Jonathan Swift

On Poetry: a Rhapsody

Poem by Jonathan Swift

All human race would fain be wits,
And millions miss for one that hits.
Young's universal passion, pride,[1]
Was never known to spread so wide.
Say, Britain, could you ever boast
Three poets in an age at most?
Our chilling climate hardly bears
A sprig of bays in fifty years;
While every fool his claim alleges,
As if it grew in common hedges.
What reason can there be assign'd
For this perverseness in the mind?
Brutes find out where their talents lie:
A bear will not attempt to fly;
A founder'd horse will oft debate,
Before he tries a five-barr'd gate;
A dog by instinct turns aside,
Who sees the ditch too deep and wide.
But man we find the only creature
Who, led by Folly, combats Nature;
Who, when she loudly cries, Forbear,
With obstinacy fixes there;
And, where his genius least inclines,
Absurdly bends his whole designs.

  Not empire to the rising sun
By valour, conduct, fortune won;
Not highest wisdom in debates,
For framing laws to govern states;
Not skill in sciences profound
So large to grasp the circle round,
Such heavenly influence require,
As how to strike the Muse's lyre.

  Not beggar's brat on bulk begot;
Not bastard of a pedler Scot;
Not boy brought up to cleaning shoes,
The spawn of Bridewell[2] or the stews;
Not infants dropp'd, the spurious pledges
Of gipsies litter'd under hedges;
Are so disqualified by fate
To rise in church, or law, or state,
As he whom Phoebus in his ire
Has blasted with poetic fire.
What hope of custom in the fair,
While not a soul demands your ware?
Where you have nothing to produce
For private life, or public use?
Court, city, country, want you not;
You cannot bribe, betray, or plot.
For poets, law makes no provision;
The wealthy have you in derision:
Of state affairs you cannot smatter;
Are awkward when you try to flatter;
Your portion, taking Britain round,
Was just one annual hundred pound;
Now not so much as in remainder,
Since Cibber[3] brought in an attainder;
For ever fix'd by right divine
(A monarch's right) on Grub Street line.

  Poor starv'ling bard, how small thy gains!
How unproportion'd to thy pains!
And here a simile comes pat in:
Though chickens take a month to fatten,
The guests in less than half an hour
Will more than half a score devour.
So, after toiling twenty days
To earn a stock of pence and praise,
Thy labours, grown the critic's prey,
Are swallow'd o'er a dish of tea;
Gone to be never heard of more,
Gone where the chickens went before.
How shall a new attempter learn
Of different spirits to discern,
And how distinguish which is which,
The poet's vein, or scribbling itch?
Then hear an old experienced sinner,
Instructing thus a young beginner.

  Consult yourself; and if you find
A powerful impulse urge your mind,
Impartial judge within your breast
What subject you can manage best;
Whether your genius most inclines
To satire, praise, or humorous lines,
To elegies in mournful tone,
Or prologue sent from hand unknown.
Then, rising with Aurora's light,
The Muse invoked, sit down to write;
Blot out, correct, insert, refine,
Enlarge, diminish, interline;
Be mindful, when invention fails,
To scratch your head, and bite your nails.

  Your poem finish'd, next your care
Is needful to transcribe it fair.
In modern wit all printed trash is
Set off with numerous breaks and dashes.

  To statesmen would you give a wipe,
You print it in Italic type.
When letters are in vulgar shapes,
'Tis ten to one the wit escapes:
But, when in capitals express'd,
The dullest reader smokes the jest:
Or else perhaps he may invent
A better than the poet meant;
As learned commentators view
In Homer more than Homer knew.

  Your poem in its modish dress,
Correctly fitted for the press,
Convey by penny-post to Lintot,[4]
But let no friend alive look into't.
If Lintot thinks 'twill quit the cost,
You need not fear your labour lost:
And how agreeably surprised
Are you to see it advertised!
The hawker shows you one in print,
As fresh as farthings from the mint:
The product of your toil and sweating;
A bastard of your own begetting.

  Be sure at Will's,[5] the following day,
Lie snug, and hear what critics say;
And, if you find the general vogue
Pronounces you a stupid rogue,
Damns all your thoughts as low and little,
Sit still, and swallow down your spittle;
Be silent as a politician,
For talking may beget suspicion;
Or praise the judgment of the town,
And help yourself to run it down.
Give up your fond paternal pride,
Nor argue on the weaker side:
For, poems read without a name
We justly praise, or justly blame;
And critics have no partial views,
Except they know whom they abuse:
And since you ne'er provoke their spite,
Depend upon't their judgment's right.
But if you blab, you are undone:
Consider what a risk you run:
You lose your credit all at once;
The town will mark you for a dunce;
The vilest dogg'rel Grub Street sends,
Will pass for yours with foes and friends;
And you must bear the whole disgrace,
Till some fresh blockhead takes your place.

  Your secret kept, your poem sunk,
And sent in quires to line a trunk,
If still you be disposed to rhyme,
Go try your hand a second time.
Again you fail: yet Safe's the word;
Take courage and attempt a third.
But first with care employ your thoughts
Where critics mark'd your former faults;
The trivial turns, the borrow'd wit,
The similes that nothing fit;
The cant which every fool repeats,
Town jests and coffeehouse conceits,
Descriptions tedious, flat, and dry,
And introduced the Lord knows why:
Or where we find your fury set
Against the harmless alphabet;
On A's and B's your malice vent,
While readers wonder whom you meant:
A public or a private robber,
A statesman, or a South Sea jobber;
A prelate, who no God believes;
A parliament, or den of thieves;
A pickpurse at the bar or bench,
A duchess, or a suburb wench:
Or oft, when epithets you link,
In gaping lines to fill a chink;
Like stepping-stones, to save a stride,
In streets where kennels are too wide;
Or like a heel-piece, to support
A cripple with one foot too short;
Or like a bridge, that joins a marish
To moorlands of a different parish.
So have I seen ill-coupled hounds
Drag different ways in miry grounds.
So geographers, in Afric maps,
With savage pictures fill their gaps,
And o'er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.

  But, though you miss your third essay,
You need not throw your pen away.
Lay now aside all thoughts of fame,
To spring more profitable game.
From party merit seek support;
The vilest verse thrives best at court.
And may you ever have the luck
To rhyme almost as ill as Duck;[6]
And, though you never learn'd to scan verse
Come out with some lampoon on D'Anvers.
A pamphlet in Sir Bob's defence
Will never fail to bring in pence:
Nor be concern'd about the sale,
He pays his workmen on the nail.[7]
Display the blessings of the nation,
And praise the whole administration.
Extol the bench of bishops round,
Who at them rail, bid ---- confound;
To bishop-haters answer thus:
(The only logic used by us)
What though they don't believe in ----
Deny them Protestants--thou lyest.

  A prince, the moment he is crown'd,
Inherits every virtue round,
As emblems of the sovereign power,
Like other baubles in the Tower;
Is generous, valiant, just, and wise,
And so continues till he dies:
His humble senate this professes,
In all their speeches, votes, addresses.
But once you fix him in a tomb,
His virtues fade, his vices bloom;
And each perfection, wrong imputed,
Is fully at his death confuted.
The loads of poems in his praise,
Ascending, make one funeral blaze:
His panegyrics then are ceased,
He grows a tyrant, dunce, or beast.
As soon as you can hear his knell,
This god on earth turns devil in hell:
And lo! his ministers of state,
Transform'd to imps, his levee wait;
Where in the scenes of endless woe,
They ply their former arts below;
And as they sail in Charon's boat,
Contrive to bribe the judge's vote;
To Cerberus they give a sop,
His triple barking mouth to stop;
Or, in the ivory gate of dreams,[8]
Project excise and South-Sea[9] schemes;
Or hire their party pamphleteers
To set Elysium by the ears.

  Then, poet, if you mean to thrive,
Employ your muse on kings alive;
With prudence gathering up a cluster
Of all the virtues you can muster,
Which, form'd into a garland sweet,
Lay humbly at your monarch's feet:
Who, as the odours reach his throne,
Will smile, and think them all his own;
For law and gospel both determine
All virtues lodge in royal ermine:
I mean the oracles of both,
Who shall depose it upon oath.
Your garland, in the following reign,
Change but the names, will do again.

  But, if you think this trade too base,
(Which seldom is the dunce's case)
Put on the critic's brow, and sit
At Will's, the puny judge of wit.
A nod, a shrug, a scornful smile,
With caution used, may serve a while.
Proceed no further in your part,
Before you learn the terms of art;
For you can never be too far gone
In all our modern critics' jargon:
Then talk with more authentic face
Of unities, in time and place:
Get scraps of Horace from your friends,
And have them at your fingers' ends;
Learn Aristotle's rules by rote,
And at all hazards boldly quote;
Judicious Rymer[10] oft review,
Wise Dennis,[11] and profound Bossu.[12]
Read all the prefaces of Dryden,
For these our critics much confide in;
Though merely writ at first for filling,
To raise the volume's price a shilling.

  A forward critic often dupes us
With sham quotations peri hupsous:
And if we have not read Longinus,
Will magisterially outshine us.
Then, lest with Greek he overrun ye,
Procure the book for love or money,
Translated from Boileau's translation,[13]
And quote quotation on quotation.

  At Will's you hear a poem read,
Where Battus[14] from the table head,
Reclining on his elbow-chair,
Gives judgment with decisive air;
To whom the tribe of circling wits
As to an oracle submits.
He gives directions to the town,
To cry it up, or run it down;
Like courtiers, when they send a note,
Instructing members how to vote.
He sets the stamp of bad and good,
Though not a word be understood.
Your lesson learn'd, you'll be secure
To get the name of connoisseur:
And, when your merits once are known,
Procure disciples of your own.
For poets (you can never want 'em)
Spread through Augusta Trinobantum,[15]
Computing by their pecks of coals,
Amount to just nine thousand souls:
These o'er their proper districts govern,
Of wit and humour judges sovereign.
In every street a city bard
Rules, like an alderman, his ward;
His undisputed rights extend
Through all the lane, from end to end;
The neighbours round admire his shrewdness
For songs of loyalty and lewdness;
Outdone by none in rhyming well,
Although he never learn'd to spell.

  Two bordering wits contend for glory;
And one is Whig, and one is Tory:
And this, for epics claims the bays,
And that, for elegiac lays:
Some famed for numbers soft and smooth,
By lovers spoke in Punch's booth;
And some as justly fame extols
For lofty lines in Smithfield drolls.
Bavius[16] in Wapping gains renown,
And Maevius[16] reigns o'er Kentish town:
Tigellius[17] placed in Phooebus' car
From Ludgate shines to Temple-bar:
Harmonious Cibber entertains
The court with annual birth-day strains;
Whence Gay was banish'd in disgrace;[18]
Where Pope will never show his face;
Where Young must torture his invention
To flatter knaves or lose his pension.[19]

  But these are not a thousandth part
Of jobbers in the poet's art,
Attending each his proper station,
And all in due subordination,
Through every alley to be found,
In garrets high, or under ground;
And when they join their pericranies,
Out skips a book of miscellanies.
Hobbes clearly proves, that every creature
Lives in a state of war by nature.[20]
The greater for the smaller watch,
But meddle seldom with their match.
A whale of moderate size will draw
A shoal of herrings down his maw;
A fox with geese his belly crams;
A wolf destroys a thousand lambs;
But search among the rhyming race,
The brave are worried by the base.
If on Parnassus' top you sit,
You rarely bite, are always bit:
Each poet of inferior size
On you shall rail and criticise,
And strive to tear you limb from limb;
While others do as much for him.

  The vermin only teaze and pinch
Their foes superior by an inch.
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Thus every poet, in his kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind:
Who, though too little to be seen,
Can teaze, and gall, and give the spleen;
Call dunces, fools, and sons of whores,
Lay Grub Street at each other's doors;
Extol the Greek and Roman masters,
And curse our modern poetasters;
Complain, as many an ancient bard did,
How genius is no more rewarded;
How wrong a taste prevails among us;
How much our ancestors outsung us:
Can personate an awkward scorn
For those who are not poets born;
And all their brother dunces lash,
Who crowd the press with hourly trash.

  O Grub Street! how do I bemoan thee,
Whose graceless children scorn to own thee!
Their filial piety forgot,
Deny their country, like a Scot;
Though by their idiom and grimace,
They soon betray their native place:
Yet thou hast greater cause to be
Ashamed of them, than they of thee,
Degenerate from their ancient brood
Since first the court allow'd them food.

  Remains a difficulty still,
To purchase fame by writing ill.
From Flecknoe[21] down to Howard's[22] time,
How few have reach'd the low sublime!
For when our high-born Howard died,
Blackmore[23] alone his place supplied:
And lest a chasm should intervene,
When death had finish'd Blackmore's reign,
The leaden crown devolved to thee,
Great poet[24] of the "Hollow Tree."
But ah! how unsecure thy throne!
A thousand bards thy right disown:
They plot to turn, in factious zeal,
Duncenia to a common weal;
And with rebellious arms pretend
An equal privilege to descend.

  In bulk there are not more degrees
From elephants to mites in cheese,
Than what a curious eye may trace
In creatures of the rhyming race.
From bad to worse, and worse they fall;
But who can reach the worst of all?
For though, in nature, depth and height
Are equally held infinite:
In poetry, the height we know;
'Tis only infinite below.
For instance: when you rashly think,
No rhymer can like Welsted sink,
His merits balanced, you shall find
The Laureate leaves him far behind.
Concanen,[25] more aspiring bard,
Soars downward deeper by a yard.
Smart Jemmy Moore[26] with vigour drops;
The rest pursue as thick as hops:
With heads to point the gulf they enter,
Link'd perpendicular to the centre;
And as their heels elated rise,
Their heads attempt the nether skies.

  O, what indignity and shame,
To prostitute the Muses' name!
By flattering kings, whom Heaven design'd
The plagues and scourges of mankind;
Bred up in ignorance and sloth,
And every vice that nurses both.

  Perhaps you say, Augustus shines,
Immortal made in Virgil's lines,
And Horace brought the tuneful quire,
To sing his virtues on the lyre;
Without reproach for flattery, true,
Because their praises were his due.
For in those ages kings, we find,
Were animals of human kind.
But now, go search all Europe round
Among the savage monsters ----
With vice polluting every throne,
(I mean all thrones except our own;)
In vain you make the strictest view
To find a ---- in all the crew,
With whom a footman out of place
Would not conceive a high disgrace,
A burning shame, a crying sin,
To take his morning's cup of gin.

  Thus all are destined to obey
Some beast of burthen or of prey.

  'Tis sung, Prometheus,[27] forming man,
Through all the brutal species ran,
Each proper quality to find
Adapted to a human mind;
A mingled mass of good and bad,
The best and worst that could be had;
Then from a clay of mixture base
He shaped a ---- to rule the race,
Endow'd with gifts from every brute
That best the ---- nature suit.
Thus think on ----s: the name denotes
Hogs, asses, wolves, baboons, and goats.
To represent in figure just,
Sloth, folly, rapine, mischief, lust;
Oh! were they all but Neb-cadnezers,
What herds of ----s would turn to grazers!

  Fair Britain, in thy monarch blest,
Whose virtues bear the strictest test;
Whom never faction could bespatter,
Nor minister nor poet flatter;
What justice in rewarding merit!
What magnanimity of spirit!
What lineaments divine we trace
Through all his figure, mien, and face!
Though peace with olive binds his hands,
Confess'd the conquering hero stands.
Hydaspes,[28] Indus, and the Ganges,
Dread from his hand impending changes.
From him the Tartar and Chinese,
Short by the knees,[29] entreat for peace.
The consort of his throne and bed,
A perfect goddess born and bred,
Appointed sovereign judge to sit
On learning, eloquence, and wit.
Our eldest hope, divine Iuelus,[30]
(Late, very late, O may he rule us!)
What early manhood has he shown,
Before his downy beard was grown,
Then think, what wonders will be done
By going on as he begun,
An heir for Britain to secure
As long as sun and moon endure.

  The remnant of the royal blood
Comes pouring on me like a flood.
Bright goddesses, in number five;
Duke William, sweetest prince alive.
Now sing the minister of state,
Who shines alone without a mate.
Observe with what majestic port
This Atlas stands to prop the court:
Intent the public debts to pay,
Like prudent Fabius,[31] by delay.
Thou great vicegerent of the king,
Thy praises every Muse shall sing!
In all affairs thou sole director;
Of wit and learning chief protector,
Though small the time thou hast to spare,
The church is thy peculiar care.
Of pious prelates what a stock
You choose to rule the sable flock!
You raise the honour of the peerage,
Proud to attend you at the steerage.
You dignify the noble race,
Content yourself with humbler place.
Now learning, valour, virtue, sense,
To titles give the sole pretence.
St. George beheld thee with delight,
Vouchsafe to be an azure knight,
When on thy breast and sides Herculean,
He fix'd the star and string cerulean.

  Say, poet, in what other nation
Shone ever such a constellation!
Attend, ye Popes, and Youngs, and Gays,
And tune your harps, and strew your bays:
Your panegyrics here provide;
You cannot err on flattery's side.
Above the stars exalt your style,
You still are low ten thousand mile.
On Lewis all his bards bestow'd
Of incense many a thousand load;
But Europe mortified his pride,
And swore the fawning rascals lied.
Yet what the world refused to Lewis,
Applied to George, exactly true is.
Exactly true! invidious poet!
'Tis fifty thousand times below it.

  Translate me now some lines, if you can,
From Virgil, Martial, Ovid, Lucan.
They could all power in Heaven divide,
And do no wrong on either side;
They teach you how to split a hair,
Give George and Jove an equal share.[32]
Yet why should we be laced so strait?
I'll give my monarch butter-weight.
And reason good; for many a year
Jove never intermeddled here:
Nor, though his priests be duly paid,
Did ever we desire his aid:
We now can better do without him,
Since Woolston gave us arms to rout him.
Caetera desiderantur.

[Footnote 1: See Young's "Satires," and "Life" by Johnson.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 2: The prison or house of correction to which harlots were often consigned. See Hogarth's "Harlot's Progress," and "A beautiful young Nymph," ante, p. 201.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 3: Colley Cibber, born in 1671, died in 1757; famous as a comedian and dramatist, and immortalized by Pope as the hero of the "Dunciad"; appointed Laureate in December, 1730, in succession to Eusden, who died in September that year. See Cibber's "Apology for his Life"; Disraeli's "Quarrels of Authors," edit. 1859.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 4: Barnaby Bernard Lintot, publisher and bookseller, noted for adorning his shop with titles in red letters. In the Prologue to the "Satires" Pope says: "What though my name stood rubric on the walls"; and in the "Dunciad," book i, "Lintot's rubric post." He made a handsome fortune, and died High Sheriff of Sussex in 1736, aged sixty-one.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 5: The coffee-house most frequented by the wits and poets of that time.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 6: See ante, p. 192, "On Stephen Duck, the Thresher Poet."--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 7: Allusion to the large sums paid by Walpole to scribblers in support of his party.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 8:

  "Sunt geminae Somni portae: quarum altera fertur
  Cornea; qua veris facilis datur exitus Vmbris:
  Altera candenti perfecta nitens elephanto;
  Sed falsa ad coelum mittunt insomnia Manes."

VIRGIL., Aen., vi.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 9: See the "South Sea Project," ante, p. 120.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 10: Thomas Rymer, archaeologist and critic. The allusion is to his "Remarks on the Tragedies of the last Age," on which see Johnson's "Life of Dryden" and Spence's "Anecdotes," p. 173. Rymer is best known by his work entitled "Foedera," consisting of leagues, treaties, etc., made between England and other kingdoms.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 11: John Dennis, born 1657, died 1734. He is best remembered as "The Critic." See Swift's "Thoughts on various subjects," "Prose Works," i, 284; Disraeli, "Calamities of Authors: Influence of a bad Temper in Criticism"; Pope's Works, edit. Elwin and Courthope, passim.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 12: Highly esteemed as a French critic by Dryden and Pope.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 13: By Leonard Welsted, who, in 1712, published the work of "Longinus on the Sublime," stated to be "translated from the Greek." He is better known through his quarrel with Pope. See the "Prologue to the Satires."--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 14: Dryden, whose armed chair at Will's was in the winter placed by the fire, and in the summer in the balcony. Malone's "Life of Dryden," p. 485. Why Battus? Battus was a herdsman who, because he Betrayed Mercury's theft of some cattle, was changed by the god into a Stone Index. Ovid, "Metam.," ii, 685.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 15: The ancient name of London, also called Troynovant. See Journal to Stella, "Prose Works," ii, 249; and Cunningham's "Handbook of London," introduction.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 16: The two bad Roman poets, hateful and inimical to Virgil and Horace: Virg., "Ecl." iii, 90; Horat., "Epod." x. The names have been well applied in our time by Gifford in his satire entitled "The Baviad and Maeviad."--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 17: A musician, also a censurer of Horace. See "Satirae," lib. 1. iii, 4.----W. E. B.]

[Footnote 18: In consequence of "Polly," the supplement to the "Beggar's Opera," but which obtained him the friendship of the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 19: The grant of two hundred a year, which he obtained from the Crown, and retained till his death in 1765.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 20: See "Leviathan," Part I, chap, xiii.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 21: Richard Flecknoe, poet and dramatist, died 1678, of whom it has been written that "whatever may become of his own pieces, his name will continue, whilst Dryden's satire, called 'Mac Flecknoe,' shall remain in vogue." Dryden's Poetical Works, edit. Warton, ii, 169.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 22: Hon. Edward Howard, author of some indifferent plays and poems. See "Dict. Nat. Biog."--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 23: Richard Blackmore, physician and very voluminous writer in prose and verse. In 1697 he was appointed physician to William III, when he was knighted. See Pope, "Imitations of Horace," book ii, epist. 1, 387.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 24: Lord Grimston, born 1683, died 1756. He is best known by his play, written in 1705, "The Lawyer's Fortune, or Love in a Hollow Tree," which the author withdrew from circulation; but, by some person's malice, it was reprinted in 1736. See "Dict. Nat. Biog.," Pope's Works, edit. Elwin and Courthope, iii, p. 314.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 25: Matthew Concanen, born in Ireland, 1701, a writer of miscellaneous works, dramatic and poetical. See the "Dunciad," ii, 299, 304, ut supra.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 26: James Moore Smythe, chiefly remarkable for his consummate assurance as a plagiarist. See the "Dunciad," ii, 50, and notes thereto, Pope's Works, edit. Elwin and Courthope, iv, 132.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 27:

  "Fertur Prometheus, addere principi
  Limo coactus particulam undique
      Desectam, et insani leonis
        Vim stomacho apposuisse nostro."

HORAT., Carm. I, xvi.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 28:

  "---- super et Garamantas et Indos,
  Proferet imperium; ----
  ---- jam nunc et Caspia regna
  Responsis horrent divom."

VIRGIL, Aen., vi.]

[Footnote 29: "---- genibus minor."]

[Footnote 30:

Son of Aeneas, here representing Frederick, Prince of Wales, father of George III.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 31:

"Unus qui nobis cunctando restituis rem." VIRGIL, Aen., vi, 847.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 32: "Divisum imperium cum Jove Caesar habet."]