The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 8/On Poetry, a Rhapsody

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

ON POETRY:


A RHAPSODY. 1733.


ALL human race would fain be wits,
And millions miss for one that hits.
Young's universal passion, pride,
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 pedlar Scot;
Not boy brought up to cleaning shoes,
The spawn of Bridewell or the stews;
Not infants dropped, the spurious pledges
Of gypsies littering under hedges;
Are so disqualified by fate
To rise in church, or law, or state,
As he whom Phœbus in his ire
Has blasted with poetick 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 publick 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 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 critick'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 experienc'd 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 invok'd, 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 Italick 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 pennypost to Lintot,
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 surpris'd
Are you to see it advertis'd!
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, the following day,
Lie snug, and hear what criticks 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 criticks 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 doggrel, 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 dispos'd 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 criticks 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 introduc'd the Lord knows why:
Or where we find your fury set
Against the harmless alphabet;
On As and Bes your malice vent,
While readers wonder whom you meant;
A publick 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 suburbwench:
Or oft, when epithets you link
In gaping lines to fill a chink;
Like steppingstones, 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 Africk 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.
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.
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:
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
Project excise and South-sea 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 critick's brow, and sit
At Will's the puny judge of wit.
A nod, a shrug, a scornful smile,
With caution us'd, may serve a while.
Proceed no farther in your part,
Before you learn the terms of art;
For you can never be too far gone
In all our modern criticks' jargon:
Then talk with more authentick 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 oft review,
Wise Dennis, and profound Bossu.
Read all the prefaces of Dryden,
For these our criticks much confide in;
Though merely writ at first for filling,
To raise the volume's price a shilling.
A forward critick 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,
And quote quotation on quotation.
At Will's you hear a poem read,
Where Battus from the table head,
Reclining on his elbowchair,
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 them)
Spread through Augusta Trinobantum,
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 indisputed 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 epicks claims the bays,
And that, for elegiack lays:
Some fam'd 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 in Wapping gains renown,
And Mævius reigns o'er Kentishtown:
Tigellius plac'd in Phœbus' car
From Ludgate shines to Temple bar:
Harmonious Cibber entertains
The court with annual birthday strains;
Whence Gay was banish'd in disgrace;
Where Pope will never show his face;
Where Young must torture his invention
To flatter knaves, or lose his pension.
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.
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 inferiour 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 tease and pinch
Their foes superiour 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 tease, 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
Asham'd 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 down to Howard's[1] time,
How few have reach'd the low sublime!
For when our high-born Howard died,
Blackmore alone his place supplied:
And, lest a chasm should intervene,
When death had finish'd Blackmore's reign,
The leaden crown devolv'd to thee,
Great poet[2] 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[3] sink,
His merits balanc'd, you shall find
The laureate[4] leaves him far behind.
Concannen, more aspiring bard.
Soars downward deeper by a yard.
Smart [[w:James Moore Smythe|Jemmy Moore][5] with vigour drops;
The rest pursue as thick as hops:
With heads to points 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.
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 bind his hands,
Confess'd the conquering hero stands.
Hydaspes, Indus, and the Ganges,
Dread from his hand impending changes.
From him the Tartar and Chinese,
Short by the knees, intreat 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 Iülus,
(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 majestick port
This Atlas stands to prop the court:
Intent the publick debts to pay,
Like prudent Fabius, 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 strow your bays:
Your panegyricks 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 refus'd to Lewis,
Apply'd 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.
Yet why should we be lac'd 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.


Cætera desiderantur.


  1. Hon. Edward Howard, author of four indifferent plays, and of two books of poetry, one called "The British Princess," the other "Poems and Essays, with a paraphrase on Cicero's Lælius."
  2. Sir William Grimston, bart. (created viscount Grimston and baron of Dunboyne in the kingdom of Ireland, June 3, 1719), wrote a play, when a boy, to be acted by his school-fellows, entitled, "The Lawyer's Fortune; or, Love in a Hollow Tree;" printed in 4to, 1705; a performance of so little merit, that his lordship, at a more advanced period of life, endeavoured by every means in his power to suppress it; and this he might possibly have accomplished, had he not been engaged in a dispute with the duchess of Marlborough, about the borough of St. Alban's. To render him ridiculous in the eyes of his constituents, her grace caused an impression of this play to be printed, with an elephant in the title page dancing on a rope. This edition his lordship purchased; but her grace, being determined to accomplish her design, sent a copy to be reprinted in Holland, and afterward distributed the whole impression among the electors of St. Albans; for which place, however, he was chosen representative, in 1713, 1714, and 1727. He died Oct. 15, 1756.
  3. That the merits of Mr. Welsted as a poet have been much underrated, and his fair fame as a worthy member of society unwarrantably traduced, an appeal may confidently be made to his Miscellaneous Works in Verse and Prose, first collected in 1787, 8vo; and to the biographical memoirs prefixed to that collection.
  4. In some edition, instead of the laureate, was maliciously inserted the name of Mr. Fielding; for whose ingenious writings the supposed author manifested a great esteem.
  5. James Moore Smith, esq., author of "The Rival Modes," an unsuccessful comedy, was chiefly remarkable for a consummate assurance as a plagiarist. See his character at large, in the Dunciad, II, 50.