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Poem by John Gay

Part II. Fable 14. The Owl, the Swan, the Cock, the Spider, the Ass, and the Farmer

To a Mother

  Conversing with your sprightly boys,
  Your eyes have spoke the mother's joys.
  With what delight I've heard you quote
  Their sayings in imperfect note!
     I grant, in body and in mind,
  Nature appears profusely kind.
  Trust not to that. Act you your part;
  Imprint just morals on their heart,
  Impartially their talents scan:
  Just education forms the man.

     Perhaps (their genius yet unknown)
  Each lot of life's already thrown;
  That this shall plead, the next shall fight,
  The last assert the church's right.
  I censure not the fond intent;
  But how precarious is the event!
  By talents misapplied and cross'd,
  Consider, all your sons are lost.
     One day (the tale's by Martial penned)
  A father thus addressed his friend:

  'To train my boy, and call forth sense,
  You know I've stuck at no expense;
  I've tried him in the several arts,
  (The lad no doubt hath latent parts,)
  Yet trying all, he nothing knows;
  But, crab-like, rather backward goes.
  Teach me what yet remains undone;
  'Tis your advice shall fix my son.'
     'Sir,' says the friend, 'I've weighed the matter;
  Excuse me, for I scorn to flatter:

  Make him (nor think his genius checked)
  A herald or an architect.'
     Perhaps (as commonly 'tis known)
  He heard the advice, and took his own.
    The boy wants wit; he's sent to school,
  Where learning but improves the fool:
  The college next must give him parts,
  And cram him with the liberal arts.
  Whether he blunders at the bar,
  Or owes his infamy to war;

  Or if by licence or degree
  The sexton shares the doctor's fee:
  Or from the pulpit by the hour
  He weekly floods of nonsense pour;
  We find (the intent of nature foiled)
  A tailor or a butcher spoiled.
     Thus ministers have royal boons
  Conferred on blockheads and buffoons:
  In spite of nature, merit, wit,
  Their friends for every post were fit.

     But now let every Muse confess
  That merit finds its due success.
  The examples of our days regard;
  Where's virtue seen without reward?
  Distinguished and in place you find
  Desert and worth of every kind.
  Survey the reverend bench, and see,
  Religion, learning, piety:
  The patron, ere he recommends,
  Sees his own image in his friends.

  Is honesty disgraced and poor?
  What is't to us what was before?
     We all of times corrupt have heard,
  When paltry minions were preferred;
  When all great offices by dozens,
  Were filled by brothers, sons, and cousins.
  What matter ignorance and pride?
  The man was happily allied.
  Provided that his clerk was good,
  What though he nothing understood?

  In church and state, the sorry race
  Grew more conspicuous fools in place.
  Such heads, as then a treaty made,
  Had bungled in the cobbler's trade.
     Consider, patrons, that such elves,
  Expose your folly with themselves.
  'Tis yours, as 'tis the parent's care,
  To fix each genius in its sphere.
  Your partial hand can wealth dispense,
  But never give a blockhead sense.

     An owl of magisterial air,
  Of solemn voice, of brow austere,
  Assumed the pride of human race,
  And bore his wisdom in his face;
  Not to depreciate learned eyes,
  I've seen a pedant look as wise.
     Within a barn, from noise retired,
  He scorned the world, himself admired;
  And, like an ancient sage, concealed
  The follies public life revealed.

     Philosophers of old, he read,
  Their country's youth to science bred,
  Their manners formed for every station,
  And destined each his occupation.
  When Xenophon, by numbers braved,
  Retreated, and a people saved,
  That laurel was not all his own;
  The plant by Socrates was sown;
  To Aristotle's greater name
  The Macedonian[10] owed his fame.

     The Athenian bird, with pride replete,
  Their talents equalled in conceit;
  And, copying the Socratic rule,
  Set up for master of a school.
  Dogmatic jargon learnt by heart,
  Trite sentences, hard terms of art,
  To vulgar ears seemed so profound,
  They fancied learning in the sound.
     The school had fame: the crowded place
  With pupils swarmed of every race.

  With these the swan's maternal care
  Had sent her scarce-fledged cygnet heir:
  The hen (though fond and loath to part)
  Here lodged the darling of her heart:
  The spider, of mechanic kind,
  Aspired to science more refined:
  The ass learnt metaphors and tropes,
  But most on music fixed his hopes.
     The pupils now advanced in age,
  Were called to tread life's busy stage.

  And to the master 'twas submitted,
  That each might to his part be fitted.
     'The swan,' says he, 'in arms shall shine:
  The soldier's glorious toil be thine.
  The cock shall mighty wealth attain:
  Go, seek it on the stormy main.
  The Court shall be the spider's sphere:
  Power, fortune, shall reward him there.
  In music's art the ass's fame
  Shall emulate Corelli's[1] name.

     Each took the part that he advised,
  And all were equally despised;
  A farmer, at his folly moved,
  The dull preceptor thus reproved:
     'Blockhead,' says he, 'by what you've done,
  One would have thought 'em each your son:
  For parents, to their offspring blind,
  Consult, nor parts, nor turn of mind;
  But even in infancy decree
  What this, what t'other son should be.

  Had you with judgment weighed the case,
  Their genius thus had fixed their place:
  The swan had learnt the sailor's art;
  The cock had played the soldier's part;
  The spider in the weaver's trade
  With credit had a fortune made;
  But for the fool, in every class
  The blockhead had appeared an ass.'

John Gay

John Gay's other poems:
  1. Sweet William's Farewell to Black-Ey'd Susan
  2. To a Young Lady, with Some Lampreys
  3. An Elegy on a Lap-dog
  4. If the Heart of a Man
  5. The Quidnunckis

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