Jonathan Swift


MIDAS, we are in story told,
Turn'd everything he touch'd to gold;
He chipp'd his bread; the pieces round
Glitter'd like spangles on the ground:
A codling, ere it went his lip in,
Would straight become a golden pippin:
He call'd for drink; you saw him sup:
Potable gold in golden cup:
His empty paunch that he might fill,
He suck'd his victuals through a quill.
Untouch'd it pass'd between his grinders,
Or't had been happy for gold-finders:
He cock'd his hat, you would have said
Mambrino's helm adorn'd his head;
Whene'er he chanced his hands to lay
On magazines of corn or hay,
Gold ready coin'd appear'd instead
Of paltry provender and bread;
Hence, by wise farmers we are told
Old hay is equal to old gold:1
And hence a critic deep maintains,
We learn'd to weigh our gold by grains.
     This fool had got a lucky hit;
And people fancied he had wit.
Two gods their skill in music tried
And both chose Midas to decide:
He against Phoebus' harp decreed,
And gave it for Pan's oaten reed:
The god of wit, to shew his grudge,
Clapt asses' ears upon the judg;
A goodly pair, erect and wide,
Which he could neither gild nor hide.
And now the virtue of his hands
Was lost among Pactolus' sands,
Against whose torrent while he swims,
The golden scurf peels off his limbs:
Fame spreads the news, and people travel
From far to gather golden gravel;
Midas, exposed to all their jeers,
Had lost his art, and kept his ears.
     This tale inclines the gentle reader
To think upon a certain leader;
To whom from Midas down descends
That virtue in the fingers' ends.
What else by perquisites are meant,
By pensions, bribes, and three per cent.?
By places and commissions sold,
And turning dung itself to gold?
By starving in the midst of store,
As t'other Midas did before?
     None e'er did modern Midas choose
Subject or pattern of his muse,
But found him thus their merit scan,
That Phoebus must give place to Pan:
He values not the poet's praise,
Nor will exchange his plumes for bays.
To Pan alone rich misers call;
And there's the jest, for Pan is ALL.
Here English wits will be to seek,
Howe'er, 'tis all one in the Greek.
     Besides, it plainly now appears
Our Midas, too, has asses' ears:
Where every fool his mouth applies,
And whispers in a thousand lies;
Such gross delusions could not pass
Through any ears but of an ass.
     But gold defiles with frequent touch,
There's nothing fouls the hand so much;
And scholars give it for the cause
Of British Midas' dirty paws;
Which, while the senate strove to scour,
They wash'd away the chemic power.2
     While he his utmost strength applied,
To swim against this popular tide,
The golden spoils flew off apace;
Here fell a pension, there a place:
The torrent merciless imbibes
Commissions, perquisites, and bribes;
By their own weight sunk to the bottom;
Much good may't do them that have caught 'em!
And Midas now neglected stands,
With asses' ears, and dirty hands.

* This cutting satire upon the Duke of Marlborough was written about the time when he was deprived of his employments. Swift thus mentions it in his journal: "To-day I published 'The Fable of Midas,' a poem printed on a loose half sheet of paper. I know not how it will take; but it passed wonderfully at our society to-night; and Mr Secretary read it before me the other night, to lord-treasurer, at Lord Masham's, where they equally approved of it. Tell me how it passes with you."—Journal to Stella, Feb. 14, 1711-12.

1 The reader will recollect, that the Duke of Marlborough was accused of having received large sums, as perquisites, from the contractors, who furnished bread, forage, &c. to the army.

2 The result of the investigations of the House of Commons was the removal of the Duke of Marlborough from his command, and all his employments.

      Excerpted from:

      The Works of Jonathan Swift, D.D.. Vol XII.
      Sir Walter Scott, ed.
      Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Co., 1824. 302-5.

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