(Poem #1890) A Modest Wit
A supercilious nabob of the East - Haughty, being great - purse-proud, being rich - A governor, or general, at the least, I have forgotten which - Had in his family a humble youth, Who went from England in his patron's suit, An unassuming boy, in truth A lad of decent parts, and good repute. This youth had sense and spirit; But yet with all his sense, Excessive diffidence Obscured his merit. One day, at table, flushed with pride and wine, His Honor, proudly free, severely merry, Conceived it would be vastly fine To crack a joke upon his secretary. "Young man," he said, "by what art, craft, or trade, Did your good father gain a livelihood?" - "He was a saddler, sir," Modestus said, "And in his time was reckoned good." "A saddler, eh! and taught you Greek, Instead of teaching you to sew! Pray, why did not your father make A saddler, sir, of you?" Each parasite, then, as in duty bound, The joke applauded, and the laugh went round. At length Modestus, bowing low, Said (craving pardon, if too free he made), "Sir, by your leave, I fain would know Your father's trade!" "My father's trade! by heaven, that's too bad! My father's trade? Why, blockhead, are you mad? My father, sir, did never stoop so low - He was a gentleman, I'd have you know." "Excuse the liberty I take," Modestus said, with archness on his brow, "Pray, why did not your father make A gentleman of you?"
I have always enjoyed "anecdotal" poems like today's - short, pointed stories that are all the more charming for being put into verse. (Perhaps the best example is Leigh Hunt's "The Glove and the Lions", one of the few such to attain wide acclaim.) Today's poem, I'll admit, is not even particularly brilliant verse, just good enough to add to rather than detract from the story being told, and to lend the punchline a little extra fillip. Even at their most trivial, though, I think poems like this are not only fun but important - important because they directly address the fact that one of the purposes of poetry is to *entertain*. This is not to turn my nose up at any of the other roles poetry fulfils - it is just that, far more so than with prose, pure entertainment often seems to take a back seat to art, emotion, cleverness, or even humour (which is not precisely the same thing as entertainment). "A Modest Wit" has nothing particulary quotable or polished, and indeed the language has not aged too well, but it amused me and brightened up a dull moment, and in doing that I would say that it has fulfilled its purpose admirably. martin Biography: Selleck Osborn, American journalist and poet (1783 - 1826)