Man’s Short Life and Foolish Ambition

Man’s Short Life and Foolish Ambition
By Duchess Of Newcastle Margaret Cavendish

 

In gardens sweet each flower mark did I,

How they did spring, bud, blow, wither and die.

 

With that, contemplating of man’s short stay,

Saw man like to those flowers pass away.

 

Yet built he houses, thick and strong and high,

As if he’d live to all Eternity.

 

Hoards up a mass of wealth, yet cannot fill

His empty mind, but covet will he still.

 

To gain or keep, such falsehood will he use!

Wrong, right or truth—no base ways will refuse.

 

I would not blame him could he death out keep,

Or ease his pains or be secure of sleep:

 

Or buy Heaven’s mansions—like the gods become,

And with his gold rule stars and moon and sun:

 

Command the winds to blow, seas to obey,

Level their waves and make their breezes stay.

 

But he no power hath unless to die,

And care in life is only misery.

 

This care is but a word, an empty sound,

Wherein there is no soul nor substance found;

 

Yet as his heir he makes it to inherit,

And all he has he leaves unto this spirit.

 

To get this Child of Fame and this bare word,

He fears no dangers, neither fire nor sword:

 

All horrid pains and death he will endure,

Or any thing can he but fame procure.

 

O man, O man, what high ambition grows

Within his brain, and yet how low he goes!

 

To be contented only with a sound,

Wherein is neither peace nor life nor body found.


About the author

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, (1623 – 1673) was a prolific writer who worked in many genres, including poetry, fiction, drama, letters, biography, science, and even science fiction. Unlike most women of her day, who wrote anonymously, she published her works under her own name. Her significance as a rhetorical theorist has two main dimensions. First, she lived at a time when rhetoric itself and rhetorical theory were undergoing radical changes. Her writings provide a valuable source of information about some of these changes. Second, her ideas about the rhetorical tradition provide particular insight into the relationship of women to that tradition at a critical time in its history. Cavendish not only practiced rhetoric but also recorded her progress, including her fears and failures, and her rhetorical ideas must be understood in this context. No single work is devoted to a consideration of rhetorical theory; to discover her ideas one must sift through many of her works, particularly her prefaces. She was perhaps more successful as an aspiring rhetorician than as a theorist of rhetoric. Yet, familiarity with her ideas is crucial to an understanding of the development of women’s sense of themselves in relation to the tradition, which was later to bear fruit in the work of women more apparently successful than she.

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