John Gay

Part II. Fable 5. The Bear in a Boat

To a Coxcomb

  That man must daily wiser grow,
  Whose search is bent himself to know;
  Impartially he weighs his scope,
  And on firm reason founds his hope;
  He tries his strength before the race,
  And never seeks his own disgrace;
  He knows the compass, sail, and oar,
  Or never launches from the shore;
  Before he builds, computes the cost;
  And in no proud pursuit is lost:

  He learns the bounds of human sense,
  And safely walks within the fence.
  Thus, conscious of his own defect,
  Are pride and self-importance check'd.
     If then, self-knowledge to pursue,
  Direct our life in every view,
  Of all the fools that pride can boast,
  A coxcomb claims distinction most.
     Coxcombs are of all ranks and kind:
  They're not to sex or age confined,

  Or rich, or poor, or great, or small;
  And vanity besets them all.
  By ignorance is pride increased:
  Those most assume who know the least;
  Their own false balance gives them weight,
  But every other finds them light.
     Not that all coxcombs' follies strike,
  And draw our ridicule alike;
  To different merits each pretends.
  This in love-vanity transcends;

  That smitten with his face and shape,
  By dress distinguishes the ape;
  T'other with learning crams his shelf,
  Knows books, and all things but himself.
     All these are fools of low condition,
  Compared with coxcombs of ambition.
  For those, puffed up with flattery, dare
  Assume a nation's various care.
  They ne'er the grossest praise mistrust,
  Their sycophants seem hardly just;

  For these, in part alone, attest
  The flattery their own thoughts suggest.
  In this wide sphere a coxcomb's shown
  In other realms beside his own:
  The self-deemed Machiavel at large
  By turns controls in every charge.
  Does commerce suffer in her rights?
  'Tis he directs the naval flights.
  What sailor dares dispute his skill?
  He'll be an admiral when he will.

     Now meddling in the soldier's trade,
  Troops must be hired, and levies made.
  He gives ambassadors their cue,
  His cobbled treaties to renew;
  And annual taxes must suffice
  The current blunders to disguise
  When his crude schemes in air are lost,
  And millions scarce defray the cost,
  His arrogance (nought undismayed)
  Trusting in self-sufficient aid,

  On other rocks misguides the realm,
  And thinks a pilot at the helm.
  He ne'er suspects his want of skill,
  But blunders on from ill to ill;
  And, when he fails of all intent,
  Blames only unforeseen event.
  Lest you mistake the application,
  The fable calls me to relation.
     A bear of shag and manners rough,
  At climbing trees expert enough;

  For dextrously, and safe from harm,
  Year after year he robbed the swarm.
  Thus thriving on industrious toil,
  He gloried in his pilfered spoil.
     This trick so swelled him with conceit,
  He thought no enterprise too great.
  Alike in sciences and arts,
  He boasted universal parts;
  Pragmatic, busy, bustling, bold,
  His arrogance was uncontrolled:

  And thus he made his party good,
  And grew dictator of the wood.
     The beasts with admiration stare,
  And think him a prodigious bear.
  Were any common booty got,
  'Twas his each portion to allot:
  For why, he found there might be picking,
  Even in the carving of a chicken.
  Intruding thus, he by degrees
  Claimed too the butcher's larger fees.

  And now his over-weening pride
  In every province will preside.
  No talk too difficult was found:
  His blundering nose misleads the hound.
  In stratagem and subtle arts,
  He overrules the fox's parts.
     It chanced, as, on a certain day,
  Along the bank he took his way,
  A boat, with rudder, sail, and oar,
  At anchor floated near the shore.

  He stopp'd, and turning to his train,
  Thus pertly vents his vaunting strain:
     'What blundering puppies are mankind,
  In every science always blind!
  I mock the pedantry of schools.
  What are their compasses and rules?
  From me that helm shall conduct learn.
  And man his ignorance discern.'
     So saying, with audacious pride,
  He gains the boat, and climbs the side.

  The beasts astonished, lined the strand,
  The anchor's weighed, he drives from land:
  The slack sail shifts from side to side;
  The boat untrimmed admits the tide,
  Borne down, adrift, at random toss'd,
  His oar breaks short, the rudder's lost.
  The bear, presuming in his skill,
  Is here and there officious still;
  Till striking on the dangerous sands,
  Aground the shattered vessel stands.

     To see the bungler thus distress'd,
  The very fishes sneer and jest.
  Even gudgeons join in ridicule,
  To mortify the meddling fool.
  The clamorous watermen appear;
  Threats, curses, oaths, insult his ear:
  Seized, thrashed, and chained, he's dragged to land;
  Derision shouts along the strand.

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