Great God, from Thee all infinites do flow,1
And by Thy power from thence effects do grow.
Thou order’st2 all degrees of matter; just
As ’tis Thy will and pleasure, move it must.3
And by Thy knowledge order’st4all for th’best,5 5
And6 in Thy knowledge doth Thy wisdom rest,
And wisdom cannot order things amiss,
For where disorder, there7 no wisdom is.
Besides, great God, Thy will is just—for why?8
Thy will still on Thy wisdom doth rely.9 10
O pardon Lord for what I now here speak10
Upon a guess; my knowledge is but weak.11
But Thou hast made such creatures as mankind,
And gav’st12 them something which we call a mind;
Always in motion, it ne’er13 quiet lies 15
Until the figure of his body dies.14
His sev’ral15 thoughts, which sev’ral16 motions are,
Do raise up love, hope, joys, and doubts17 and fear.
As love doth raise up hope, so fear doth doubt,
Which makes him seek to find the great God out. 20
Self-love doth make him seek to find if he
Came from, or shall last to, eternity.
But motion, being slow, makes knowledge weak,
And then his thoughts ’gainst ignorance do18 beat,
As fluid waters ’gainst hard rocks do flow, 25
Break their soft streams, and so they backward go:
Just so do thoughts, and then they backward slide
Unto the place where first they did abide,
And there in gentle murmurs do complain
That all their care and labor is in vain.19 30
But since none knows the great Creator, must
Man seek no more, but in his greatness20 trust.
- This untitled poem first appears at the end of Margaret Cavendish’s hybrid prose and poetic natural philosophical treatise Philosophical Fancies (London, 1653) and was reprinted, with edits, in her later revisions of that treatise, Philosophical and Physical Opinions (PPO) (London, 1655 and 1663). This edition is by Liza Blake (Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto) and Tess Rahaman (undergraduate in the Department of English and Drama at University of Toronto Mississauga, and Editorial Assistant in the University of Toronto’s Work Study program). We collated the poem across the three editions, then edited, modernized, and annotated it. When reviewing the history of substantive textual changes, we found that we preferred the 1663 edition in every case, so we used the 1663 version of the poem as our base, though our textual notes record variants from earlier editions; we have also annotated the poem.
The poem begins as a second-person address to God, the source of all “infinites,” and then shifts to thinking about both God and man in the third person. Infinity is a key concept in Cavendish’s natural philosophy, particularly around questions of epistemology, or how we know what we know. It is no surprise, then, that the question of knowledge is central to this poem: it begins by thinking about God’s infinite knowledge, and then contrasts that with man’s limited or finite knowledge of that infinite knowledge.
Her conclusion, that finite humans cannot possibly understand an infinite God, is a common refrain for her, particularly in her prefaces to her natural philosophical works. Since we can’t truly know God, best instead to ask questions of Nature, which we can know. Interestingly, this poem does not appear in the fourth and final iteration of her natural philosophy, her Grounds of Natural Philosophy (London, 1668), perhaps because the Appendix to Grounds does discuss theological matters.
We have added this poem to the website not only because it is interesting in itself (as one of the few poems addressed to God in Cavendish’s otherwise secular poetry), but also for the several connections it has to other poems in Part I of her Poems and Fancies. For another poem on this website that seems to reach a similar conclusion (though in a very different form), see also “The Motion of Thoughts,” ll. 65–68: “And we can circle all the world about, / And can find all th’effects of nature out: / Yet all the wise and learnèd cannot tell / What’s done in Heaven, or how we there shall dwell.” Compare also “Of Stars.” We include cross-references and links to other poems in notes below.
- order’st] order’dst 1653; orderest 1655
- These lines might be punctuated differently, with a semicolon after “just” instead of before it, in which case “just” would mean “justly” and would modify “order’st.” In 1653 there is a comma on either side of “just”; in 1655 and 1663, there is a comma before “just” and no punctuation at the end of the line.
- order’st] orderd’st 1653, 1655
- for th’best,] the Best; 1653; the best, 1655
- And] For 1653, 1665
- there] is, 1653, 1655
- why?] why, 1653
- Lines 5–10 argue that God’s infinite knowledge allows Him to order the world justly, and in the best way possible. His infinite knowledge produces a well-ordered wisdom, which in turn produces a just will.
- now here speak] here now speak, 1653; now hear speak 1655 ; As this textual note shows, the 1655 PPO reads “hear speak” instead of “‘here speak.” Reading the first word as “hear” potentially changes the meaning: rather than “what I here speak about God,” it may be understood as, “what I hear spoken about God.” In a copy of the 1655 PPO held at the British Library (Shelfmark 31.e.8), an early hand has underlined this line’s “hear” and corrected it to “here.”
- Lines 11–12 mark a shift in the poem, from addressing God’s infinite greatness to asking the question of how and whether she, the speaker of the poem, can say anything definite about God at all.
- gav’st] giv’st 1653
- it ne’er] never 1653, 1655
- That man’s mind is always in motion seemingly sets him closer to Nature than to God in Cavendish’s philosophical system: while God is eternally ordered and just, Nature seeks continual change, and is described as restlessly and constantly changing shape or “figure” in Cavendish’s natural philosophical treatises, as well as in the poems of Part I of Poems and Fancies (see, for example, “The Difference of Atoms and Motion in Youth and Age,” lines 7–8: “Motion’s ease is change, weary soon doth grow, / If in one figure she doth often go.”
- sev’ral] severall 1653; several 1655
- sev’ral] severall 1653; several 1655
- hope, joys, and doubts] hopes, joyes, doubts, 1653; hope, joyes, doubts 1655 ; Cavendish’s change of 1653’s plural “hopes” to a singular “hope” sets hope, as an abstract emotional state, apart from the plural “joys” and “doubts,” which, as plurals, seem to be finite entities that can exist in multiples. The addition of “and” before “doubts” both regularizes the meter of the line, and partitions the list of emotional states between positive attributes (love, hope, and joy) and negative attributes (doubts and fears).
- do] doth 1653, 1655
- In lines 25–30, Cavendish uses an epic simile to compare the motion of rivers to the motion of knowledge in the brain: just as the flow of a stream is rebuffed by a hard rock, so the flow of man’s thoughts is rebuffed by his own ignorance. While the use of an epic simile conjures the heroic world of epic, the invocation of epic genre ends here: the poem will next argue not that man should heroically conquer his ignorance of God, but that he should accept it.
Cavendish also punctures the typical epic simile by making, perhaps, an epic metaphor: in several poems in Part I of her Poems and Fancies she thinks explicitly about the motion of thoughts as a physical phenomenon within the brain. This series of poems ends with the assertion that mental processes such as imagination cannot exist without a physical substrate: “Yet fancy cannot be without some brains.” Other parts of Poems and Fancies (forthcoming on this site) imagine the motions of the brains as potentially affected by tiny fairies.
- greatness] goodnesse 1653
- This “FINIS.” may belong to the poem, or to the entirety of the natural philosophical treatise. In a copy of the 1655 PPO held at the British Library (Shelfmark 722.l.1), someone has vigorously crossed out the “FINIS.” that ends the poem—an interesting edit for a poem on infinity that also ends her treatise(s) as a whole! The “FINIS.” is not present in 1663, perhaps because it is followed by additional epistles in some copies.