The Conversation. A Tale

A poem by Matthew Prior

It always has been a thought discreet
To know the company you meet;
And sure there may be secret danger
In talking much before a stranger.
Agreed: what then? Then drink your ale;
I'll pledge you, and repeat my tale.

No matter where the scene is fix'd,
The persons were but oddly mix'd;
When sober Damon thus began,
(And Damon is a clever man!)
I now grow old, but still from youth
Have held for modesty and truth;
The men who by these sea-marks steer
In life's great voyage never err:

Upon this point I dare defy
The world; I pause for a reply.

Sir, either is a good assistant,
Said one, who sat a little distant;
Truth decks our speeches and our books,
And modesty adorns our looks:
But farther progress we must take;
Not only born to look and speak,
The man must act. The Stagirite
Says thus, and says extremely right.
Strict justice is the sovereign guide
That o'er our actions should preside;
This queen of virtues is confess'd
To regulate and bind the rest.
Thrice happy if you can but find
Her equal balance poise your mind;
All different graces soon will enter,
Like lines concurrent to their centre.

'Twas thus, in short, these two went on,
With yea and nay, and pro and con.
Through many points divinely dark,
And Waterland assaulting Clarke,
Till, in theology half lost,
Damon took up the Evening Post,
Confounded Spain, composed the north,
And deep in politics held forth.
Methinks we're in the like condition
As at the Treaty of Partition:
That stroke, for all King William's care,
Begat another tedious war.
Matthew, who knew the whole intrigue,
Ne'er much approved that mystic league:
In the vile Utrecht treaty, too,
Poor man, he found enough to do.
Sometimes to me he did apply,
But downright Dunstable was I,
And told him where they were mistaken,
And counsell'd him to save his bacon:
But (pass his politics and prose)
I never herded with his foes;
Nay, in his verses, as a friend,
I still found something to commend;
Sir, I excused his Nut brown Maid,
Whate'er severer critics said;
Too far, I own, the girl was try'd;
The women all were on my side.
For Alma I return'd him thanks;
I liked her with her little pranks:
Indeed poor Solomon in rhyme
Was much too grave to be sublime.

Pindar and Damon scorn transition,
So on he ran a new division;
Till out of breath he turn'd to spit;
(Chance often helps us more than wit)
Th' other that lucky moment took,
Just nick'd the time, broke in, and spoke.

Of all the gifts the gods afford,
(If we may take old Tully's word)
The greatest is a friend whose love
Knows how to praise and when reprove:
From such a treasure never part,
But hang the jewel on your heart:
And pray, Sir (it delights me) tell,
You know this author mighty well,
Know him! d'ye question it? odds fish!
Sir, does a beggar know his dish?
I loved him, as I told you, I
Advised him, here a stander by
Twitch'd Damon gently by the cloke,
And thus, unwilling, silence broke:
Damon, 'tis time we should retire,
The man you talk with is Matt. Prior.

Patron through life, and from thy birth my friend,
Dorset! to thee this fable let me send;
With Damon's lightness weigh thy solid worth;
The foil is known to set the diamond forth:
Let the feign'd tale this real moral give,
How many Damons how few Dorsets live.

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