The Turtle And Sparrow. An Elegiac Tale

A poem by Matthew Prior

Behind an unfrequented glade,
Where yew and myrtle mix their shade,
A widow Turtle pensive sat,
And wept her murder'd lover's fate.
The Sparrow chanced that way to walk,
(A bird that loves to chirp and talk)
Be sure he did the Turtle greet,
She answer'd him as she thought meet.
Sparrows and Turtles, by the bye,
Can think as well as you or I;
But how they did their thoughts express
The margin shows by T. and S.

T. My hopes are lost, my joys are fled,
Alas! I weep Columbo dead:
Come, all ye winged Lovers, come,
Drop pinks and daisies on his tomb;
Sing, Philomel, his funeral verse,
Ye pious Redbreasts deck his hearse;
Fair Swans, extend your dying throats,
Columbo's death requires your notes;
For him, my friend, for him I moan,
My dear Columbo, dead and gone.

Stretch'd on the bier Columbo lies,
Pale are his cheeks, and closed his eyes;
Those eyes, where beauty smiling lay,
Those eyes, where Love was used to play;
Ah! cruel Fate, alas how soon
That beauty and those joys are flown!

Columbo is no more: ye floods,
Bear the sad sound to distant woods;
The sound let echo's voice restore,
And say, Columbo is no more.
Ye floods, ye woods, ye echoes, moan
My dear Columbo, dead and gone.

The Dryads all forsook the wood,
And mournful Naiads round me stood,
The tripping Fawns and Fairies came,
All conscious of our mutual flame,
To sigh for him, with me to moan,
My dear Columbo, dead and gone.

Venus disdain'd not to appear,
To lend my grief a friendly ear;
But what avails her kindness now?
She ne'er shall hear my second vow:
The Loves that round their mother flow
Did in her face her sorrows view;
Their drooping wings they pensive hung,
Their arrows broke, their bows unstrung;
They heard attentive what I said,
And wept, with me, Columbo dead:
For him I sigh, for him I moan,
My dear Columbo, dead and gone.

'Tis ours to weep, great Venus said,
'Tis Jove's alone to be obey'd:
Nor birds nor goddesses can move
The just behests of fatal Jove;
I saw thy mate with sad regret,
And cursed the fowler's cruel net:
Ah! dear Columbo, how he fell,
Whom Turturella loved so well!
I saw him bleeding on the ground,
The sight tore up my ancient wound:
And whilst you wept, alas! I cried,
Columbo and Adonis died.

Weep, all ye streams, ye mountains, groan;
I mourn Columbo, dead and gone;
Still let my tender grief complain,
Nor day nor night that grief restrain;
I said, and Venus still replied,
Columbo and Adonis died.

S. Poor Turturella, hard thy case,
And just thy tears, alas, alas!
T. And hast thou loved, and canst thou hear
With piteous heart a lover's care!
Come, then, with me thy sorrows join,
And ease my woes by telling thine;
For thou, poor bird, perhaps may'st moan
Some Passerelia, dead and gone.

S. Dame turtle, this runs soft in rhyme,
But neither suits the place nor time;
The fowler's hand, whose cruel care
For dear Columbo set the snare,
The snare again for thee may set;
Two birds may perish in one net:
Thou shouldst avoid this cruel field,
And sorrow should to prudence yield.
'Tis sad to die,

T. It may be so;
'Tis sadder yet to live in wo.
S. When widows use their canting strain
They seem resolved to wed again.
T. When widowers would this truth disprove,
They never tasted real love.
S. Love is soft joy and gentle strife,
His efforts all depend on life:
When he has thrown two golden darts,
And struck the lovers' mutual hearts,
Of his black shafts let death send one,
Alas! the pleasing game is done:
Ill is the poor survivor sped,
A corpse feels mighty cold in bed,
Venus said right, Nor tears can move
Nor plaints revoke the will of Jove.

All must obey the general doom,
Down from Alcides to Tom Thumb.
Grim Pluto will not be withstood
By force or craft. Tall Robinhood,
As well as little John, is dead.
(You see how deeply I am read)
With Fate's lean tipstaff non can dodge,
He'll find you out where'er you lodge.
Ajax, to shun his general power,
In vain absconded in a flower.
An idle scene Tythonus acted,
When to a grasshopper contracted;
Death struck them in those shapes again,
As once he did when they were men.

For reptiles perish, plants decay;
Flesh is but grass, grass turns to hay,
And hay is dung, and dung to clay.

Thus heads extremely nice discover
That folks may die some ten times over;
But oft by too refined a touch
To prove things plain they prove too much,
Whate'er Pythagoras may say,
(For each you know will have his way)
With great submission I pronounce
That people die no more than once:
But once is sure, and death is common
To bird and man, including woman:
From the spread eagle to the wren,
Alas! no mortal fowl knows when.
All that wear feathers, first or last,
Must one day perch on Charon's mast;
Must lie beneath the cypress shade,
Where Strada's nightingale was laid.
Those fowl who seem alive to sit,
Assembled by Dan Chaucer's wit,
In prose have slept three hundred years,
Exempt from worldly hopes and fears,
And, laid in state upon their hearse,
Are truly but embalm'd in verse.
As sure as Lesbia's Sparrow I,
Thou sure as Prior's Dove, must die,
And ne'er again from Lethe's streams
Return to Adda or to Thames.

T. I therefore weep Columbo dead,
My hopes bereaved, my pleasures fled;
I therefore must for ever moan
My dear Columbo, dead and gone.

S. Columbo never sees your tears,
Your cries Columbo never hears;
A wall of brass and one of lead
Divide the living from the dead:
Repell'd by this the gather'd rain
Of tears beats back to earth again;
In t'other the collected sound
Of groans, when once received, is drown'd.
'Tis therefore vain one hour to grieve
What time itself can ne'er retrieve.
By nature soft, I know a dove
Can never live without her love;
Then quit this flame, and light another,
Dame, I advise you like a brother.

T. What, I do make a second choice!
In other nuptials to rejoice!
S. Why not, my bird!,
T. No, Sparrow, no;
Let me indulge my pleasing wo:
Thus sighing, cooing, ease my pain,
But never wish nor love again:
Distress'd for ever let me moan
My dear Columbo, dead and gone.

S. Our winged friends through all the grove
Contemn thy mad excess of love:
I tell thee, Dame, the other day,
I met a parrot and a jay,
Who mock'd thee in their mimic tone,
And wept Columbo, dead and hone.

T. Whate'er thy jay or parrot said,
My hopes are lost, my joys are fled,
And I for ever must deplore
Columbo, dead and gone., S. Encore!
For shame, forsake this Byon-style;
We'll talk an hour and walk a mile.
Does it with sense or health agree
To sit thus moping on a tree?
To throw away a widow's life,
When you again may be a wife?
Come on, I'll tell you my amours;
Who knows but they may influence yours?
Example draws when precept falls,
And sermons are less read than tales.

T. Sparrow, I take thee for my friend;
As such will hear thee: I descend;
Hop on and talk; but, honest bird,
Take care that no immodest word
May venture to offend my ear.

S. Too saint-like Turtle, never fear;
By method things are best discuss'd,
Begin we then with wife the first:
A handsome, senseless, awkward, fool,
Who would not yield, and could not rule,
Her actions did her charms disgrace,
And still her tongue talk'd of her face;
Count me the leaves of yonder tree,
So many different wills had she,
And, like the leaves, as chance inclined,
Those wills were changed with every wind:
She courted the beau-monde to-night,
L'assemblee her supreme delight;
The next she sat immured, unseen,
And in full health enjoy'd the spleen;
She censured that, she alter'd this,
And with great care set all amiss;
She now could chide, now laugh, now cry,
Now sing, now pout, all God knows why:
Short was her reign, she cough'd and died.
Proceed we to my second bride.
Well-born she was, genteelly bred,
And buxom both at board and bed;
Glad to oblige, and pleased to please,
And, as Tom Southern wisely says,
No other fault had she in life,
But only that she was my wife.
O widow Turtle! every she,
(So nature's pleasure does decree)
Appears a goddess till enjoy'd;
But birds, and men, and gods, are cloy'd.
Was Hercules one woman's man,
Or Jove for ever Laeda's swan?
Ah! Madam, cease to be mistaken,
Few married fowl peck Dunmow bacon.
Variety alone gives joy;
The sweetest meats the soonest cloy.
What sparrow, dame, what dove alive,
Though Venus should the chariot drive,
But would accuse the harness' weight,
If always coupled to one mate,
And often wish the fetter broke?
'Tis freedom but to change the yoke.

T. Impious wish to wed again
Ere death dissolved the former chain!
S. Spare your remark, and hear the rest.
She brought me sons, but Jove be bless'd
She died in childbed on the nest.
Well, rest her bones, quoth I, she's gone;
But must I therefore lie alone?
What, am I to her memory tied?
Must I not live because she died?
And thus I logically said,
('Tis good to have a reasoning head)
Is this my wife? Probatur not;
For death dissolved the marriage knot;
She was, concedo, during my life;
But is a piece of clay a wife?
Again, if not a wife, do ye see,
Why them, no kin at all to me;
And he who general tears can shed
For folks that happen to be dead
May e'en with equal justice mourn
For those who never yet were born.

T. Those points, indeed, you quaintly prove,
But logic is no friend to love.
S. My children then were just pen-feather'd;
Some little corn for them I gather'd,
And sent them to my spouse's mother,
So left that brood to get another;
And as old Harry whilom said,
Reflecting on Anne Boleyn dead,
Cocksbones, I now again do stand
The jolliest bachelor i' th' land.

T. Ah me! my joys, my hopes are fled;
My first, my only love is dead;
With endless grief let me bemoan
Columbo's loss,
S. Let me go on.
As yet my fortune was but narrow;
I woo'd my cousin, Philly Sparrow,
O' th' elder house of Chirping-End,
From whence the younger branch descend.
Well seated in a field of pease
She lived, extremely at her ease;
But when the honey-moon was past,
The following nights were soon o'ercast;
She kept her own, could plead the law,
And quarrel for a barley-straw:
Both, you may judge, became less kind,
As more we knew each other's mind.
She soon grew sullen, I hard-hearted;
We scolded, hated, fought, and parted.
To London, blessed town, I went;
She boarded at a farm in Kent:
A magpie from the country fled,
And kindly told me she was dead:
I pruned my feathers, cock'd my tail,
And set my heart again to sale.

My fourth, a mere coquette, or such
I thought her, nor avails it much
If true or false; our troubles spring
More from the fancy than the thing.
Two staring horns, I often said,
But ill become a sparrow's head;
But then to set that balance even
Your cuckold sparrow goes to heaven.
The thing you fear, suppose it done,
If you enquire you make it known;
Whilst at the root your horns are sore,
The more you scratch they ache the more.
But turn the tables and reflect,
All may not be that you suspect:
By the mind's eye the horns we mean,
Are only in ideas seen;
'Tis from the inside of the head
Their branches shoot, their antlers spread;
Fruitful suspicions often bear 'em,
You feel them from the time you fear 'em;
Cuckoo! Cuckoo! that echo'd word
Offends the ear of Vulgar bird;
But those of finer taste have found
There's nothing in't beside the sound.
Preferment always waits on horns,
And household peace the gift adorns:
This way or that let factions tend,
The spark is still the cuckold's friend:
This way or that let madam roam,
Well pleased and quiet she comes home.
Now weigh the pleasure with the pain,
The plus and minus, loss and gain,
And what La Fontaine laughing says
Is serious truth in such a case:
"Who slights the evil finds it least:
And who does nothing does the best."
I never strove to rule the roast,
She ne'er refused to pledge my toast:
In visits if we chanced to meet,
I seem'd obliging, she discreet:
We neither much caress'd nor strove,
But good dissembling past for love.

T. Whate'er of light our eye may know,
'Tis only light itself can show;
Whate'er of love our heart can feel,
'Tis mutual love alone can tell.

S. My pretty amorous foolish bird,
A moment's patience. In one word,
The three kind sisters broke the chain;
She died, I mourn'd, and woo'd again.

T. Let me with juster grief deplore
My dear Columbo, now no more;
Let me with constant tears bewail,
S. Your sorrow does but spoil my tale.
My fifth she proved a jealous wife,
Lord shield us all from such a life;
'Twas doubt, complaint, reply, chit-chat,
'Twas this to-day, to-morrow that.
Sometimes, forsooth, upon the brook
I kept a miss; an honest rook
Told it a snipe, who told a steer,
Who told it those who told it her.

One day a linnet and a lark
Had met me strolling in the dark;
The next a woodcock and an owl,
Quick-sighted, grave, and sober fowl,
Would on their corporal oath alledge
I kiss'd a hen behind the hedge.
Well, madam Turtle, to be brief,
(Repeating but renews our grief)
As once she watch'd me from a rail,
Poor soul! her footing chanced to fail,
And down she fell and broke her hip;
The fever came, and then the pip:
Dead did the only cure apply;
She was at quiet, so was I.

T. Could Love unmoved these changes view?
His sorrows as his joys are true.
S. My dearest Dove, one wise man says,
Alluding to our present case,
"We're here to-day and gone to-morrow;"
Then what avails superfluous sorrow?
Another, full as wise as he,
Adds, "that a married man may see
Two happy hours;" and which are they?
The first and last, perhaps you'll say:
'Tis true, when blithe she goes to bed,
And when she peaceably lies dead:
"Women 'twixt sheets are best," 'tis said,
Be they of Holland or of lead.

Now cured of Hymen's hopes and fears,
And sliding down the vale of years,
I hoped to fix my future rest,
And took a widow to my nest.
Ah! Turtle! had she been like thee,
Sober yet gentle, wise yet free;
But she was peevish, noisy, bold,
A witch ingrafted on a scold.
Jove in Pandora's box confined
A hundred ills to vex mankind;
To vex one bird in her bandore
He hid at least a hundred more,
And soon as time that veil withdrew
The plagues o'er all the parish flew;
Her stock of borrow'd tears grew dry,
And native tempests arm'd her eye;
Black clouds around her forehead hung,
And thunder rattled on her tongue.
We, young or old, or cock or hen,
All live in AEolus's den;
The nearest her the more accursed,
Ill-fared her friends, her husband worst;
But Jove amidst his anger spares,
Remarks our faults, but hears our prayers.
In short she died. Why then she's dead,
Quoth I, and once again I'll wed.
Would Heaven this mourning year were past
One may have better luck at last.
Matters at worst are sure to mend;
The devil's wife was but a fiend.

T. Thy tale has raised a Turtle's spleen;
Uxorious inmate, bird obscene,
Dar'st thou defile these sacred groves,
The silent seats of faithful loves?
Begone; with flagging wings sit down
On some old penthouse near the town;
In brewers' stables peck thy grain,
Then wash it down with puddled rain,
And hear thy dirty offspring squall
From bottles on a suburb-wall.
Where thou hast been, return again,
Vile bird! thou hast conversed with men:
Notions like these from men are given,
Those vilest creatures under heaven.

To cities and to courts repair,
Flattery and falsehood flourish there;
There all thy wretched arts employ
Where riches triumph over joy,
Where passions do with interest barter,
And Hymen holds by Mammon's charter;
Where truth by point of law is parried,
And knaves and prudes are six times married.

O Dearest daughter of two dearest friends,
To thee my Muse this little Tale commends.
Loving and loved, regard thy future mate,
Long love his person, though deplore his fate;
Seem young when old in thy dear husband's arms,
For constant virtue has immortal charms;
And when I lie low sepulchred in earth,
And the glad year returns thy day of birth,
Vouchsafe to say, Ere I could write or spell,
The bard who from my cradle wish'd me well
Told me I should the prating Sparrow blame,
And bid me imitate the Turtle's flame.

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