at none.
The wall on which we tried our graving skill,
The very name we carved subsisting still;
The bench on which we sat while deep employed,
Though mangled, hacked, and hewed, not yet destroyed;
The little ones, unbuttoned, glowing hot,
Playing our games, and on the very spot,
As happy as we once, to kneel and draw
The chalky ring, and knuckle down at taw;
To pitch the ball into the grounded hat,
Or drive it devious with a dexterous pat;
The pleasing spectacle at once excites
Such recollection of our own delights,
That viewing it, we seem almost to obtain
Our innocent sweet simple years again.
This fond attachment to the well-known place,
Whence first we started into life’s long race,
Maintains its hold with such unfailing sway,
We feel it even in age, and at our latest day.
Hark! how the sire of chits, whose future share
Of classic food begins to be his care,
With his own likeness placed on either knee,
Indulges all a father’s heart-felt glee,
And tells them, as he strokes their silver locks,
That they must soon learn Latin, and to box;
Then turning, he regales his listening wife
With all the adventures of his early life,
His skill in coachmanship, or driving chaise,
In bilking tavern bills, and spouting plays;
What shifts he used, detected in a scrape,
How he was flogged, or had the luck to escape,
What sums he lost at play, and how he sold
Watch, seals, and all – till all his pranks are told.
Retracing thus his frolics (̓tis a name
That palliates deeds of folly and of shame)
He gives the local bias all its sway,
Resolves that where he played his sons shall play,
And destines their bright genius to be shown
Just in the scene where he displayed his own.
The meek and bashful boy will soon be taught
To be as bold and forward as he ought,
The rude will scuffle through with ease enough,
Great schools suit best the sturdy and the rough.
Ah happy designation, prudent choice,
The event is sure, expect it, and rejoice!
Soon see your wish fulfilled in either child,
The pert made perter, and the tame made wild.

The great, indeed, by titles, riches, birth,
Excused the incumbrance of more solid worth,
Are best disposed of where with most success
They may acquire that confident address,
Those habits of profuse and lewd expense,
That scorn of all delights but those of sense,
Which though in plain plebeians we condemn,
With so much reason all expect from them.
But families of less illustrious fame,
Whose chief distinction is their spotless name,
Whose heirs, their honours none, their income small,
Must shine by true desert, or not at all,
What dream they of, that, with so little care,
They risk their hopes, their dearest treasure, there?
They dream of little Charles or William graced
With wig prolix, down-flowing to his waist,
They see the attentive crowds his talents draw,
They hear him speak – the oracle of law.
The father who designs his babe a priest,[14]
Dreams him episcopally such at least,
And while the playful jockey scours the room
Briskly, astride upon the parlour broom,
In fancy sees him more superbly ride
In coach with purple lined, and mitres on its side.
Events improbable and strange as these,
Which only a parental eye foresees,
A public school shall bring to pass with ease.
But how? resides such virtue in that air,
As must create an appetite for prayer?
And will it breathe into him all the zeal
That candidates for such a prize should feel,
To take the lead and be the foremost still
In all true worth and literary skill?
“Ah blind to bright futurity, untaught
“The knowledge of the world, and dull of thought!
“Church-ladders are not always mounted best
“By learned clerks, and Latinists professed.
“The exalted prize demands an upward look,
“Not to be found by poring on a book.
“Small skill in Latin, and still less in Greek,
“Is more than adequate to all I seek.
“Let erudition grace him or not grace,
“I give the bauble but the second place,
“His wealth, fame, honours, all that I intend,
“Subsist and centre in one point – a friend.
“A friend, whate’er he studies or neglects,
“Shall give him consequence, heal all defects.
“His intercourse with peers, and sons of peers –
“There dawns the splendour of his future years,
“In that bright quarter his propitious skies
“Shall blush betimes, and there his glory rise.
“‘Your Lordship!’ and ‘Your Grace!’ what school can teach
“A rhetoric equal to those parts of speech?
“What need of Homer’s verse, or Tully’s prose,
“Sweet interjections! if he learn but those?
“Let reverend churls his ignorance rebuke,
“Who starve upon a dog’s-ear’d Pentateuch,
“The parson knows enough who knows a Duke.”
Egregious purpose! worthily begun
In barbarous prostitution of your son;
Pressed on his part by means that would disgrace
A scrivener’s clerk, or footman out of place,
And ending, if at last its end be gained,
In sacrilege, in God’s own house profaned.
It may succeed; and if his sins should call
For more than common punishment, it shall.
The wretch shall rise, and be the thing on earth
Least qualified in honour, learning, worth,
To occupy a sacred, awful post,
In which the best and worthiest tremble most.

The royal letters are a thing of course,
A king, that would, might recommend his horse,
And Deans, no doubt, and Chapters, with one voice,
As bound in duty, would confirm the choice.
Behold your Bishop! well he plays his part,
Christian in name, and infidel in heart,
Ghostly[15] in office, earthly in his plan,
A slave at court, elsewhere a lady’s man,
Dumb as a senator, and as a priest
A piece of mere church-furniture at best;
To live estranged from God his total scope,
And his end sure, without one glimpse of hope.

But fair although and feasible it seem,
Depend not much upon your golden dream;
For Providence, that seems concerned to exempt
The hallowed bench from absolute contempt,
In spite of all the wrigglers into place,
Still keeps a seat or two for worth and grace;[16]
And therefore ̓tis, that, though the sight be rare,
We sometimes see a Lowth or Bagot[17] there.
Besides, school friendships are not always found,
Though fair in promise, permanent and sound;
The most disinterested and virtuous minds,
In early years connected, time unbinds;
New situations give a different cast
Of habit, inclination, temper, taste;
And he that seemed our counterpart at first,
Soon shows the strong similitude reversed.
Young heads are giddy, and young hearts are warm,
And make mistakes for manhood to reform.
Boys are, at best, but pretty buds unblown,
Whose scent and hues are rather guessed than known;
Each dreams that each is just what he appears,
But learns his error in maturer years,
When disposition, like a sail unfurled,
Shows all its rents and patches to the world.
If, therefore, even when honest in design,
A boyish friendship may so soon decline,
Twere wiser sure to inspire a little heart
With just abhorrence of so mean a part,
Than set your son to work at a vile trade
For wages so unlikely to be paid.

Our public hives of puerile resort,
That are of chief and most approved report,
To such base hopes, in many a sordid soul,
Owe their repute in part, but not the whole.
A principle, whose proud pretensions pass
Unquestioned, though the jewel be but glass,
That with a world, not often over-nice,
Ranks as a virtue, and is yet a vice,
Or rather a gross compound, justly tried,
Of envy, hatred, jealousy and pride,
Contributes most perhaps to enhance their fame,
And Emulation is its specious name.
Boys, once on fire with that contentious zeal,
Feel all the rage that female rivals feel,
The prize of beauty in a woman’s eyes
Not brighter than in theirs the scholar’s prize.
The spirit of that competition burns
With all varieties of ill by turns,
Each vainly magnifies his own success,
Resents his fellow’s, wishes it were less,
Exults in his miscarriage if he fail,
Deems his reward too great if he prevail,
And labours to surpass him day and night,
Less for improvement than to tickle spite.
The spur is powerful, and I grant its force,
It pricks the genius forward in its course,
Allows short time for play, and none for sloth,
And felt alike by each, advances both,
But judge, where so much evil intervenes,
The end, though plausible, not worth the means.
Weigh, for a moment, classical desert
Against a heart depraved and a temper hurt,
Hurt too perhaps for life, for early wrong
Done to the nobler part affects it long;
And you are staunch indeed in learning’s cause
If you can crown a discipline that draws
Such mischiefs after it, with much applause.

Connexion formed for interest, and endeared
By selfish views, thus censured and cashiered;
And Emulation, as engendering hate,
Doomed to a no less ignominious fate:
The props of such proud seminaries fall,
The Jachin and the Boaz[18] of them all.
Great schools rejected then, as those that swell
Beyond a size that can be managed well,
Shall royal institutions miss the bays,
And small academies win all the praise?
Force not my drift beyond its just intent,
I praise a school as Pope a government;
So take my judgment in his language dressed,
“Whate’er is best administered, is best.”
Few boys are born with talents that excel,
But all are capable of living well;
They ask not, whether limited or large?
But, watch they strictly, or neglect their charge?
If anxious only that their boys may learn,
While morals languish, a despised concern,
The great and small deserve one common blame,
Different in size, but in effect the same.
Much zeal in virtue’s cause all teachers boast,
Though motives of mere lucre sway the most;
Therefore in towns and cities they abound,
For there the game they seek is easiest found,
Though there, in spite of all that care can do,
Traps to catch youth are most abundant too.
If shrewd, and of a well-constructed brain,
Keen in pursuit, and vigorous to retain,
Your son come forth a prodigy of skill;
As wheresoever taught, so formed, he will,
The pedagogue, with self complacent air,
Claims more than half the praise as his due share;
But if, with all his genius, he betray,
Not more intelligent than loose and gay,
Such vicious habits as disgrace his name,
Threaten his health, his fortune, and his fame,
Though want of due restraint alone have bred
The symptoms that you see with so much dread,
Unenvied there, he may sustain alone
The whole reproach, the fault was all his own.

Oh! ̓tis a sight to be with joy perused,
By all whom sentiment has not abused,
New-fangled sentiment, the boasted grace
Of those who never feel in the right place,
A sight surpassed by none that we can show,
Though Vestris on one leg still shine below,
A father blest with an ingenious son,
Father, and friend, and tutor, all in one.
How! – turn again to tales long since forgot,
Aesop, and Phaedrus, and the rest? – Why not?
He will not blush, that has a father’s heart,
To take in childish plays a childish part,
But bends his sturdy back to any toy
That youth takes pleasure in, to please his boy;
Then why resign into a stranger’s hand
A task as much within your own command,
That God and Nature, and your interest too,
Seem with one voice to delegate to you?
Why hire a lodging in a house unknown
For one whose tenderest thoughts all hover round your own?
This second weaning, needless as it is,
How does it lacerate both your heart and his!
The indented stick that loses day by day
Notch after notch till all are smoothed away,
Pears witness, long ere his dismission come,
With what intense desire he wants his home.
But though the joys he hopes beneath your roof
Bid fair enough to answer in the proof,
Harmless, and safe, and natural as they are,
A disappointment waits him even there:
Arrived, he feels an unexpected change,
He blushes, hangs his head, is shy, and strange,
No longer takes, as once, with fearless ease,
His favourite stand between his father’s knees,
But seeks the corner of some distant seat,
And eyes the door, and watches a retreat,
And least familiar where he should be most,
Feels all his happiest privileges lost.
Alas, poor boy! – the natural effect
Of love by absence chilled into respect.
Say, what accomplishments at school acquired,
Brings he to sweeten fruits so undesired?
Thou well deservest an alienated son,
Unless thy conscious heart acknowledge – none;
None that, in thy domestic snug recess,
He had not made his own with more address,
Though some, perhaps, that shock thy feeling mind,
And better never learned, or left behind.
Add too, that thus estranged, thou canst obtain
By no kind arts his confidence again;
That here begins with most that long complaint
Of filial frankness lost, and love grown faint,
Which, oft neglected, in life’s waning years
A parent pours into regardless ears.

Like caterpillars dangling under trees
By slender threads, and swinging in the breeze,
Which filthily bewray and sore disgrace
The boughs on which are bred the unseemly race,
While every worm industriously weaves
And winds his web about the rivelled leaves,
So numerous are the follies that annoy
The mind and heart of every sprightly boy;
Imaginations noxious and perverse,
Which admonition can alone disperse.
The encroaching nuisance asks a faithful hand,
Patient, affectionate, of high command,
To check the procreation of a breed
Sure to exhaust the plant on which they feed.
Tis not enough that Greek or Roman page,
At stated hours, his freakish thoughts engage;
Even in his pastimes he requires a friend
To warn, and teach him safely to unbend,
O’er all his pleasures gently to preside,
Watch his emotions and control their tide,
And levying thus, and with an easy sway,
A tax of profit from his very play,
To impress a value, not to be erased,
On moments squandered else, and running all to waste.
And seems it nothing in a father’s eye
That unimproved those many moments fly?
And is he well content his son should find
No nourishment to feed his growing mind,
But conjugated verbs, and nouns declined?
For such is all the mental food purveyed
By public hackneys in the schooling trade;
Who feed a pupil’s intellect with store
Of syntax truly, but with little more,
Dismiss their cares when they dismiss their flock,
Machines themselves, and governed by a clock.
Perhaps a father, blessed with any brains,
Would deem it no abuse, or waste of pains,
To improve this diet, at no great expense,
With savoury truth and wholesome common sense;
To lead his son for prospects of delight,
To some not steep, though philosophic, height,
Thence to exhibit to his wondering eyes
Yon circling worlds, their distance, and their size,
The moon of Jove, and Saturn’s belted ball,
And the harmonious order of them all;
To show him in an insect, or a flower,
Such microscopic proof of skill and power,
As, hid from ages passed, God now displays
To combat atheists with in modern days;
To spread the earth before him and commend,
With designation of the finger’s end,
Its various parts to his attentive note,
Thus bringing home to him the most remote;
To teach his heart to glow with generous flame,
Caught from the deeds of men of ancient fame;
And more than all, with commendation due,
To set some living worthy in his view,
Whose fair example may at once inspire
A wish to copy what he must admire.
Such knowledge, gained betimes, and which appears,
Though solid, not too weighty for his years,
Sweet in itself, and not forbidding sport,
When health demands it, of athletic sort,
Would make him what some lovely boys have been,
And more than one perhaps that I have seen,
An evidence and reprehension both
Of the mere schoolboy’s lean and tardy growth.

Art thou a man professionally tied,
With all thy faculties elsewhere applied,
Too busy to intend a meaner care
Than how to enrich thyself, and next, thine heir?
Or art thou (as, though rich, perhaps thou art)
But poor in knowledge, having none to impart?
Behold that figure, neat though plainly clad,
His sprightly mingled with a shade of sad;
Not of a nimble tongue, though now and then
Heard to articulate like other men,
No jester, and yet lively in discourse,
His phrase well-chosen, clear, and full of force,
And his address, if not quite French in ease,
Not English stiff, but frank and form’d to please,
Low in the world, because he scorns its arts,
A man of letters, manners, morals, parts,
Unpatronized, and therefore little known,
Wise for himself and his few friends alone –
In him thy well-appointed proxy see,
Armed for a work too difficult for thee;
Prepared by taste, by learning, and true worth,
To form thy son, to strike his genius forth,
Beneath thy roof, beneath thy eye, to prove
The force of discipline when backed by love.
To double all thy pleasure in thy child,
His mind informed, his morals undefiled.
Safe under such a wing, the boy shall show
No spots contracted among grooms below,
Nor taint his speech with meannesses, designed
By footman Tom for witty and refined.
There in his commerce with the liveried herd,
Lurks the contagion chiefly to be feared;
For since (so fashion dictates) all, who claim
A higher than a mere plebeian fame,
Find it expedient, come what mischief may,
To entertain a thief or two in pay,
And they that can afford the expense of more,
Some half a dozen, and some half a score,
Great cause occurs to save him from a band
So sure to spoil him, and so near at hand,
A point secured, if once he be supplied
With some such Mentor always at his side.

Are such men rare?  Perhaps they would abound
Were occupation easier to be found,
Were education, else so sure to fail,
Conducted on a manageable scale,
And schools that have outlived all just esteem,
Exchanged for the secure domestic scheme.–
But having found him, be thou Duke or Earl,
Show thou hast sense enough to prize the pearl,
And as thou wouldst the advancement of thine heir
In all good faculties beneath his care,
Respect, as it is but rational and just,
A man deemed worthy of so dear a trust.
Despised by thee, what more can he expect
From youthful folly, than the same neglect?
A flat and fatal negative obtains
That instant, upon all his future pains;
His lessons tire, his mild rebukes offend,
And all the instructions of thy son’s best friend
Are a stream choked, or trickling to no end.
Doom him not then to solitary meals,
But recollect that he has sense, and feels,
And that, possessor of a soul refined,
An upright heart, and cultivated mind.
His post not mean, his talents not unknown,
He deems it hard to vegetate alone.
And if admitted at thy board[19] he sit,
Account him no just mark for idle wit,
Offend not him, whom modesty restrains
From repartee, with jokes that he disdains,
Much less transfix his feelings with an oath,
Nor frown unless he vanish with the cloth.–
And trust me, his utility may reach
To more than he is hired or bound to teach,
Much trash unuttered, and some ills undone,
Through reverence of the censor of thy son.

But, if thy table be indeed unclean,
Foul with excess, and with discourse obscene,
And thou a wretch, whom, following her old plan,
The world accounts an honourable man,
Because forsooth thy courage has been tried
And stood the test, perhaps on the wrong side;
Though thou hadst never grace enough to prove
That anything but vice could win thy love;–
Or hast thou a polite, card-playing wife,
Chained to the routs that she frequents for life;
Who, just when industry begins to snore,
Flies, winged with joy, to some coach-crowded door;
And thrice in every winter throngs thine own
With half the chariots and sedans in town,
Thyself meanwhile e’en shifting as thou mayst,
Not very sober though, nor very chaste;–
Or is thine house, though less superb thy rank,
If not a scene of pleasure, a mere blank,
And thou at best, and in thy soberest mood,
A trifler vain, and empty of all good?
Though mercy for thyself thou canst have none,
Hear Nature plead, show mercy to thy son,
Saved from his home, where every day brings forth
Some mischief fatal to his future worth,
Find him a better in a distant spot,
Within some pious pastor’s humble cot,
Where vile example (yours I chiefly mean,
The most seducing, and the oftenest seen)
May never more be stamped upon his breast,
Nor yet perhaps incurably impressed.
Where early rest makes early rising sure,
Disease or comes not, or finds easy cure,[20]
Prevented much by diet neat and plain;
Or if it enter, soon starved out again:
Where all the attention of his faithful host,
Discreetly limited to two at most,
May raise such fruits as shall reward his care,
And not at last evaporate in air:
Where, stillness aiding study, and his mind,
Serene, and to his duties much inclined,
Not occupied in day-dreams, as at home,
Of pleasures past, or follies yet to come,
His virtuous toil may terminate at last
In settled habit and decided taste.–

But whom do I advise? the fashion-led,
The incorrigibly wrong, the deaf, the dead!
Whom care and cool deliberation suit
Not better much than spectacles a brute;
Who if their sons some slight tuition share,
Deem it of no great moment whose, or where;
Too proud to adopt the thoughts of one unknown,
And much too gay to have any of their own.
But courage, man! methought the Muse replied,
Mankind are various, and the world is wide:
The ostrich, silliest of the feathered kind,
And formed of God without a parent’s mind,
Commits her eggs, incautious, to the dust,
Forgetful that the foot may crush the trust;[21]
And while on public nurseries they rely,
Not knowing, and too oft, not caring, why,
Irrational in what they thus prefer,
But all are not alike.  Thy warning voice
May here and there prevent erroneous choice;
And some perhaps, who, busy as they are,
Yet make their progeny their dearest care
(Whose hearts will ache, once told what ills may reach
Their offspring, left upon so wild a beach),
Will need no stress of argument to enforce
The expedience of a less adventurous course:
The rest will slight thy counsel, or condemn;
But they have human feelings – turn to them.

To you, then, tenants of life’s middle state,
Securely placed between the small and great,
Whose character, yet undebauched, retains
Two-thirds of all the virtue that remains,
Who, wise yourselves, desire your sons should learn
Your wisdom and your ways – to you I turn.
Look round you on a world perversely blind;
See what contempt is fallen on humankind;
See wealth abused, and dignities misplaced,
Great titles, offices, and trusts disgraced,
Long lines of ancestry, renowned of old,
Their noble qualities all quenched and cold;
See Bedlam’s closeted and handcuffed charge
Surpassed in frenzy by the mad at large;
See great commanders making war a trade,
Great lawyers, lawyers without study made:
Churchmen,[22] in whose esteem their best employ
Is odious, and their wages all their joy,
Who far enough from furnishing their shelves
With Gospel lore, turn infidels themselves;
See womanhood despised, and manhood shamed
With infamy too nauseous to be named,
Fops at all corners, ladylike in mien,
Civeted fellows, smelt ere they are seen,
Else coarse and rude in manners, and their tongue
On fire with curses and with nonsense hung,
Now flushed with drunkenness, now with whoredom pale,
Their breath a sample of last night’s regale;
See volunteers in all the vilest arts,
Men well endowed, of honourable parts,
Designed by Nature wise, but self-made fools;
All these, and more like these, were bred at schools.

And if it chance, as sometimes chance it will,
That though school-bred the boy be virtuous still,
Such rare exceptions, shining in the dark,
Prove, rather than impeach, the just remark,
As here and there a twinkling star descried
Serves but to show how black is all beside.
Now look on him, whose very voice in tone
Just echoes thine, whose features are thine own,
And stroke his polished cheek of purest red,
And lay thine hand upon his flaxen head,
And say,– “My boy, the unwelcome hour is come,
“When thou, transplanted from thy genial home,
“Must find a colder soil and bleaker air,
“And trust for safety to a stranger’s care.
“What character, what turn thou wilt assume
“From constant converse with I know not whom;
“Who there will court thy friendship, with what views,
“And, artless as thou art, whom thou wilt choose;
“Though much depends on what thy choice shall be,
“Is all chance-medley, and unknown to me.”
Canst thou, the tear just trembling on thy lids,
And while the dreadful risk foreseen forbids;
Free, too, and under no constraining force,
Unless the sway of custom warp thy course;
Lay such a stake upon the losing side,
Merely to gratify so blind a guide?
Thou canst not!  Nature, pulling at thine heart,
Condemns the unfatherly, the imprudent part.
Thou wouldst not, deaf to Nature’s tenderest plea,
Turn him adrift upon a rolling sea,
Nor say,– “Go thither;”– conscious that there lay
A brood of asps, or quicksands, in his way;
Then, only governed by the self-same rule
Of natural pity, send him not to school.
No!– guard him better.  Is he not thine own,
Thyself in miniature, thy flesh, thy bone?
And hopest thou not (̓tis every father’s hope)
That since thy strength must with thy years elope,
And thou wilt need some comfort to assuage
Health’s last farewell, a staff of thine old age,
That then, in recompense of all thy cares,
Thy child shall show respect to thy gray hairs,
Befriend thee, of all other friends bereft,
And give thy life its only cordial left?

Aware then how much danger intervenes,
To compass that good end, forecast the means.
His heart, now passive, yields to thy command;
Secure it thine, its key is in thine hand.
If thou desert thy charge, and throw it wide,
Nor heed what guests there enter and abide,
Complain not if attachments lewd and base
Supplant thee in it, and usurp thy place.
But if thou guard its sacred chambers sure
From vicious inmates and delights impure,
Either his gratitude shall hold him fast,
And keep him warm and filial to the last;
Or if he prove unkind (as who can say,
But being man, and therefore frail, he may)
One comfort yet shall cheer thine aged heart;–
However he slight thee, thou hast done thy part.

“Oh, barbarous! wouldst thou with a Gothic hand
Pull down the schools – what! – all the schools i’ th̓ land;
Or throw them up to livery-nags and grooms,
Or turn them into shops and auction-rooms?”
A captious question, sir, and yours is one,
Deserves an answer similar, or none.
Wouldst thou, possessor of a flock, employ
(Apprised that he is such) a careless boy,
And feed him well, and give him handsome pay,
Merely to sleep, and let them run astray?
Survey our schools and colleges, and see
A sight not much unlike my simile.
From education, as the leading cause,
The public character its colour draws;
Thence the prevailing manners take their cast,
Extravagant or sober, loose or chaste.
And, though I would not advertise them yet,
Nor write on each – “This building to be let,”
Unless the world were all prepared to embrace
A plan well worthy to supply their place;
Yet, backward as they are, and long have been,
To cultivate and keep the MORALS clean
(Forgive the crime), I wish them, I confess,
Or better managed, or encouraged less.[23]

William Cowper (1731-1800) was one of the greatest English Christian hymn-writers and poets.  He wrote the beloved hymns There is a Fountain Filled with Blood and God Moves in a Mysterious Way, among many others.

Bible Based Ministries


[1] New Focus magazine, March 2018, Vol. 22 No. 01.  Go Publications, Gibb Hill Farm, Ponsonby, Seascale, Cumbria, CA20 1 BX.  peter@go-newfocus.co.uk.

[2] Like so many others, Cowper applied the title of “Reverend” to ministers, but without biblical warrant, for Scripture says of the Lord alone, “holy and reverend is his name”, and no Gospel ministers are ever given such a title in Scripture. – Editor.

[3] The decree. – Editor.

[4] Washes. – Editor.

[5] Not that children should be taught prayer by rote, for this is not true prayer; but unfortunately many parents do this, and his biographer George Ella states that this one-paged sheet of paper with the “Lord’s prayer” printed on it was Cowper’s first “book” around the age of four or five. – Editor.

[6] He writes of “parsons – when they preach”, for he was well aware that even in his day most Anglican “ministers” did not preach the true Gospel.  As bad as Anglicanism was then, it is far, far worse today!  It is a false religious system. – Editor.

[7] John Bunyan.

[8] Alluding to Uzziah, King of Judah.  See 2 Chron. xxvi. 19.

[9] Just a few lines before Cowper had highly commended John Bunyan – and Bunyan wrote against teaching children to pray.  In this Bunyan was correct, and Cowper was not. – Editor.

[10] The author begs leave to explain.– Sensible that, without such knowledge, neither the ancient poets nor historians can be tasted, or indeed understood, he does not mean to censure the pains that are taken to instruct a schoolboy in the religion of the heathen, but merely that neglect of Christian culture which leaves him shamefully ignorant of his own.

[11] A habitual drunkard. – Editor.

[12] Someone slow at learning; an ignorant person. – Editor.

[13] Beginners, or novices. – Editor.

[14] That is, an Anglican priest.  Anglicanism was never a biblical church, as shown even by the fact that its ministers are called “priests”, contrary to the New Testament. – Editor.

[15]Spiritual. – Editor.

[16] Cowper saw that the majority of Anglican “ministers” were unregenerate souls, mere religious hirelings; but he also knew that, at least in his day, there were one or two who were regenerate, and true men of God (although it was a great pity they were part of the iniquitous Anglican system). – Editor.

[17] Bishop Lowth, author of “The Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews,” etc.  Bishop Bagot, an excellent prelate, adorned the hierarchy by his virtues.

[18] 1 Kings vii.21.

[19] Dinner table. – Editor.

[20] That is, “either comes not, or finds easy cure.” – Editor.

[21] See Job 39:13-18. – Editor.

[22] He meant Anglican priests in his day, but it is very applicable not only to Anglican priests, but to the innumerable religious hirelings in innumerable religious institutions claiming to be “churches” today. – Editor.

[23] Meaning, “Either better managed, or encouraged less.” – Editor.