The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 5/Tatler Number 5

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THE TATLER[1]. No. 5.

—— Laceratque, trahitque
Molle pecus. ———Virg.

From Tuesday, Jan. 23, to Saturday, Jan. 27, 1710.

AMONG other services I have met with from some criticks, the cruellest for an old man is, that they will not let me be at quiet in my bed, but pursue me to my very dreams. I must not dream but when they please, nor upon long continued subjects, however visionary in their own natures, because there is a manifest moral quite through them, which to produce as a dream is improbable and unnatural. The pain I might have had from this objection, is prevented, by considering they have missed another, against which I should have been at a loss to defend myself. They might have asked me whether the dreams I publish can properly be called lucubrations, which is the name I have given to all my papers, whether in volumes or half sheets: so manifest a contradiction in terminis, that I wonder no sophister ever thought of it. But the other is a cavil. I remember, when I was a boy at school, I have often dreamed out the whole passages of a day; that I rode a journey, baited, supped, went to bed, and rose next morning: and I have known young ladies, who could dream a whole contexture of adventures in one mght, large enough to make a novel. In youth the imagination is strong, not mixed with cares, nor tinged with those passions that most disturb and confound it: such as avarice, ambition, and many others. Now, as old men are said to grow children again, so in this article of dreaming, I am returned to my childhood. My imagination is at full ease, without care, avarice, or ambition to clog it; by which, among many others, I have this advantage of doubling the small remainder of my time, and living four and twenty hours in the day. However, the dream I am going now to relate, is as wild as can well be imagined, and adapted to please these refiners upon sleep, without any moral that I can discover.

"It happened, that my maid left on the table in my bedchamber one of her storybooks (as she calls them) which I took up, and found full of strange impertinence, fitted to her taste and condition; of poor servants who came to be ladies, and servingmen of low degree who married kings daughters. Among other things, I met this sage observation, That a lion would never hurt a true virgin. With this medley of nonsense in my fancy, I went to bed, and dreamed that a friend waked me in the morning, and proposed for pastime to spend a few hours in seeing the parish lions, which he had not done since he came to town; and because they showed but once a week, he would not miss the opportunity. I said I would humour him; although, to speak the truth, I was not fond of those cruel spectacles; and, if it were not so ancient a custom, founded (as I had heard) upon the wisest maxims, I should be apt to censure the inhumanity of those who introduced it." All this will be a riddle to the waking reader, until I discover the scene my imagination had formed, upon the maxim. That a lion would never hurt a true virgin. "I dreamed, that by a law of immemorial time, a he lion was kept in every parish at the common charge, and in a place provided adjoining to the churchyard; that before any one of the fair sex was married, if she affirmed herself to be a virgin, she must on her wedding day, and in her wedding clothes, perform the ceremony of going alone into the den, and stay an hour with the lion, let loose and kept fasting four and twenty hours on purpose. At a proper height above the den were convenient galleries for the relations and friends of the young couple, laid open to all spectators. No maiden was forced to offer herself to the lion; but, if she refused, it was a disgrace to marry her, and every one might have liberty of calling her a whore. And methought it was as usual a diversion to see the parish lions, as with us to go to a play or an opera. And it was reckoned convenient to be near the church, either for marrying the virgin, if she escaped the trial, or for burying her bones, when the lion had devoured the rest, as he constantly did."

To go on therefore with the dream: "We called first (as I remember) to see St. Dunstan's lion: but we were told, they did not show to day. From thence we went to that of Covent Garden, which, to my great surprise, we found as lean as a skeleton, when I expected quite the contrary; but the keeper said it was no wonder at all, because the poor beast had not got an ounce of woman's flesh since he came into the parish. This amazed me more than the other, and I was forming to myself a mighty veneration for the ladies, in that quarter of the town; when the keeper went on, and said he wondered the parish would be at the charge of maintaining a lion for nothing. Friend (said I), do you call it nothing to justify the virtue of so many ladies; or has your lion lost his distinguishing faculty? can there be any thing more for the honour of your parish, than that all the ladies married in your church were pure virgins? That is true (said he), and the doctor knows it to his sorrow; for there has not been a couple married in our church since his worship came among us. The virgins hereabouts are too wise to venture the claws of the lion; and because nobody will marry them, have all entered into a vow of virginity; so that in proportion we have much the largest nunnery in the whole town. This manner of ladies entering into a vow of virginity, because they were not virgins, I easily conceived; and my dream told me, that the whole kingdom was full of nunneries plentifully stocked from the same reason.

"We went to see another lion, where we found much company met in the gallery. The keeper told us we should see sport enough, as he called it; and in a little time we saw a young beautiful lady put into the den, who walked up toward the lion with all imaginable security in her countenance, and looked smiling upon her lover and friends in the gallery; which I thought nothing extraordinary, because it was never known that any lion had been mistaken. But, however, we were all disappointed; for the lion lifted up his right paw, which was the fatal sign, and advancing forward, seized her by the arm, and began to tear it. The poor lady gave a terrible shriek, and cried out, "The lion is just, I am no virgin! Oh! Sappho! Sappho!' she could say no more, for the lion gave her the coup de grace by a squeeze in the throat, and she expired at his feet. The keeper dragged away her body, to feed the animal after the company should be gone: for the parish lion never used to eat in publick. After a little pause, another lady came on toward the lion in the same manner as the former. We observed the beast smell her with diligence. He scratched both her hands with lifting them to his nose, and laying one of his claws on her bosom, drew blood; however, he let her go, and at the same time turned from her with a sort of contempt, at which she was not a little mortified, and retired with some confusion to her friends in the gallery. Methought, the whole company immediately understood the meaning of this; that the easiness of the lady had suffered her to admit certain imprudent and dangerous familiarities, bordering too much upon what is criminal; neither was it sure whether the lover then present had not some sharers with him in those freedoms, of which a lady can never be too sparing.

"This happened to be an extraordinary day; for a third lady came into the den, laughing loud, playing with her fan, tossing her head, and smiling round on the young fellows in the gallery. However, the lion leaped on her with great fury, and we gave her for gone; but on a sudden he let go his hold, and turned from her as if he was nauseated; then gave her a lash with his tail; after which she returned to the gallery, not the least out of countenance: and this, it seems, was the usual treatment of coquets.

"I thought we had seen enough; but my friend would needs have us go and visit one or two lions in the city. We called at two or three dens, where they happened not to show; but we generally found half a score young girls, between eight and eleven years old, playing with each lion, sitting on his back, and putting their hands into his mouth; some of them would now and then get a scratch, but we always discovered upon examining, that they had been hoidening with the young apprentices. One of them was calling to a pretty girl about twelve years old, who stood by us in the gallery, to come down to the lion, and, upon her refusal, said, 'Ah! miss Betty, we could never get you to come near the lion, since you played at hoop and hide with my brother in the garret.'

"We followed a couple, with the wedding folks, going to the church of St. Mary-Axe. The lady, though well stricken in years, extremely crooked and deformed, was dressed out beyond the gayety of fifteen; having jumbled together, as I imagined, all the tawdry remains of aunts, godmothers, and grandmothers, for some generations past. One of the neighbours whispered me, that she was an old maid, and had the clearest reputation of any in the parish. There is nothing strange in that, thought I; but was much surprised when I observed afterward, that she went toward the lion with distrust and concern. The beast was lying down; but, upon sight of her, snuffed up his nose two or three times, and then, giving the sign of death, proceeded instantly to execution. In the midst of her agonies, she was heard to name the words Italy and artifices with the utmost horrour, and several repeated execrations, and at last concluded, 'Fool that I was, to put so much confidence in the toughness of my skin!'

"The keeper immediately set all in order again for another customer, which happened to be a famous prude, whom her parents, after long threatenings and much persuasion, had, with the extremest difficulty, prevailed on to accept a young handsome goldsmith, who might have pretended to five times her fortune. The fathers and mothers in the neighbourhood used to quote her for an example to their daughters; her elbows were riveted to her sides, and her whole person so ordered, as to inform every body that she was afraid they should touch her. She only dreaded to approach the lion, because it was a he one, and abhorred to think a male animal should presume to breathe on her. The sight of a man at twenty yards distance made her draw back her head. She always sat upon the farther corner of the chair, although there were six chairs between her and her lover, and with the door wide open, and her little sister in the room. She was never saluted but at the tip of the ear; and her father had much ado to make her dine without her gloves, when there was a man at table. She entered the den with some fear, which we took to proceed from the height of her modesty, offended at the sight of so many men in the gallery. The lion, beholding her at a distance, immediately gave the deadly sign, at which the poor creature (methinks I see her still!) miscarried in a fright before us all. The lion seemed to be as much surprised as we, and gave her time to make her confession; 'That she was five months gone by the foreman of her father's shop, and that this was her third big belly:' and when her friends asked, why she should venture the trial? she said, Her nurse told her, that a lion would never hurt a woman with child." Upon this I immediately awaked, and could not help wishing, that the deputy censors of my late institution, were endued with the same instinct as these parish lions.

  1. The two following Tatlers are not in the four volumes published by sir Richard Steele; but are taken from the one published by Mr. Harrison.