The Beasts' Confession

Original Text: 
Jonathan Swift, The Beasts' Confession (Dublin, 1738).
To the Priest, on Observing how most Men mistake their own Talents
2They still can do so ev'ry day),
3It seems, they had religion then,
4As much as now we find in men.
5It happen'd, when a plague broke out
6(Which therefore made them more devout),
7The king of brutes (to make it plain,
8Of quadrupeds I only mean)
9By proclamation gave command,
10That ev'ry subject in the land
11Should to the priest confess their sins;
12And thus the pious wolf begins:
13     "Good father, I must own with shame,
14That often I have been to blame:
15I must confess, on Friday last,
16Wretch that I was! I broke my fast:
17But I defy the basest tongue
18To prove I did my neighbour wrong;
19Or ever went to seek my food
20By rapine, theft, or thirst of blood."
21     The ass, approaching next, confess'd
22That in his heart he lov'd a jest:
23A wag he was, he needs must own,
24And could not let a dunce alone:
25Sometimes his friend he would not spare,
26And might perhaps be too severe:
27But yet, the worst that could be said,
28He was a wit both born and bred;
29And, if it be a sin or shame,
30Nature alone must bear the blame:
31One fault he hath, is sorry for't,
32His ears are half a foot too short;
33Which could he to the standard bring,
34He'd show his face before the King:
35Then for his voice, there's none disputes
36That he's the nightingale of brutes.
37     The swine with contrite heart allow'd,
38His shape and beauty made him proud:
39In diet was perhaps too nice,
40But gluttony was ne'er his vice:
41In ev'ry turn of life content,
42And meekly took what fortune sent:
43Inquire through all the parish round,
44A better neighbour ne'er was found:
45His vigilance might some displease;
46'Tis true he hated sloth like peas.
47     The mimic ape began his chatter,
48How evil tongues his life bespatter:
49Much of the cens'ring world complain'd,
50Who said, his gravity was feign'd:
51Indeed, the strictness of his morals
52Engag'd him in a hundred quarrels:
53He saw, and he was griev'd to see't,
54His zeal was sometimes indiscreet:
55He found his virtues too severe
56For our corrupted times to bear:
57Yet, such a lewd licentious age
58Might well excuse a Stoic's rage.
59     The goat advanc'd with decent pace;
60And first excus'd his youthful face;
61Forgiveness begg'd that he appear'd
62('Twas nature's fault) without a beard.
63'Tis true, he was not much inclin'd
64To fondness for the female kind;
65Not, as his enemies object,
66From chance, or natural defect;
67Not by his frigid constitution,
68But through a pious resolution;
69For he had made a holy vow
70Of chastity as monks do now;
71Which he resolv'd to keep for ever hence,
73     Apply the tale, and you shall find,
74How just it suits with human kind.
75Some faults we own: but, can you guess?
76Why?--virtues carried to excess,
77Wherewith our vanity endows us,
78Though neither foe nor friend allows us.
79     The lawyer swears, you may rely on't,
80He never squeez'd a needy client;
81And this he makes his constant rule,
82For which his brethren call him fool:
83His conscience always was so nice,
84He freely gave the poor advice;
85By which he lost, he may affirm,
86A hundred fees last Easter term.
87While others of the learned robe
88Would break the patience of a Job;
89No pleader at the bar could match
90His diligence and quick dispatch;
91Ne'er kept a cause, he well may boast,
92Above a term or two at most.
93     The cringing knave, who seeks a place
94Without success, thus tells his case:
95Why should he longer mince the matter?
96He fail'd because he could not flatter;
97He had not learn'd to turn his coat,
98Nor for a party give his vote:
99His crime he quickly understood;
100Too zealous for the nation's good:
101He found the ministers resent it,
102Yet could not for his heart repent it.
103     The chaplain vows he cannot fawn,
105He pass'd his hours among his books;
106You find it in his meagre looks:
107He might, if he were worldly wise,
108Preferment get and spare his eyes:
109But own'd he had a stubborn spirit,
110That made him trust alone in merit:
111Would rise by merit to promotion;
112Alas! a mere chimeric notion.
113     The doctor, if you will believe him,
114Confess'd a sin; and God forgive him!
115Call'd up at midnight, ran to save
116A blind old beggar from the grave:
117But see how Satan spreads his snares;
118He quite forgot to say his prayers.
119He cannot help it for his heart
120Sometimes to act the parson's part:
121Quotes from the Bible many a sentence,
122That moves his patients to repentance:
123And, when his med'cines do no good,
124Supports their minds with heav'nly food,
125At which, however well intended,
126He hears the clergy are offended;
127And grown so bold behind his back,
128To call him hypocrite and quack.
129In his own church he keeps a seat;
130Says grace before and after meat;
131And calls, without affecting airs,
132His household twice a day to prayers.
133He shuns apothecaries' shops;
134And hates to cram the sick with slops:
135He scorns to make his art a trade;
136Nor bribes my lady's fav'rite maid.
138To recommend him to the squire;
139Which others, whom he will not name,
140Have often practis'd to their shame.
141     The statesman tells you with a sneer,
142His fault is to be too sincere;
143And, having no sinister ends,
144Is apt to disoblige his friends.
145The nation's good, his master's glory,
146Without regard to Whig or Tory,
147Were all the schemes he had in view;
148Yet he was seconded by few:
149Though some had spread a hundred lies,
151'Twas known, though he had borne aspersion,
153His practice was, in ev'ry station,
154To serve the King, and please the nation.
155Though hard to find in ev'ry case
156The fittest man to fill a place:
157His promises he ne'er forgot,
159His enemies, for want of charity,
160Said he affected popularity:
161'Tis true, the people understood,
162That all he did was for their good;
163Their kind affections he has tried;
164No love is lost on either side.
165He came to Court with fortune clear,
167Must, at the rate that he goes on,
168Inevitably be undone:
169Oh! if his Majesty would please
170To give him but a writ of ease,
171Would grant him licence to retire,
172As it hath long been his desire,
173By fair accounts it would be found,
174He's poorer by ten thousand pound.
175He owns, and hopes it is no sin,
176He ne'er was partial to his kin;
177He thought it base for men in stations
178To crowd the Court with their relations;
179His country was his dearest mother,
180And ev'ry virtuous man his brother;
181Through modesty or awkward shame
182(For which he owns himself to blame),
183He found the wisest man he could,
184Without respect to friends or blood;
185Nor ever acts on private views,
186When he hath liberty to choose.
187     The sharper swore he hated play,
188Except to pass an hour away:
189And well he might; for, to his cost,
190By want of skill he always lost;
191He heard there was a club of cheats,
192Who had contriv'd a thousand feats;
194And thus deceive the sharpest eye:
195Nor wonder how his fortune sunk,
196His brothers fleece him when he's drunk.
197     I own the moral not exact;
198Besides, the tale is false in fact;
199And so absurd, that could I raise up
200From fields Elysian fabling Aesop;
201I would accuse him to his face
202For libelling the four-foot race.
203Creatures of ev'ry kind but ours
204Well comprehend their natural pow'rs;
205While we, whom reason ought to sway,
206Mistake our talents ev'ry day.
207The ass was never known so stupid
209Nor leaps upon his master's lap,
210There to be strok'd, and fed with pap,
211As Aesop would the world persuade;
212He better understands his trade:
213Nor comes, whene'er his lady whistles;
214But carries loads, and feeds on thistles.
215Our author's meaning, I presume, is
217Wherein the moralist design'd
218A compliment on human kind:
219For here he owns, that now and then


1] First published in Dublin by Faulkner in 1738; according to the title-page, "Written in the year 1732." This edition contains a "Preface," and an "Advertisement" which reads as follows: "The following poem is grounded upon the universal folly in mankind of mistaking their talents; by which the author doth a great honour to his own species, almost equalling them with certain brutes; wherein, indeed, he is too partial, as he freely confesseth. And yet he hath gone as low as he well could, by specifying four animals: the wolf, the ass, the swine, and the ape; all equally mischievous except the last, who outdoes them in the article of cunning. So great is the pride of man!" Back to Line
72] his Reverence: "The priest, his confessor." (In the first edition, Faulkner supplied this and the following notes marked F.) Back to Line
104] the lawn: the fine linen of a bishop's robe. hence, a bishopric. Back to Line
137] hire: be prevailed upon. Back to Line
150] Excise: "In 1733 Walpole introduced his famous Excise Bill, designed to defeat smuggling and fraud by the establishment of bonded warehouses, and by the collection of the duties from inland dealers in the form of excise and not of customs. But so violent was the agitation against this measure that he was forced to abandon the bill by moving its postponement" (Sir Harold Williams). Back to Line
152] standing troops: "A standing army was always unpopular in England. After the Peace of Ryswick, Parliament, against the wishes of William, reduced the forces to 10,000 men; and, during the reigns of the first two Hanoverian kings, the size of the army was a subject of constant conflict" (Sir Harold Williams). Back to Line
158] memorials: notes, memoranda. Back to Line
166] runs out: exhausts. Back to Line
193] change the stock: cheat at cards by meddling with or stealing from the stock, i.e., the portion of the pack of cards not dealt out but left on the table to be drawn from according to the rules of the game. cog a die: cheat at dice by attempting to control or direct the fall of the dice. Back to Line
208] Tray: a dog; cf. King Lear, III, vi, 66: "Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me." Back to Line
216] bipes et implumis: "A definition of man disapproved by all logicians. Homo est animal bipes, implume, erecto vultu." (F) The source is probably Diogenes Laertius' life of Diogenes (the Cynic philosopher) in De Vitis et Dogmatibus Philosophorum (Book VI, 1692), a Latin translation from the original Greek, listed in the catalogue of Swift's library drawn up at the time of his death. Back to Line
220] "Vide Gulliver in his account of the Houyhnhnms" (F). Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
G. G. Falle
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.65.