The Task "Great Princes Have Great Playthings"

Denise Levertov

"Great Princes Have Great Playthings"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: This quotation appears in the fifth book of The Task, entitled "The Winter's Morning Walk." The Task is a long poem, fitting the taste of the time in which it was written. The structure of the poem is discursive and rambling, so that it can contain meditative passages on all sorts of subjects, as well as many remarkable descriptions of nature. In "A Winter's Morning Walk," the poet discusses many topics: the foddering of cattle, man's slavish nature, the respective merits of martyrs and patriots, the Bastille, the whimsical effects of frost at a waterfall, the perishable nature of human institutions, and, among others, the amusements of monarchs. In this passage the poet speaks of war itself as one of the amusements of kings, and he decries the fact that kings can spoil the world by making war. Wise subjects, Cowper comments, would not allow monarchs to "make the sorrows of mankind their sport." The verse paragraph in which the quotation appears is this:

Great princes have great playthings. Some have play'd
At hewing mountains into men, and some
At building human wonders mountain-high.
Some have amused the dull sad years of life
(Life spent in indolence, and therefore sad)
With schemes of monumental fame, and sought
By pyramids and mausolean pomp,
Short-lived themselves, t'immortalize their bones.
Some seek diversion in the tented field,
And make the sorrows of mankind their sport.
But war's a game, which, were their subjects wise,
Kings should not play at. Nations would do well
T'extort their truncheons from the puny hands
Of heroes, whose infirm and baby minds
Are gratified with mischief, and who spoil,
Because men suffer it, their toy the world.