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Poem by John Gay


Part II. Fable 4. The Ant in Office


To a Friend

  You tell me, that you apprehend
  My verse may touchy folks offend.
  In prudence too you think my rhymes
  Should never squint at courtiers' crimes:
  For though nor this, nor that is meant,
  Can we another's thoughts prevent?
     You ask me if I ever knew
  Court chaplains thus the lawn pursue.
  I meddle not with gown or lawn;
  Poets, I grant, to rise must fawn.

  They know great ears are over-nice,
  And never shock their patron's vice.
  But I this hackney path despise;
  'Tis my ambition not to rise.
  If I must prostitute the Muse,
  The base conditions I refuse.
     I neither flatter nor defame,
  Yet own I would bring guilt to shame.
  If I corruption's hand expose,
  I make corrupted men my foes.

  What then? I hate the paltry tribe;
  Be virtue mine; be theirs the bribe.
  I no man's property invade;
  Corruption's yet no lawful trade.
  Nor would it mighty ills produce,
  Could I shame bribery out of use,
  I know 'twould cramp most politicians,
  Were they tied down to these conditions.
  'Twould stint their power, their riches bound,
  And make their parts seem less profound.

  Were they denied their proper tools,
  How could they lead their knaves and fools?
  Were this the case, let's take a view,
  What dreadful mischiefs would ensue;
  Though it might aggrandise the state,
  Could private luxury dine on plate?
  Kings might indeed their friends reward,
  But ministers find less regard.
  Informers, sycophants, and spies,
  Would not augment the year's supplies.

  Perhaps, too, take away this prop,
  An annual job or two might drop.
  Besides, if pensions were denied,
  Could avarice support its pride?
  It might even ministers confound,
  And yet the state be safe and sound.
     I care not though 'tis understood
  I only mean my country's good:
  And (let who will my freedom blame)
  I wish all courtiers did the same.

  Nay, though some folks the less might get,
  I wish the nation out of debt.
  I put no private man's ambition
  With public good in competition:
  Rather than have our law defaced,
  I'd vote a minister disgraced.
     I strike at vice, be't where it will;
  And what if great folks take it ill?
  I hope corruption, bribery, pension,
  One may with detestation mention:

  Think you the law (let who will take it)
  Can scandalum magnatum_ make it?
  I vent no slander, owe no grudge,
  Nor of another's conscience judge:
  At him, or him, I take no aim,
  Yet dare against all vice declaim.
  Shall I not censure breach of trust,
  Because knaves know themselves unjust?
  That steward, whose account is clear,
  Demands his honour may appear:

  His actions never shun the light,
  He is, and would be proved upright.
     But then you think my fable bears
  Allusion, too, to state affairs.
     I grant it does: and who's so great,
  That has the privilege to cheat?
  If, then, in any future reign
  (For ministers may thirst for gain;)
  Corrupted hands defraud the nation,
  I bar no reader's application.

     An ant there was, whose forward prate
  Controlled all matters in debate;
  Whether he knew the thing or no,
  His tongue eternally would go.
  For he had impudence at will,
  And boasted universal skill.
  Ambition was his point in view;
  Thus, by degrees, to power he grew.
  Behold him now his drift attain:
  He's made chief treasurer of the grain.

     But as their ancient laws are just,
  And punish breach of public trust,
  'Tis ordered (lest wrong application
  Should starve that wise industrious nation)
  That all accounts be stated clear,
  Their stock, and what defrayed the year:
  That auditors should these inspect, 97
  And public rapine thus be checked.
  For this the solemn day was set,
  The auditors in council met.

  The granary-keeper must explain,
  And balance his account of grain.
  He brought (since he could not refuse 'em)
  Some scraps of paper to amuse 'em.
     An honest pismire, warm with zeal,
  In justice to the public weal,
  Thus spoke: 'The nation's hoard is low,
  From whence doth this profusion flow?
  I know our annual funds' amount.
  Why such expense, and where's the account?'

     With wonted arrogance and pride,
  The ant in office thus replied:
  'Consider, sirs, were secrets told,
  How could the best-schemed projects hold?
  Should we state-mysteries disclose,
  'Twould lay us open to our foes.
  My duty and my well-known zeal
  Bid me our present schemes conceal.
  But on my honour, all the expense
  (Though vast) was for the swarm's defence.

     They passed the account as fair and just,
  And voted him implicit trust.
     Next year again the granary drained,
  He thus his innocence maintained:
     'Think how our present matters stand,
  What dangers threat from every hand;
  What hosts of turkeys stroll for food,
  No farmer's wife but hath her brood.
  Consider, when invasion's near,
  Intelligence must cost us dear;

  And, in this ticklish situation,
  A secret told betrays the nation.
  But, on my honour, all the expense
  (Though vast) was for the swarm's defence.'
     Again, without examination,
  They thanked his sage administration.
     The year revolves. The treasure spent,
  Again in secret service went.
  His honour too again was pledged,
  To satisfy the charge alleged.

     When thus, with panic shame possessed,
  An auditor his friends addressed:
     'What are we? Ministerial tools.
  We little knaves are greater fools.
  At last this secret is explored;
  'Tis our corruption thins the hoard.
  For every grain we touched, at least
  A thousand his own heaps increased.
  Then for his kin, and favourite spies,
  A hundred hardly could suffice.

  Thus, for a paltry sneaking bribe,
  We cheat ourselves, and all the tribe;
  For all the magazine contains,
  Grows from our annual toil and pains.'
     They vote the account shall be inspected;
  The cunning plunderer is detected;
  The fraud is sentenced; and his hoard,
  As due, to public use restored.



John Gay


John Gay's other poems:
  1. Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London. Book 1
  2. Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London. Book 2
  3. Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London. Book 3
  4. To A Young Lady, With Some Lampreys
  5. An Elegy on a Lap-dog


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