"So have I heard / The captive finch, in narrow cage confin'd, / Charm all his woe away with cheerful song, / Which might have melted e'en a heart of steel / To give him liberty"

— Hurdis, James (1763-1801)

Work Title
Place of Publication
J. Johnson
"So have I heard / The captive finch, in narrow cage confin'd, / Charm all his woe away with cheerful song, / Which might have melted e'en a heart of steel / To give him liberty"
Metaphor in Context
Then comes a troop in gilded uniform,
The goodly band Johnsonian. Cowley first,
Poetic child, whose philosophic muse
Distracts, delights, torments, and captivates.
Let me attend, when, from the world retir'd,
He turn'd his restive Pegasus to graze,
And thought, and wrote, sedate and sober prose.
Comes Milton next, that like his wakeful bird
Sings darkling, sings and mourns his eye-sight lost,
And nightly wanders to the Muses' haunt,
Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill,
Smit with the love of sacred song; to us
Displaying nature, and the blissful scenes
Of Paradise, though not to him returns
Day, or the sweet approach of ev'n or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer's rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine.
Sweet bard, that bears us softly now, and, smooth
As that unwrinkled flood that slowly winds
By Windsor's haughty tow'rs, and visits shores
Divinely various--rushes now, and leaps,
Confounding sense, immeasurable depth,
A foaming cataract, whose thund'ring fall
Disorders hell, and utmost earth and heav'n.
Comes Butler then, incomparable wit,
And not to be reprov'd, save when his muse
Decorum overleaps, and here and there
Bolts the coarse jest, to the chaste eye and ear
Offensive; for behind the comic mask
We find the scholar and the man of sense,
The friend of virtue, and the foe of vice.
Then follows courtly Waller, and in vain
On Amoret or Saccharissa calls,
With budget full of trifles, birth-day odes,
Congratulations, songs, and compliments,
And mythologic tales. Then Denham charms,
And from his own Parnassus, Cooper's Hill,
Sings the wide prospect that extended lies
Under his proud survey. Then Sprat. And then
Roscommon fills with elegant remark,
His verse as elegant; unspotted lines
Flow from a mind unspotted as themselves.
Then Wilmot tunes his reed, and in his song
Gives early specimen of genius, rare
And prone to excellence. But ah! how vain
Poetic hopes! The prime of life is lost,
His talent wasted, and the giddy fool
Grows old in pleasure, and denies his God.
The grave in view, a holy friend his guide,
He views his conduct with remorse, repents,
Acknowledges his fault, curses the wit
Of erring man that so outwits itself,
And dies, a martyr to the pains of vice.
Then Yalden sings, and fills us with delight,
His harp so tun'd that as the morning breaks
It breathes spontaneous rapture, and again
At ev'ning close with solemn eulogy
Welcomes the reign of night. With dewy eye
But harlot tear, then Otway's muse begins,
And charms who hears her with her Syren air;
To decency, alas, no friend, to vice
No enemy. His Celia then proclaims
Enamour'd Duke, at Floriana's grave
Sweet lamentation chanting. Dorset then
Hums nobly liberal, and hums too much,
Scarce heard an hour. Chaste Montague succeeds,
Stepney less pure, and Walsh with feeble wing
Half flying, half on foot. Then comes a bard,
Worn out and penniless, and poet still
Though bent with years, and in impetuous rhyme
Pours out his unexhausted song. What muse
So flexible, so generous as thine,
Immortal Dryden. From her copious fount
Large draughts he took, and unbeseeming song
Inebriated sang. Who does not grieve,
To hear the soul and insolent rebuke
Of angry satire from a bard so rare?
To trace the lubricous and oily course
Of abject adulation, the lewd line
Of shameless vice, from page to page, and find
The judgment brib'd, the heart unprincipled,
And only loyal at th' expence of truth,
Of justice, and of virtue? Meaner strain
The dapper wit commends of sprightly Garth.
We smile to see fantastic Poetry
Shake hands with Physic, and with grave burlesque
Arrange his gallipots, and gild his pills;
Then march in dreadful armour to the field,
To screen her new ally from hostile shocks,
With pestle truncheon, Cloacinian helm,
And levell'd squirt. Then heartily we laugh
With laughter-loving King, and much applaud
That vein of mirth which, innocent and clear,
In silver neatness flows. Young Phillips then,
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,
A shilling, breeches, and chimeras dire,
Sings gravely jocund. Dismal rag applauds,
With sympathetic ardour touch'd, at sound
Of tatter'd galligaskins, college duns,
And subtle catchpole. Modest Pomfret then,
To soar aloft unable, with light wing
Above the plain scarce elevated skims,
A short and feeble flight. So have I seen
The spaniel-hunted quail with lowly wing
Shear the smooth air: and so too have I heard
That she can sweetly clamour, though compell'd
To tread the humble vale, nor ever mount
High as the ev'ning swift or morning lark.
Then blameless Hughes, in union with Pepusch,
Still to the eloquent orchestra tunes
His virtuous, unmeaning song. And now,
In tones that might attract an angel's ear,
Flows the smooth strain of righteous Addison.
Then Blackmore says an everlasting tale,
Bless'd with a callous muse. Genius in vain
Laughs at the fond attempt, for still he bawls,
And with gigantic dissonance subdues
The universal hiss. No poet--true--
But mark the man, and you shall find him good.
And what's the poet if the man be naught?
Let Buckingham reply. Genius and wit
May flourish for a day, and snatch the wreath
From awkward probity; but soon shall fade
The ready laurels of a vicious muse,
While amaranthine honours crown the brow
Of unpoetic virtue. Waller's muse
In courteous Granville lives, in Granville dies.
Who can refuse applause to tragic Rowe?
Who can withhold his honest praise from thee,
Tickel, thou friend of Addison, and virtue?
Who is not startled at the fertile wit
Of beardless Congreve? and who does not grieve
That 'twas not drawn in the defence of virtue?
How sweet the music of thy happy lines,
Poetic Prior; full of mirth thy muse,
And exquisite her jest. Ah! hear it not,
Ye sober fair, for fulsome is the tale,
And only fit for the distemper'd ear
Of jovial libertines. His graver song
Applaud unsatisfied, and ever laugh
To see him mount his furious Pegasus
Pindaric, often back'd, but back'd in vain,
And never to be tam'd by crazy wits.
'Twas an unruly and a hard-mouth'd horse,
"And slung his rider if he sat not sure,"
Dan Cowley said. Yet up sprung Mat, resolv'd.
O'er sea and land with an unbounded loose
Runs the mad steed, a Gilpin race I ween.
Hardly the muse can sit the head-strong horse.
See, now she gallops round the Belgic shore,
Now through the raging ocean ploughs her way,
To rough Ierne's camps; there sounds alarms,
In the dank marshes finds her glorious theme,
And plunges after him through Boyne's fierce flood.
Back to his Albion then, then with stiff wing
East, over Danube and Propontis' shores,
From the Moeotis to the northern sea,
To visit the young Muscovite; thence up,
Resolv'd to reach the high empyrean sphere,
And ask for William an Olympic crown.
Till, lost in trackless fields of shining day,
Unhors'd, and all revers'd, down, down she comes,
Comes rushing with uncommon ruin down.
Glorious attempt, but not unhappy fate.
'Twas lucky, Mat, thou had'st not giv'n a name
To some Icarian gulf, or shook at least
The carnal man so sore, that he had limp'd,
And lamely hobbled to the verge of life;
But, thanks to fate, thy pace is even yet,
And happily the Muse her mirthful song
In durance vile prolongs. So have I heard
The captive finch, in narrow cage confin'd,
Charm all his woe away with cheerful song,
Which might have melted e'en a heart of steel
To give him liberty
. Hence, hence, away
Ye meaner wits, hide your diminish'd heads,
See genius self approaches. Homer's soul
A puny child informs. Let envy laugh
To see an urchin ugly as herself
The glory of our isle. For thee, great bard,
We twine the laurel wreath, and grant it thine
Thrice-won. Shall any mortal tongue presume
To scatter censure on thy charming page?
Hark, 'tis the din of twenty thousand curs
Who bark at excellence. Who best deserves
Must feel the scourge of infinite abuse,
For man to man is fiercer than the wolf,
More cruel than the tiger. Who can brook
The sight of aught more worthy than himself?
Invite an angel from the courts of heav'n,
Our critic eye shall spy a thousand faults
Where not a fault exists. Mistake me not,
I name not thee an angel, haughty bard,
Thy deeds were human. With an honest heart
I love the poet, but detest the man.
Thy purer lays what mortal can despise,
Thy baser song what mortal can approve,
Thou witty, dirty, patriotic Dean?
Laugh on, laugh on. With pencil exquisite
Picture the features of encourag'd vice,
And fashionable folly. Give the fair,
The peerless Stella, everlasting worth,
Deride thy narrow paper-sparing friend;
And gall the great. But why shall thy sweet Muse
Turn scavenger, and the foul kennel rake
For themes and similes? What heart but grieves,
To find an equal portion in thy song
Of elegantly fair and grossly foul?
Now honest Gay, a city shepherd, sings,
Nor sings in vain to us. In Arcady
We love to stray, and dream of happy days
No eye has seen, no heart has felt. We love
The land of Fairy, and the puny deeds
Of dapper elves. Whate'er the frantic poet
In his wild mood imagines, we applaud.
Nor wholly scorn with Gay or Broom to stray,
Or Ambrose Philips, through enchanted land
To painted meadows, flow'ry lawns and hills,
To crystal floods, cool groves, and shady bow'rs,
And rills that babble, tinkle, purl, and murmur.
How sweet the song that from thy mellow pipe,
Dear Parnel, flow'd. Death overheard amaz'd,
And his stone couch forsook, all wonder now,
And now all envy. Sure he thought no bard
Of mortal mixture could such tones create;
Or if of mortal mixture, he had liv'd
Double the days of man, and stol'n from years
Due to the reign of silence and of death,
Song so divine. With the bad thought possess'd,
He keen'd his arrow on a flint, advanc'd,
And threw it greedily, his lipless jaws
Gnashing with hate. So fell betimes the bard,
So triumph'd death, and at the bloody deed
Shook his lean bones with laughter. Cursed fiend,
Thou bane of excellence, go hence, and laugh;
Yet shall the pious poet sing again,
And thou shalt hear, and with eternal wrath
Ay burning, dance with agony, and gnaw,
Howling for pain, the adamantine gates
Of treble-bolted Hell.
Searching "heart" and "steel" in HDIS (Poetry)
7 entries in ESTC (1788, 1790, 1792, 1793, 1797).

See The Village Curate, A Poem (London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1788). <Link to ESTC>
Date of Entry

The Mind is a Metaphor is authored by Brad Pasanek, Assistant Professor of English, University of Virginia.