Duellists

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The Duellists. (The Duellist) Fable VI  (1754) 
by Christopher Smart
From Fables.

            The DUELLISTS.            


 
FABLE VI.


What's honour, did your Lordship say?
My Lord, I humbly crave a day.—
'Tis difficult, and in my mind,
Like substance, cannot be defin'd.
5 It deals in numerous externals,
And is a legion of infernals;
Sometimes in riot and in play,
'Tis breaking of the Sabbath day:
When 'tis consider'd as a passion,
10 I deem it lust and fornication.
We pay our debts in honour's cause,
Lost in the breaking of the laws:
'Tis for some selfish impious end,
To murder the sincerest friend;
15 But wou'd you alter all the clan,
Turn out an honourable man.
Why take a pistol from the shelf,
And fight a duel with yourself.—

      'Twas on a time, the Lord knows when,
20 In Ely, or in Lincoln fen,
A Frog and Mouse had long disputes,
Held in the language of the brutes,
Who of a certain pool and pasture,
Shou'd be the sovereign and master.
25 Sir, says the Frog, and d---n'd his blood,
I hold that my pretension's good;
Nor can a Brute of reason doubt it,
For all that you can squeak about it.
The Mouse averse to be o'erpower'd,
30 Gave him the lie, and call'd him coward;
Too hard for any frog's digestion,
To have his froghood call'd in question!
A bargain instantly was made,
No mouse of honour could evade.
35 On the next morn, as soon as light,
With desperate bullrushes to fight;
The morning came—and man to man,
The grand monomachy[1] began;
Need I recount how each bravado,
40 Shone in montant and in passado;[2]
To what a height their ire they carry'd,
How oft they thrusted and they parry'd;
But as these champions kept dispensing,
Finesses in the art of fencing,
45 A furious vulture took upon her,
Quick to decide this point of honour,
And, lawyer like, to make an end on't,
Devour'd both plaintiff and defendant.
Thus, often in our British nation,
50 (I speak by way of application)
A lie direct to some hot youth,
The giving which perhaps was truth,
The treading on a scoundrel's toe,
Or dealing impudence a blow,
55 Disputes in politics and law,
About a feather and a straw;
A thousand trifles not worth naming,
In whoring, jockeying, and gaming,
Shall cause a challenge's inditing,
60 And set two loggerheads[3] a fighting;
Meanwhile the father of despair,
The prince of vanity and air,
His querry, like an hawk discovering,
O'er their devoted heads hangs hovering,
65 Secure to get in his tuition,
These volunteers for black perdition.


1754


Notes

First published in The Gentleman's Magazine (Aug. 1754). Reprinted 1773, 1791. Title: The Duellist (1791).

  1. 38. monomachy: single combat.
  2. 40. montant and in passado: terms for sword-strokes in fencing.
  3. 60. loggerheads: thickheads, fools.
This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.