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Decalogue -- Ambrose Bierce

Many thanks to Ritabrata Roy for suggesting today's poem.

DECALOGUE, n. A series of commandments, ten in number -- just enough to
permit an intelligent selection for observance, but not enough to embarrass
the choice. Following is the revised edition of the Decalogue, calculated
for this meridian:
(Poem #735) Decalogue
 Thou shalt no God but me adore:
 'Twere too expensive to have more.

 No images nor idols make
 For Roger Ingersoll to break.

 Take not God's name in vain: select
 A time when it will have effect.

 Work not on Sabbath days at all,
 But go to see the teams play ball.

 Honor thy parents. That creates
 For life insurance lower rates.

 Kill not, abet not those who kill;
 Thou shalt not pay thy butcher's bill.

 Kiss not thy neighbor's wife, unless
 Thine own thy neighbor doth caress.

 Don't steal; thou'lt never thus compete
 Successfully in business. Cheat.

 Bear not false witness--that is low--
 But "hear 'tis rumored so and so."

 Covet thou naught that thou hast got
 By hook or crook, or somehow, got.
-- Ambrose Bierce

Taken from "The Devil's Dictionary", published 1906.
Attributed by Bierce to "G. J." (Father Gassalasca Jape, S. J.), the writer
of several other pieces of verse to feature in the Dictionary.
In the 1911 edition of the lexicon, Bierce included a revised version of
this poem, which I've appended below.
I don't know who Roger Ingersoll is. Anyone?


One of the nicest things about Ambrose Bierce's cynical classic "The Devil's
Dictionary" is the way he illuminates his entries with throwaway pieces of
verse, many of which are well worth reading in their own right. Today's set
of five pithy couplets is an excellent example: neither the definition nor
the poem are out-and-out brilliant by themselves, but put them together and
the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts.


We've visited Ambrose Bierce before:
Poem #320, "Rimer"
Poem #400, "Elegy"
Poem #148, "With a Book"
The first two of these are also taken from the Devil's Dictionary.
The third has a biography of Bierce attached.

As Ritabrata points out, "Decalogue" is more than a little reminiscent of
Arthur Hugh Clough's "The Latest Decalogue", Poem #159 on the Minstrels,
written in 1862. Here's what Bierce himself has to say on the matter:

PLAGIARISM, n. - A literary coincidence compounded of a discreditable
priority and an honorable subsequence.
PLAGIARIZE, v. - To take the thought or style of another writer whom one has
never, never read.
        -- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

The complete text of the Devil's Dictionary can be found at
[broken link]


Here's Bierce's preface to the first edition of the Dictionary:

The Devil's Dictionary was begun in a weekly paper in 1881, and was
continued in a desultory way at long intervals until 1906. In that year a
large part of it was published in covers with the title The Cynic's Word
Book, a name which the author had not the power to reject or happiness to
approve. To quote the publishers of the present work:

"This more reverent title had previously been forced upon him by the
religious scruples of the last newspaper in which a part of the work had
appeared, with the natural consequence that when it came out in covers the
country already had been flooded by its imitators with a score of 'cynic'
books - The Cynic's This, The Cynic's That, and The Cynic's t'Other. Most of
these books were merely stupid, though some of them added the distinction of
silliness. Among them, they brought the word 'cynic' into disfavor so deep
that any book bearing it was discredited in advance of publication."

Meantime, too, some of the enterprising humorists of the country had helped
themselves to such parts of the work as served their needs, and many of its
definitions, anecdotes, phrases and so forth, had become more or less
current in popular speech. This explanation is made, not with any pride of
priority in trifles, but in simple denial of possible charges of plagiarism,
which is no trifle. In merely resuming his own the author hopes to be held
guiltless by those to whom the work is addressed - enlightened souls who
prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean
English to slang.

A conspicuous, and it is hoped not unpleasant, feature of the book is its
abundant illustrative quotations from eminent poets, chief of whom is that
learned and ingenious cleric, Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J., whose lines bear
his initials. To Father Jape's kindly encouragement and assistance the
author of the prose text is greatly indebted.

        -- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

[More Moreover]

Here's the revised version of the poem I mentioned above:

 "Decalogue - 1911"

 Have but one God: thy knees were sore
 If bent in prayer to three or four.

 Adore no images save those
 The coinage of thy country shows.

 Take not the Name in vain. Direct
 Thy swearing unto some effect.

 Thy hand from Sunday work be held--
 Work not at all unless compelled.

 Honor thy parents, and perchance
 Their wills thy fortunes may advance.

 Kill not--death liberates thy foe
 From persecution's constant woe.

 Kiss not thy neighbor's wife. Of course
 There's no objection to divorce.

 To steal were folly, for 'tis plain
 In cheating there is greater pain.

 Bear not false witness. Shake your head
 And say that you have "heard it said."

 Who stays to covet ne'er will catch
 An opportunity to snatch.

        -- Ambrose Bierce

Ritabrata comments, and I agree with him, that while both Decalogues are
wonderful pieces of satire, the former seems less forced.


PS. (Administrivia) I'm back online after a brief trip during which I was
net-disabled. My thanks go to Martin and all the guest Minstrels who've
submitted poems in the last week or two, for covering for me in my absence.

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