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-Ode to The Athenian Society


Moor Park, Feb. 14, 1691.


As when the deluge first began to fall, That mighty ebb never to flow again, When this huge body's moisture was so great, It quite o'ercame the vital heat; That mountain which was highest, first of all Appear'd above the universal main, To bless the primitive sailor's weary sight; And 'twas perhaps Parnassus, if in height It be as great as 'tis in fame, And nigh to Heaven as is its name; So, after the inundation of a war, When learning's little household did embark, With her world's fruitful system, in her sacred ark, At the first ebb of noise and fears, Philosophy's exalted head appears; And the Dove-Muse will now no longer stay, But plumes her silver wings, and flies away; And now a laurel wreath she brings from far, To crown the happy conqueror, To show the flood begins to cease, And brings the dear reward of victory and peace.


The eager Muse took wing upon the waves' decline, When war her cloudy aspect just withdrew, When the bright sun of peace began to shine, And for a while in heavenly contemplation sat, On the high top of peaceful Ararat; And pluck'd a laurel branch, (for laurel was the first that grew, The first of plants after the thunder, storm and rain,) And thence, with joyful, nimble wing, Flew dutifully back again, And made an humble chaplet for the king.[2] And the Dove-Muse is fled once more, (Glad of the victory, yet frighten'd at the war,) And now discovers from afar A peaceful and a flourishing shore: No sooner did she land On the delightful strand, Than straight she sees the country all around, Where fatal Neptune ruled erewhile, Scatter'd with flowery vales, with fruitful gardens crown'd, And many a pleasant wood; As if the universal Nile Had rather water'd it than drown'd: It seems some floating piece of Paradise, Preserved by wonder from the flood, Long wandering through the deep, as we are told Famed Delos[3] did of old; And the transported Muse imagined it To be a fitter birth-place for the God of wit, Or the much-talk'd-of oracular grove; When, with amazing joy, she hears An unknown music all around, Charming her greedy ears With many a heavenly song Of nature and of art, of deep philosophy and love; While angels tune the voice, and God inspires the tongue. In vain she catches at the empty sound, In vain pursues the music with her longing eye, And courts the wanton echoes as they fly.


Pardon, ye great unknown, and far-exalted men, The wild excursions of a youthful pen; Forgive a young and (almost) virgin Muse, Whom blind and eager curiosity (Yet curiosity, they say, Is in her sex a crime needs no excuse) Has forced to grope her uncouth way, After a mighty light that leads her wandering eye: No wonder then she quits the narrow path of sense For a dear ramble through impertinence; Impertinence! the scurvy of mankind. And all we fools, who are the greater part of it, Though we be of two different factions still, Both the good-natured and the ill, Yet wheresoe'er you look, you'll always find We join, like flies and wasps, in buzzing about wit. In me, who am of the first sect of these, All merit, that transcends the humble rules Of my own dazzled scanty sense, Begets a kinder folly and impertinence Of admiration and of praise. And our good brethren of the surly sect, Must e'en all herd us with their kindred fools: For though possess'd of present vogue, they've made Railing a rule of wit, and obloquy a trade; Yet the same want of brains produces each effect. And you, whom Pluto's helm does wisely shroud From us, the blind and thoughtless crowd, Like the famed hero in his mother's cloud, Who both our follies and impertinences see, Do laugh perhaps at theirs, and pity mine and me.


But censure's to be understood Th'authentic mark of the elect, The public stamp Heaven sets on all that's great and good, Our shallow search and judgment to direct. The war, methinks, has made Our wit and learning narrow as our trade; Instead of boldly sailing far, to buy A stock of wisdom and philosophy, We fondly stay at home, in fear Of every censuring privateer; Forcing a wretched trade by beating down the sale, And selling basely by retail. The wits, I mean the atheists of the age, Who fain would rule the pulpit, as they do the stage, Wondrous refiners of philosophy, Of morals and divinity, By the new modish system of reducing all to sense, Against all logic, and concluding laws, Do own th'effects of Providence, And yet deny the cause.


This hopeful sect, now it begins to see How little, very little, do prevail Their first and chiefest force To censure, to cry down, and rail, Not knowing what, or where, or who you be, Will quickly take another course: And, by their never-failing ways Of solving all appearances they please, We soon shall see them to their ancient methods fall, And straight deny you to be men, or anything at all. I laugh at the grave answer they will make, Which they have always ready, general, and cheap: 'Tis but to say, that what we daily meet, And by a fond mistake Perhaps imagine to be wondrous wit, And think, alas! to be by mortals writ, Is but a crowd of atoms justling in a heap: Which, from eternal seeds begun, Justling some thousand years, till ripen'd by the sun: They're now, just now, as naturally born, As from the womb of earth a field of corn.


But as for poor contented me, Who must my weakness and my ignorance confess, That I believe in much I ne'er can hope to see; Methinks I'm satisfied to guess, That this new, noble, and delightful scene, Is wonderfully moved by some exalted men, Who have well studied in the world's disease, (That epidemic error and depravity, Or in our judgment or our eye,) That what surprises us can only please. We often search contentedly the whole world round, To make some great discovery, And scorn it when 'tis found. Just so the mighty Nile has suffer'd in its fame, Because 'tis said (and perhaps only said) We've found a little inconsiderable head, That feeds the huge unequal stream. Consider human folly, and you'll quickly own, That all the praises it can give, By which some fondly boast they shall for ever live, Won't pay th'impertinence of being known: Else why should the famed Lydian king,[4] (Whom all the charms of an usurped wife and state, With all that power unfelt, courts mankind to be great, Did with new unexperienced glories wait,) Still wear, still dote on his invisible ring?


Were I to form a regular thought of Fame, Which is, perhaps, as hard t'imagine right, As to paint Echo to the sight, I would not draw the idea from an empty name; Because, alas! when we all die, Careless and ignorant posterity, Although they praise the learning and the wit, And though the title seems to show The name and man by whom the book was writ, Yet how shall they be brought to know, Whether that very name was he, or you, or I? Less should I daub it o'er with transitory praise, And water-colours of these days: These days! where e'en th'extravagance of poetry Is at a loss for figures to express Men's folly, whimseys, and inconstancy, And by a faint description makes them less. Then tell us what is Fame, where shall we search for it? Look where exalted Virtue and Religion sit, Enthroned with heavenly Wit! Look where you see The greatest scorn of learned vanity! (And then how much a nothing is mankind! Whose reason is weigh'd down by popular air, Who, by that, vainly talks of baffling death; And hopes to lengthen life by a transfusion of breath, Which yet whoe'er examines right will find To be an art as vain as bottling up of wind!) And when you find out these, believe true Fame is there, Far above all reward, yet to which all is due: And this, ye great unknown! is only known in you.


The juggling sea-god,[5] when by chance trepann'd By some instructed querist sleeping on the sand, Impatient of all answers, straight became A stealing brook, and strove to creep away Into his native sea, Vex'd at their follies, murmur'd in his stream; But disappointed of his fond desire, Would vanish in a pyramid of fire. This surly, slippery God, when he design'd To furnish his escapes, Ne'er borrow'd more variety of shapes Than you, to please and satisfy mankind, And seem (almost) transform'd to water, flame, and air, So well you answer all phenomena there: Though madmen and the wits, philosophers and fools, With all that factious or enthusiastic dotards dream, And all the incoherent jargon of the schools; Though all the fumes of fear, hope, love, and shame, Contrive to shock your minds with many a senseless doubt; Doubts where the Delphic God would grope in ignorance and night, The God of learning and of light Would want a God himself to help him out.


Philosophy, as it before us lies, Seems to have borrow'd some ungrateful taste Of doubts, impertinence, and niceties, From every age through which it pass'd, But always with a stronger relish of the last. This beauteous queen, by Heaven design'd To be the great original For man to dress and polish his uncourtly mind, In what mock habits have they put her since the fall! More oft in fools' and madmen's hands than sages', She seems a medley of all ages, With a huge farthingale to swell her fustian stuff, A new commode, a topknot, and a ruff, Her face patch'd o'er with modern pedantry, With a long sweeping train Of comments and disputes, ridiculous and vain, All of old cut with a new dye: How soon have you restored her charms, And rid her of her lumber and her books, Drest her again genteel and neat, And rather tight than great! How fond we are to court her to our arms! How much of heaven is in her naked looks!


Thus the deluding Muse oft blinds me to her ways, And ev'n my very thoughts transfers And changes all to beauty and the praise Of that proud tyrant sex of hers. The rebel Muse, alas! takes part, But with my own rebellious heart, And you with fatal and immortal wit conspire To fan th'unhappy fire. Cruel unknown! what is it you intend? Ah! could you, could you hope a poet for your friend! Rather forgive what my first transport said: May all the blood, which shall by woman's scorn be shed, Lie upon you and on your children's head! For you (ah! did I think I e'er should live to see The fatal time when that could be!) Have even increased their pride and cruelty. Woman seems now above all vanity grown, Still boasting of her great unknown Platonic champions, gain'd without one female wile, Or the vast charges of a smile; Which 'tis a shame to see how much of late You've taught the covetous wretches to o'errate, And which they've now the consciences to weigh In the same balance with our tears, And with such scanty wages pay The bondage and the slavery of years. Let the vain sex dream on; the empire comes from us; And had they common generosity, They would not use us thus. Well--though you've raised her to this high degree, Ourselves are raised as well as she; And, spite of all that they or you can do, 'Tis pride and happiness enough to me, Still to be of the same exalted sex with you.


Alas, how fleeting and how vain Is even the nobler man, our learning and our wit! I sigh whene'er I think of it: As at the closing an unhappy scene Of some great king and conqueror's death, When the sad melancholy Muse Stays but to catch his utmost breath. I grieve, this nobler work, most happily begun, So quickly and so wonderfully carried on, May fall at last to interest, folly, and abuse. There is a noontide in our lives, Which still the sooner it arrives, Although we boast our winter sun looks bright, And foolishly are glad to see it at its height, Yet so much sooner comes the long and gloomy night. No conquest ever yet begun, And by one mighty hero carried to its height, E'er flourished under a successor or a son; It lost some mighty pieces through all hands it pass'd, And vanish'd to an empty title in the last. For, when the animating mind is fled, (Which nature never can retain, Nor e'er call back again,) The body, though gigantic, lies all cold and dead.


And thus undoubtedly 'twill fare With what unhappy men shall dare To be successors to these great unknown, On learning's high-establish'd throne. Censure, and Pedantry, and Pride, Numberless nations, stretching far and wide, Shall (I foresee it) soon with Gothic swarms come forth From Ignorance's universal North, And with blind rage break all this peaceful government: Yet shall the traces of your wit remain, Like a just map, to tell the vast extent Of conquest in your short and happy reign: And to all future mankind shew How strange a paradox is true, That men who lived and died without a name Are the chief heroes in the sacred lists of fame.

[Footnote 1: "I have been told, that Dryden having perused these verses, said, 'Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet;' and that this denunciation was the motive of Swift's perpetual malevolence to Dryden."--Johnson in his "Life of Swift."--W. E. B.

In Malone's "Life of Dryden," p. 241, it is stated that John Dunton, the original projector of the Athenian Society, in his "Life and Errours," 1705, mentions this Ode, "which being an ingenious poem, was prefixed to the fifth Supplement of the Athenian Mercury."--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 2: The Ode I writ to the king in Ireland.--Swift.]

[Footnote 3: The floating island, which, by order of Neptune, became fixed for the use of Latona, who there brought forth Apollo and Diana. See Ovid, "Metam.," vi, 191, etc.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 4: Gyges, who, thanks to the possession of a golden ring, which made him invisible, put Candaules to death, married his widow, and mounted the throne, 716 B.C. See the story in Cicero, "De Off.," iii, 9.--W. E. B.]

[Footnote 5: Proteus. See Ovid, "Fasti," lib. i.--W. E. B.]

Jonathan Swift

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