Sir Thomas
Overbury

A Wife

The first dated mention of Sir Thomas Overbury’s poem ‘A Wife’ (also referred to as ‘The Wife’) is in December 1613, when it was entered at the Stationers’ Registers; the poem was first published, with no additional material, in 1614. By 1664, it had gone through eighteen editions – ten in the years before 1618 alone. With each new printing, more material was added, including the Characters, various elegies for the deceased knight, as well as other bits and bobs of prose and poetry. Most of this material has little relation to the other items with which it was published, and rather less redeeming literary value; even at its best it should perhaps be considered an example of the organic nature of publishing at the period.

I have taken the liberty of numbering the stanzas for ease of reference, though they were not so marked in the original.

  1. Each woman is a briefe of womankind,
    And doth in little even as much containe,
    As, in one day and night, all life we finde,
    Of either, more is but the same againe:
        God fram’d her so, that to her husband she,
        As Eve, should all the world of woman be.
  2. So fram’d he both, that neither power he gave
    Use of themselves, but by exchange to make:
    Whence in their face, the faire no pleasure have,
    But by reflex of what thence other take.
        Our lips in their own kisse no pleasure find:
        Toward their proper face, our eies are blinde.
  3. So God in Eve did perfect man, begun;
    Till then, in vaine much of himselfe he had:
    In Adam, God created only one,
    Eve, and the world to come, in Eve he made.
        We are two halfes: whiles each from other straies
        Both barren are; joind, both their like can raise
  4. At first, both sexes were in man combinde,
    Man a she-man did in his body breed;
    Adam was Eves, Eve mother of mankinde,
    Eve from live-flesh, man did from dust proceed.
        One, thus made two, mariage doth re-unite,
        And makes them both but one hermaphrodite.
  5. Man did but the well-being of this life
    From woman take; her being she from man;
    And therefore Eve created was a wife,
    And at the end of all her sex, began:
        Mariage their object is; their being then,
        And now perfection, they receive from men.
  6. Mariage; to all those joyes two parties be,
    And doubled are by being parted so,
    Wherein the very act of chastity,
    Whereby two soules into one body go.
        Which makes two, one; while here they living be,
        And after death in their posterity.
  7. God to each man a private woman gave,
    That in that center his desires might stint,
    That he a comfort like himselfe might have,
    And that on her his like he might imprint.
        Double is womans use, part of their end
        Doth in this age, part on the next depend.
  8. We fill but part of time, and cannot dye,
    Till we the world a fresh supply have lent.
    Children are bodies sole eternity;
    Nature is Gods, art is mans instrument.
        Now all mans art but only dead things makes,
        But herein man in things of life partakes.
  9. For wandring lust; I know ’tis infinite,
    It still begins, and addes not more to more:
    The guilt is everlasting, the delight,
    This instant doth not feele, of that before.
        The taste of it is only in the sense,
        The operation in the conscience.
  10. Woman is not lusts bounds, but woman-kinde;
    One is loves number: who from that doth fall,
    Hath lost his hold, and no new rest shall find;
    Vice hath no meane, but not to be at all.
        A wife is that enough; lust cannot find:
        For lust is till with want, or too much, pin’d.
  11. Bate lust the sin, my share is ev’n with his,
    For, not to lust, and to enjoy, is one:
    And more or lesse past, equall nothing is;
    I still have one, lust one at once, alone:
        And though the women often changed be,
        Yet he’s the same without variety.
  12. Mariage our lust (as ’twere with fuell fire)
    Doth, with a medicine of the same, allay,
    And not forbid, but rectifie desire.
    My selfe I cannot chuse, my wife I may:
        And in the choise of her, it much doth lye,
        To mend my selfe in my posterity.
  13. Or rather let me love, then be in love;
    So let me chuse, as wife and friend to find,
    Let me forget her sex, when I approve:
    Beasts likenesse lies in shape, but ours in mind:
        Our soules no sexes have, their love is cleane,
        No sex, both in the better part are men.
  14. But physicke for our lust their bodies be,
    But matter fit to shew our love upon:
    But onely shells for our posterity,
    Their soules were giv’n lest men should be alone:
        For, but the soules interpreters, words be,
        Without which, bodies are no company.
  15. That goodly frame we see of flesh and blood,
    Their fashion is, not weight; it is I say
    But their lay-part; but well digested food;
    Tis but ’twixt dust, and dust, lifes middle way:
        The worth of it is nothing that is seen,
        But only that holds a soule within.
  16. And all the carnall beauty of my wife,
    Is but skin-deep, but to two senses known;
    Short even of pictures, shorter liv’d then life,
    And yet the love survives, that’s built thereon:
        For our imagination is too high,
        For bodies when they meet, to satisfie.
  17. All shapes, all colours, are alike in night,
    Nor doth our touch distinguish foule or faire;
    But mans imagination, and his sight,
    And those, but the first weeke; by custome are
        Both made alike, which differed at first view,
        Nor can that difference absence much renew.
  18. Nor can that beauty, lying in the face,
    But meerely by imagination be
    Enjoy’d by us, in an inferiour place.
    Nor can that beauty by enjoying we
        Make ours become; so our desire growes tame,
        We changed are, but it remaines the same.
  19. Birth, lesse then beauty, shall my reason blinde,
    Her birth goes to my children, not to me:
    Rather had I that active gentry finde,
    Vertue, then passive from her ancestry;
        Rather in her alive one vertue see,
        Then all the rest dead in her pedigree.
  20. In the degrees, high rather, be she plac’t
    Of nature, then of art, and policy:
    Gentry is but a relique of time past:
    And love doth only but the present see;
        Things were first made, then words: she were the same
        With, or without, that title or that name.
  21. As for (the oddes of sexes) portion,
    Nor will I shun it, nor my aime it make;
    Birth, beauty, wealth, are nothing worth alone,
    All these I would for good additions take,
        Not for good parts, those two are ill combin’d
        Whom, any third thing from themselves hath join’d.
  22. Rather then these the object of my love,
    Let it be good; when these with vertue go,
    They (in themselves indifferent) vertues prove,
    For good (like fire) turnes all things to be so.
        Gods image in her soule, O let me place
        My love upon! not Adams in her face.
  23. Good, is a fairer attribute then white,
    ’Tis the minds beauty keeps the other sweete;
    That’s not still one, nor mortall with the light,
    Nor glasse, nor painting can it counterfeit;
        Nor doth it raise desires, which ever tend
        At once, to their perfeciton and their end.
  24. By good I would have holy understood,
    So God she cannot love, but also me,
    The law requires our words and deeds be good,
    Religion even the thoughts doth sanctifie:
        As she is more a maid that ravisht is,
        Then she which only doth but wish amisse.
  25. Lust onely by religion is withstood,
    Lusts object is alive, his strength within;
    Morality resists but in cold blood;
    Respect of credit feareth shame, not sin.
        But no place darke enough for such offence
        She findes, that’s watch’t, by her own conscience.
  26. Then may I trust her body with her mind,
    And, thereupon secure, need never know
    The pangs of jealousie: and love doth find
    More paine to doubt her false, then know her so:
        For patience is, of evils that are knowne,
        The certaine remedie; but doubt hath none.
  27. And be that thought once stirr’d, ’twill never die:
    Nor will grief more mild by custome prove,
    Nor yet amendment can it satisfie,
    The anguish more or lesse, is as our love;
        This misery doth jealousie ensue,
        That we may prove her false, but cannot true.
  28. Suspicious may the will of lust restraine,
    But good prevents from having such a will;
    A wife that’s good, doth chaste and more containe,
    For chaste is but an abstinence from ill:
        And in a wife that’s bad, although the best
        Of qualities; yet in a good, the least.
  29. To barre the meanes is care, not jealousie:
    Some lawfull things to be avoyded are,
    When they occasion of unlawfull be:
    Lust ere it hurts, is be descry’d afarre:
        Lust is a sinne of two; he that is sure
        Of either part, may be of both secure.
  30. Give me next good, an understanding wife,
    By nature wise, not learned by much art,
    Some knowledge on her side, will all my life
    More scope of conversation impart:
        Besides, her inborne vertue fortifie.
        They are most firmly good, that best know why.
  31. A passive understanding to conceive,
    And judgement to discerne, I wish to finde:
    Beyond that, all as hazardous I leave;
    Learning and pregnant wit in woman-kinde,
        What it findes malleable, makes fraile,
        And doth not adde more ballast, but more saile.
  32. Domesticke charge doth best that sex befit,
    Contiguous businesse; so to fixe the mind,
    That leisure space for fancies not admit:
    Their leysure ’tis corrupteth woman-kind:
        Else, being plac’d from many vices free,
        They had to heav’n a shorter cut than we.
  33. Bookes are a part of mans prerogative,
    In formall inke they thoughts and voyces hold,
    That we to them our solitude may give,
    And make time-present travell that of old.
        Our life, fame peeceth longer at the end,
        And bookes it farther backward doe extend.
  34. As good, and knowing, let her be discreete,
    That, to the others weight, doth fashion bring;
    Discretion doth consider what is fit,
    Goodnesse but what is lawfull; but the thing,
        Not circumstances; learning is and wit,
        In men, but curious folly without it.
  35. To keepe their name, when ’tis in others hands,
    Discretion askes; their credit is by farre
    More fraile than they: on likelihoods it stands,
    And hard to be disprov’d, lusts slanders are.
        Their carriage, not their chastity alone,
        Must keepe their name chaste from suspition.
  36. Womans behaviour is a surer barre
    Then is their no: that fairely doth deny
    Without denying; thereby kept they are
    Safe ev’n from hope; in part to blame is she
        Which hath without consent bin only tride;
        He comes too neere, that comes to be denide.
  37. Now since a woman we to marry are,
    A soule and body, not a soule alone,
    When one is good, then be the other faire;
    Beauty is health and beauty, both in one;
        Be she so faire, as change can yeeld no gaine;
        So faire, as she most woman else containe.
  38. So faire at least let me imagine her;
    That thought to me, is truth: opinion
    Cannot in matter of opinion erre;
    With no eyes shall I see her but mine owne.
        And as my fancy her conceives to be,
        Even such my senses both, doe feele and see.
  39. The face we may the seat of beauty call,
    In it the relish of the rest doth lye,
    Nay ev’n a figure of the mind withall:
    And of the face, the life moves in the eye;
        No things else, being two, so like we see,
        So like, that they, two but in number, be.
  40. Beauty in decent shape, and colours lies.
    Colours the matter are, and shape the soule;
    The soule, which from no single part doth rise,
    But from the just proportion of the whole.
        And is a meere spirituall harmony,
        Of every part united in the eye.
  41. Love is a kind of superstition,
    Which feares the idoll which it self hath fram’d:
    Lust a desire, which rather from his owne
    Temper, then from the object is inflam’d:
        Beauty is loves object; woman lust’s to gaine
        Love, love desires; lust onely to obtaine.
  42. No circumstance doth beauty beautifie,
    Like gracefull fashion, native comelinesse.
    Nay ev’n gets pardon for deformity;
    Art cannot ought beget, but may increase;
        When nature had fixt beauty, perfect made,
        Something she left for motion to adde.
  43. But let the fashion more to modesty
    Tend, then assurance: modesty doth set
    The face in her just place, from passions free,
    ’Tis both the mindes, and bodies beauty met;
        But modesty no vertue can we see;
        That is the faces onely chastity.
  44. Where goodnesse failes, ’twixt ill and ill that stands:
    Whence ’tis, that women though they weaker be,
    And their desire more strong, yet on their hands
    The chastity of men doth often lye:
        Lust would more common be then any one,
        Could it, as other sins, be done alone.
  45. All these good parts a perfect woman make:
    Adde love to me, they make a perfect wife:
    Without her love, her beauty should I take,
    As that of pictures; dead; that gives it life:
        Till then her beauty like the sun doth shine
        Alike to all; that makes it, only mine.
  46. And of that love, let reason father be,
    And passion mother; let it from the one
    His being take, the other his degree;
    Selfe-love (which second loves are built upon)
        Will make me (if not her) her love respect;
        No man but favours his owne worths effect.
  47. As good and wise; so be she fit for me,
    That is, to will, and not to will, the same:
    My wife is my adopted selfe, and she
    As me, so what I love, to love must frame:
        For when by mariage both in one concurre,
        Woman converts to man, not man to her.

finis.