John Gay

Part II. Fable 16. The Ravens, the Sexton, and the Earth-worm

  To Laura

  Laura, methinks you're over nice.
  True, flattery is a shocking vice;
  Yet sure, whene'er the praise is just,
  One may commend without disgust.
  Am I a privilege denied,
  Indulged by every tongue beside?
  How singular are all your ways!
  A woman, and averse to praise!
  If 'tis offence such truths to tell,
  Why do your merits thus excel?

     Since then I dare not speak my mind,
  A truth conspicuous to mankind;
  Though in full lustre every grace
  Distinguish your celestial face:
  Though beauties of inferior ray
  (Like stars before the orb of day)
  Turn pale and fade: I check my lays,
  Admiring what I dare not praise.
  If you the tribute due disdain,
  The Muse's mortifying strain

  Shall like a woman in mere spite,
  Set beauty in a moral light.
     Though such revenge might shock the ear
  Of many a celebrated fair;
  I mean that superficial race
  Whose thoughts ne'er reach beyond their face;
  What's that to you? I but displease
  Such ever-girlish ears as these.
  Virtue can brook the thoughts of age,
  That lasts the same through every stage.

     Though you by time must suffer more
  Than ever woman lost before;
  To age is such indifference shown,
  As if your face were not your own.
     Were you by Antoninus[1] taught?
  Or is it native strength of thought,
  That thus, without concern or fright,
  You view yourself by reason's light?
  Those eyes of so divine a ray,
  What are they? Mouldering, mortal clay.

  Those features, cast in heavenly mould,
  Shall, like my coarser earth, grow old;
  Like common grass, the fairest flower
  Must feel the hoary season's power.
     How weak, how vain is human pride!
  Dares man upon himself confide?
  The wretch who glories in his gain,
  Amasses heaps on heaps in vain.
  Why lose we life in anxious cares,
  To lay in hoards for future years?

  Can those (when tortured by disease)
  Cheer our sick heart, or purchase ease?
  Can those prolong one gasp of breath,
  Or calm the troubled hour of death?
     What's beauty? Call ye that your own?
  A flower that fades as soon as blown.
  What's man in all his boast of sway?
  Perhaps the tyrant of a day.
     Alike the laws of life take place
  Through every branch of human race,

  The monarch of long regal line
  Was raised from dust as frail as mine.
  Can he pour health into his veins,
  Or cool the fever's restless pains?
  Can he (worn down in Nature's course)
  New-brace his feeble nerves with force?
  Can he (how vain is mortal power!)
  Stretch life beyond the destined hour?
     Consider, man; weigh well thy frame;
  The king, the beggar is the same.

  Dust forms us all. Each breathes his day,
  Then sinks into his native clay.
     Beneath a venerable yew,
  That in the lonely church-yard grew,
  Two ravens sat. In solemn croak
  Thus one his hungry friend bespoke:
     'Methinks I scent some rich repast;
  The savour strengthens with the blast;
  Snuff then, the promised feast inhale;
  I taste the carcase in the gale;

  Near yonder trees, the farmer's steed,
  From toil and daily drudgery freed,
  Hath groaned his last. A dainty treat!
  To birds of taste delicious meat.'
     A sexton, busy at his trade,
  To hear their chat suspends his spade.
  Death struck him with no further thought,
  Than merely as the fees he brought.
  'Was ever two such blundering fowls,
  In brains and manners less than owls!

  Blockheads,' says he, 'learn more respect;
  Know ye on whom ye thus reflect?
  In this same grave (who does me right,
  Must own the work is strong and tight)
  The squire that yon fair hall possessed,
  Tonight shall lay his bones at rest.
  Whence could the gross mistake proceed?
  The squire was somewhat fat indeed.
  What then? The meanest bird of prey
  Such want of sense could ne'er betray;

  For sure some difference must be found
  (Suppose the smelling organ sound)
  In carcases (say what we can)
  Or where's the dignity of man?'
     With due respect to human race,
  The ravens undertook the case.
  In such similitude of scent,
  Man ne'er eould think reflections meant.
  As epicures extol a treat,
  And seem their savoury words to eat,

  They praised dead horse, luxurious food,
  The venison of the prescient brood.
     The sexton's indignation moved,
  The mean comparison reproved;
  The undiscerning palate blamed,
  Which two-legged carrion thus defamed.
     Reproachful speech from either side
  The want of argument supplied:
  They rail, revile: as often ends
  The contest of disputing friends.

  'Hold,' says the fowl; 'since human pride
  With confutation ne'er complied,
  Let's state the case, and then refer
  The knotty point: for taste may err.'
  As thus he spoke, from out the mould
  An earth-worm, huge of size, unrolled
  His monstrous length. They straight agree
  To choose him as their referee.
  So to the experience of his jaws,
  Each states the merits of his cause.

  He paused, and with a solemn tone,
  Thus made his sage opinion known:
     'On carcases of every kind
  This maw hath elegantly dined;
  Provoked by luxury or need,
  On beast, on fowl, on man, I feed;
  Such small distinctions in the savour,
  By turns I choose the fancied flavour,
  Yet I must own (that human beast)
  A glutton is the rankest feast.

  Man, cease this boast; for human pride
  Hath various tracts to range beside.
  The prince who kept the world in awe,
  The judge whose dictate fixed the law,
  The rich, the poor, the great, the small,
  Are levelled. Death confounds them all.
  Then think not that we reptiles share
  Such cates, such elegance of fair:
  The only true and real good
  Of man was never vermin's food.

  'Tis seated in the immortal mind;
  Virtue distinguishes mankind,
  And that (as yet ne'er harboured here)
  Mounts with his soul we know not where.
  So, good man sexton, since the case
  Appears with such a dubious face,
  To neither I the cause determine,
  For different tastes please different vermin.'

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