1639: Thoughts

John Constable - Clouds (1822)

From a letter written by James Howell, 17 March 1639:

Having got into a close field, I cast my face upward, and…began to contemplate as I was in this posture the vast magnitude of the universe and what proportion this poor globe of earth might bear with it, for if those numberless bodies which stick in the vast roof of heaven, though they appear to us but as spangles, be some of them thousands of times bigger than the earth—take the sea with it to boot, for they both make but one sphere, surely the astronomers had reason to term this sphere an indivisible point and a thing of no dimension at all being compared to the whole world. I fell then to think that at the second general destruction, it is no more for God Almighty to fire this earth than for us to blow up a small squib or rather one small grain of gunpowder.

As I was musing thus, I spied a swarm of gnats waving up and down the air about me which I knew to be part of the universe as well as I; and methought it was a strange opinion of our Aristotle to hold that the least of those small insected ephemerans should be more noble than the sun, because it had a sensitive soul in it. I fell to think that the same proportion which those animalillios bore with me in point of bigness, the same I held with those glorious spirits which are near the Throne of the Almighty, what then should we think of the magnitude of the Creator Himself: doubtless it is beyond the reach of any human imagination to conceive it. In my private devotions I presume to compare Him to a great mountain of light, and my soul seems to discern some glorious form therein, but suddenly as she would fix her eyes upon the object, her sight is presently dazzled and disgregated with the refulgency and coruscations thereof.

Walking a little farther I espied a young boisterous bull breaking over hedge and ditch to a herd of kine in the next pasture, which made me think that if that fierce strong animal with others of that kind knew their own strength, they would never suffer man to be their master. Then looking upon them quietly grazing up and down, I fell to consider that the flesh which is daily dished upon our tables is but concocted grass, which is recarnified in our stomachs and transmuted to another flesh. I fell also to think what advantage those innocent animals had of man, which, as soon as nature cast them into the world, find their meat dressed, the cloth laid, and the table covered; they find their drink brewed and the buttery open, their beds made and their clothes ready; and though man hath the faculty of reason to make him a compensation for the want of those advantages, yet this reason brings with it a thousand perturbations of mind and perplexities of spirit, griping cares and anguishes of thought, which those harmless silly creatures were exempted from.

Going on, I came to repose myself upon the trunk of a tree, and I fell to consider further what advantage that dull vegetable had of those feeding animals, as not to be so troublesome and beholding to nature, nor to be so subject to starving, to diseases, to the inclemency of the weather, and to be far longer lived. I then espied a great stone, and sitting a while upon it, I fell to weigh in my thoughts that that stone was in a happier condition in some respects than either those sensitive creatures or vegetables I saw be- fore, in regard that that stone, which propagates by assimilation, as the philosophers say, needed neither grass nor hay, or any aliment for restoration of nature, nor water to refresh its roots or the heat of the sun to attract the moisture upwards to increase growth as the other did. As I directed my pace homeward, I espied a kite soaring high in the air, and gently gliding up and down the clear region so far above my head, that I fell to envy the bird extremely and repine at his happiness that he should have a privilege to make a nearer approach to heaven than I.

John Constable: Cloud Study (1822)

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