The Philosopher at the Fair

Miss Porden

 Upon the vast Pacific’s tranquil tide
The last faint glow of evening crimson died
Yet still an hundred cannon blaze and roar
And host unnumber’d press the trembling shore
For still proud Gallia’s hated ensign flew
And Britain’s gallant ships their foe pursue.

 The solar ray is gone, but who can miss
Its feebler light in such a blaze as this!
The Orient now, its seamen’s funeral pyre,
Springs to the skies, a mass of living fire
And where the gay pagoda’s giant height,
Through clustering foliage rises on the sight,
Or where the Arts triumphant hold their reign
And deck returning Concord’s classic fane
Or where the sportive fairies love to rove
Thro’ farther Kensington’s romantic grove,
An hundred rapid tourbillons aspire
And hissing serpents vomit floods of fire,
In lurid air unnumber’d rockets rise
And brighter stars adorn the wondering skies

 And not less bright, though gayer was the scene
Where youth and beauty throng th’ enamell’d green
What! tho’ ere morn a dusky hue it wore,
Nor grass was seen where grass had grown before
Yet there a thousand bright pavilions blaze,
Stars, crowns, and crescents dart their mingled rays;
See Trafalgar the red-cross flag display;
The anchor blazing from Aboukir Bay;
On flaming poles the world unwearied turns
While peace in lines of living amber burns,
And well-earn’d fame the sparkling laurel sheds
O’er Wellington and Nelson’s victor heads.
There, all around light strains of music call
To Bacchus’ temple, or the festive hall
The splendid theatre and sprightly ball.

 In musing mood, with look sedate and proud
Walked sage Diogenes amid the crowd,
Rich with the classic lore of antient times,
His mind disdain’d these rude unpolish’d climes,
Disgusted, tired, he vainly sought a home
The chasten’d elegance of Greece or Rome.
Careless he saw the light balloon arise
And science bear a mortal to the skies.
But had he mark’d his lofty spirit quell’d
Had mourn’d to see Daedalian art excell’d.
Yon pile Chinese his purer taste offends,
By no just rules yon arch of triumph bends,
And for those tents now waving in the breeze
Those painted lanterns dangling from the trees,
Or yon proud fortress, that barbaric pile
Was the true product of this tastless isle.
If other eyes could bear them, his could not — 
He turn’d indignant and he left the spot.
Yet still, as in some mystic circle bound
He sought the busier fair’s capacious round.
Why came he Here? this scene of tumult claims
No kindred with Olympia’s vaunted games.
No kings or heroes wrestle for the prize,
And, armour clad, no chief his foe defies.
Here to the goal no eager chariots flew,
No giant arm the massy discus threw,
The ruder bar was banish’d from the place,
Proscrib’d the emulative donkey-race,
And should two youths a milling match demand
No brazen Caestus arm’d each brawny hand.
And yet perchance, if truth were fairly told,
Remov’d the reverence paid to times of old
Or if uncleans’d each hero’s desperate rage,
By the soft stream of many a filtering age.
The English fair, the country games, the race,
Have less of cruelty, and more of grace.
Yet thought not so Diogenes, I ween,
Who ey’d disdainful this delighted scene
He said that to compare and judge, he came
But judg’d before, and meant but to condemn.

 He turn’d — a different scene, but not less bright,
Fix’d the philosopher’s admiring sight.
Their liveliest notes the jocund rebecks sound,
And youths and maids in sprightly circles bound.
Here rival theatres the eyes engage,
And woo to Saunders’ or to Gyngell’s stage.
Oh! may no storms their flimsy walls assail
That seem to wave with every passing gale,
Oh! how unlike those theatres of yore,
At fam’d Telmessus, or on Cuido’s shore,
That held a nation, and might stand the shock
Of earthquakes chisel’d in the living rock.

 Here were all monsters land or sea supplies
To please the vulgar, and to pose the wise,
An Arimaspian Pig — a cat that bore
A head behind, as well as one before
A little kraken, and a mermaid fair
What with a crab divides her grassy hair
(Alas how different from Cymodoce
And all her soft-eyed sisters of the sea)
And here were giants shown, and dwarfs, and apes,
And wondrous men of various kinds and shapes,
Some with red eye, and face like lily pale,
One with three hands,1 and one that wore a tail
But vainly sought the sage, in elder times
The races fabled in remoter climes.
That eyes within their headless bosoms bear,
Or sleep at night in either spacious ear,
Hop on one leg, or should it better suit,
Can make a large umbrella of their foot.

 But who are these that round and round proceed,
In dizzy whirl, and urge the wooden steed!
Or these, that in revolving chariots driven,
Now sink to Earth, and now ascend to heaven!
“Here,” thought Diogenes, “the sage may find,
Two different pictures of the human mind.
Passive, the first in measured circles wheel,
Nor rise, nor fall, nor seem to think or feel.
The next — ambition often bids them rise,
And fate often hurls them downward from the skies,
Yet still thro’ every change, erect in all,
Fearless they soar, and sink but never fall.
 But lo! where swings in number match the stars
What myriad throng to fill their spacious cars!”
What bursts of laughter and what joyful cries
Break from each happy damsel as she flies!
Where’er the sage his eyes admiring bends,
In endless files the moving line extends,
Joy fills each breast — Oh! what a charming thing,
To those whose heads can bear it, is a swing!
“Whence comes this pleasure? can this giddy whirl,”
He said, “thus charm each giddier youth and girl?
Does it impart that light to every eye?
I can’t believe it — but, by Jove, I’ll try.”

 The cords all creak as he ascends the chair,
A direful omen, for tho’ thin and spare,
Our British cynic was not fed on air.
And now he swings: he gives his soul to joy
His heart exulting as he seems to fly,
His friends beneath in mute amazement stare,
And wonder, “How the devil he got there!”
While to and fro the active chariot swung,
Enraptured, thus the sage spontaneous sung.

 “How smooth and easy doth this motion seem!
Methinks I soar in some delightful dream!
Can modern fools this great invention boast?
No! Greece possessed it, tho’ the record’s lost!
Thro’ all the world let Caesar’s triumphs ring,
I envy not his fame — be mine a swing!
Nor smile ye kings, for though ye soar on high,
Till half the spacious Earth beneath you lie,
Yet all is changing on this fickle ball,
Like me alternately ye rise and fall
And envious fate may cut th’ upholding string,
And hurl ye headlong from your lofty swing — ”

 Prophetic thought! the words were scarcely spoke,
When, with his weight the cords deceitful broke.
Its force centrifugal restrain’d no more
Far thro’ the air the flying chariot bore.
Nor did it rest, until our traveler laves
His forehead in the cool Pacific waves;
But with the rising car he rose again,
And floated on the bosom of the main.
Like Burney’s self in coat and wig array’d
When Thames! thy green-hair’d daughters round him play’d,
Now here, now there, as winds and waters drive,
With whose impetuous force t’were vain to strive
He floats — Oh! will no generous dolphin save
No Nereid snatch her favourite from the grave,
No — meaner hands redeem’d him from the wave.
Borne by the friendly stream the chariot glides,
Beneath a vessel, proud with canvas sides,
(No trireme this, but to the favouring gales
Three lofty masts extend the swelling sails)
And half exhausted with the billows’ rage
Up the tall side her seamen drag the sage.
Who safe, though rais’d all dripping from the deep,
Finds all inclined to laugh and none to weep,
And hears with sorrow, as they near’d the land,
The shouts of mirth from crowds that lined the strand.
Thro’ gathering hosts he makes his hasty flight,
And rues at home the follies of the night;
Yet muttering curses as he moves along,
On cords, and swings, and that unmanner’d throng.
Th’invention was sublime, but who could praise,
Degenerate swings of these degenerate days!
The massy monuments of Grecian fame
Must sink these flimsy, fragile works in shame — 
Oh! had he thought, that such mishap would be
He ne’er had swung — but who could fate foresee?
Thus pleasure’s voice oft woos the young and gay
To sport awhile in folly’s devious way
Their hearts are light, their hopes are strong and warm
Experience comes too soon, and breaks the charm.


  1. Query: three thumbs. I remember seeing such an animal advertised at a fair.