Book Information
Ode to the Athenian Society
Name: Ode to the Athenian Society
Written By: Jonathan Swift
Published Date: February 14, 1691
Language: English
Words: 2,250
Views: 1,664

Ode to the Athenian Society

by Jonathan Swift


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. 


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