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Anna Jane Vardill

The Pelican and the Swan

A Fable

Dead is the Swan of royal race—
Can one be found to fill her place?
A strait, majestic, far-famed bird,
Comes from the throng to be preferr’d.—
Amphibious things, both birds and beasts,
Love to be first in crouds or feasts:
But bipeds plumed of every kind
Haste on the water and the wind,
And fish of every age and clan
Attend to cry, “Long live the Swan.”
 With oary feet, sublime in state,
Forth sails the feather’d candidate;
A water-wagtail near her pounces,
And thus her name and rights announces.
“Lords of this park-pond, I rejoice
To bless your hearing with my voice.
Behold, from sweet Ausonia’s lake
This Swan has ventur’d for our sake—
How white, her down!—how mild her eyes!—
How like a flake of snow she lies
On the smooth azure of our pond,
Blest as the lake that sleeps beyond
Hungarian hills! where ancient tales
Tell us the fairest drop their veils,
And in the shape of swans take flight
In fairy bowers to waste the night.
Then, if she speaks, the swans that die
In music on Castalia’s tide,
Tun’d not a lovelier throat than hers is,
Nor utter’d such melodious verses!”
 “Sir,” said an owl, “if I might hint
My secret thought—no malice in’t—
My learned friend, that leathern ruff
To me seems rather black and tough.
As for her utt’rance—I must say
’Tis music strangely like the bray
Of quadrupeds long-ear’d and tame,
Which—in this place I will not name:
And—if mine eyes the truth avouch,
Beneath her chin I spy a pouch.”
 “A pouch—’tis monstrous, I aver,
To name it in her presence, sir!
What, doubt a noble lady’s grace,
And contradict her to her face!
Must She who swears herself a Swan
Be thus proclaim’d a Pelican?”
 “Brother,” replied an ancient goose,
“An orator his wit may use;
But say or swear whate’er you will,
The Pelican remains there still.
A trout, the plumpest of his race,
Was in that pouch a score of days—
If this august assembly doubts,
Ask the whole nation of the trouts.”
 “Lords, I admit the fact—yet still
I’ll prove the fact impossible!—
Though twenty thousand trouts should swear
They saw the great trout enter there,
Shall fish with neither ears nor sense
To fowls like us give evidence?
Flat fish, all stained and speckled o’er—
So cheap, you buy them by the score?
I grant the pouch—but I’ll engage
To prove it a mere equipage,
A bagatelle for fashion’s sake
Used by all swans upon a lake.
And if, as judges must agree,
She chose the trout’s society,
Did it her dignity disparage
To take him with her in her carriage?
Besides, to controvert a doubt,
I’ll prove him, sirs, a salmon-trout,
Which mightily transforms the case,
And shews him in his proper place.”
 “Friends,” said a Dodo, “I disdain
To yield a point when truth is plain;
But tho’ the fact we must allow,
The truth is not expedient now.
For wits and sages both bear witness
Of all things we should weigh the fitness;
And if we here agree, nem, con.
To call this Pelican a Swan,
She’ll suit our purpose and her place
As well as one of cygnet-race.
I to the tribe of Fish appeal—
That vast enlighten’d Commonweal!
Fish that no argument can hear
Must be from prejudices clear!
And as they only judge by sight,
Must have proofs ocular of right.
Friends! I refer the case to them—
Their votes shall rescue or condemn.”
 The fish, who never reason heard,
Felt how their element was stirr’d,
And troop’d by thousands from below
To see the wond’rous stranger’s show.
They view’d her feet’s capacious web,
Her purple beak’s portentous neb—
Unanimous from rear to van
They shouted all—“Long live the Swan!”
 Thus judg’d, triumphant and elate,
The Pelican swam off in state,
Then bow’d her head with bland composure—
And swallow’d all the fish that chose her.


The European Magazine, Vol. 79, February 1821, pp. 167-168