The Bee and the Spider

a versification of an episode from "The Battle of the Books" by Johnathan Swift

©  Copyright 2001  Richard Allen Brodie
 

This satire is about a war that takes place in a library. The antagonists are the Modern Books and the Ancient Books. Swift's sympathies are obviously on the side of the latter. In the middle of the account is a delightlful little tale, rich in symbolism, in which the Moderns are represented by a spider, and the Ancients by a bee. I have rendered it into heptameter couplets with internal rhyme on the fourth foot. Each of the 52 couplets closely reflects the material in the correspondingly numbered section:
 
1. Upon the highest corner of a large window, there dwelt a certain spider,
2. swollen up to the first magnitude by the destruction of infinite numbers of flies,
3. whose spoils lay scattered before the gates of his palace, like human bones before the cave of some giant.
4. The avenues to his castle were guarded with turnpikes and palisadoes, all after the Modern way of fortification.
5. After you had passed several courts, you came to the center, wherein you might behold the constable himself in his own lodgings,
6. which had windows fronting to each avenue, and ports to sally out upon all occasions of prey or defense.
7. In this mansion he had for some time dwelt in peace and plenty, 
8. without danger to his person by swallows from above, or to his palace by brooms from below:
9. when it was the pleasure of fortune to conduct thither a wandering bee,
10. to whose curiosity a broken pane in the glass had discovered itself, and in he went; 
11. where expatiating a while, he at last happened to alight upon one of the outward walls of the spider's citadel;
12. which yielding to the inequal weight, sunk down to the very foundation.
13. Thrice he endeavoured to force his passage, and thrice the center shook.
14. The spider within, feeling the terrible convulsions supposed at first that nature was approaching her final dissolution;
15.or else that Beelzebub, with all his legions, was come to revenge the death of many thousands of his subjects, whom his enemy had slain and devoured.
16. However, he at length valiantly resolved to issue forth, and meet his fate.
17. Meanwhile the bee had acquitted himself of his toils, and posted securely at some distance, 
18. he was employed to clean his wings, and disengaging them from the remnants of the cobweb.
19. By this time the spider was adventured out, when beholding the chasms, and ruins, and dilapidations of his fortress, he was very near at his wits end: 
20. He stormed and swore like a madman, and swelled till he was ready to burst.
21. At length, casting his eye upon the bee, and wisely gathering causes from events (for they knew each other by sight),
22. "A plague split you," said he, "for a giddy son of a whore. Is it you, with a vengeance, that have made this litter here?
23. Could you not look before you, and be damned? Do you think I have nothing else to do (in the devil's name) but to mend and repair 
after your arse?"
24. "Good words, friend," said the bee (having now pruned himself, and being disposed to droll)
25. "I'll give you my hand and word to come near your kennel no more: I was never in such a confounded pickle since I was born."
26. "Sirrah," replied the spider, "if it were not for breaking an old custom in our family, never too stir abroad against an enemy,  I should 
come and teach you better manners."
27. "I pray have patience," said the bee, "or you will spend your substance, and for aught I see, you may stand in need of it all towards the repair of your house."
28. "Rogue, rogue," replied the spider, "methinks you should have more respect to a person, whom all the world allows to be so much your betters."
29. "By my troth," said the bee, "the comparison will amount to a very good jest, and you will do me a favor to let me know the reasons 
that all the world is pleased to use in so hopeful a dispute."
30. At this the spider, having swelled himself into the size and posture of a disputant, began his argument in the true spirit of controversy, 
31. with a resolution to be heartily scurrilous and angry, to urge on his own reasons, 
32. without the least regard to the answers or objections of his opposite, and fully predetermined in his mind against all conviction.
33. "Not to disparage myself," said he, "by the comparison with such a rascal," what art thou but a vagabond, without house or home, 
without stock or inheritance, 
34. born to no possession of your own, but a pair of wings and a drone-pipe?
35. Your livelihood is an universal plunder upon nature; a freebooter over fields and gardens; 
36. and for the sake of stealing will rob a nettle as easily as a violet.
37. Whereas I am a domestic animal, furnished with a native stock within myself.
38. This large castle (to show my improvements in the mathematics) is all built with my own hands, and the materials extracted altogether out of my own person."
39. "I am glad," answered the bee, "to hear you grant at least that I am come honestly by my wings and my voice; 
40. For then, it seems, I am obliged to Heaven alone for my flights and my music:
41. and Providence would never have bestowed me two such gifts, without designing them for the noblest ends.
42. I visit indeed all the flowers of the field and the garden: but whatever I collect from thence enriches myself, without the least injury to their beauty, their smell, or their taste.
43. Now, for you and your skill in architecture and other mathematics,  I have little to say:
44. in that building of yours there might, for aught I know, have been labor and method enough, but by woeful experience for us both, 'tis to plain, the materials are naught,
45. and I hope you will henceforth take warning, and consider duration and matter as well as method and art.
46. You boast, indeed, of being obliged to no other creature, but of drawing and spinning out all from yourself;
47. that is to say, if we may judge of the liquor in the vessel by what issues out, you possess a good plentiful store of dirt and poison in your breast;
48. and, though I would by no means lessen or disparage your genuine stock of either, yet I doubt you are somewhat obliged for an 
increase of both, to a little foreign assistance.
49. Your inherent portion of dirt does not fail of acquisitions by sweepings exhaled from below; and one insect furnishes you with a share of poison to destroy another.
50. So that in short, the question comes all to this: which is the nobler being of the two, that which by a lazy contemplation of four inches round, by an overweening pride,
51. feeding and engendering on itself, turns all in to excrement and venom, producing nothing at last, but fly bane and a cobweb;
52. or that which, by an universal range, with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings home honey and wax.

 
Up by the ceiling in a room
   Beside a window large,
Quite safe from duster, mop, and broom
   A spider was in charge.
 
Fat, swollen up to twice his size,
   Up on his throne he sat;
And gnawed on countless dirty flies
   And many a murdered gnat.
 
Like human bones some ogre's wont
   Outside his lair to cast,
He scatters flybane, nonchalant,
   From his foul black repast.
 
With radiating boulevards
   And beltways round endowed
So he his castle closely guards -
   The Moderns would be proud.
 
Through its periphery you wind,
   A central dais you see,
On which this bloated king's behind
   Sits in vain majesty.
 
Around out on each avenue
   He sallies forth for prey,
Or when his foe comes in to view
   He sallies forth to slay.
 
For quite some time in plenty there
   The spider lived his life;
No foe disturbed his peaceful lair,
   No famine brought, nor strife.
 
No birds flew down out of the sky,
   Not one unwelcome guest;
No people cleaning way up high
   To sweep away his nest.
 
Until quite out of happenstance,
   From regions high and free
It was the pleasure of mischance
   Here to conduct a bee.
 
Whose curiosity a pane
   Of broken glass did spy,
At which he could his entrance gain,
   And through it he did fly.
 
He soared about the citadel
   The spider's toil contrived;
But on a fragile curtain fell -
   Just after he arrived.
 
The weight of this inequal load
   The citadel sunk under,
And every node of that abode
   Was well nigh torn asunder.
 
Thrice he endeavored free to break,
   About he tossed and thrashed;
Great waves of shock that he did make
   Into the center crashed
 
Observing this chaotic din
   This paroxysmic bobbing,
The spider thought that nature in
   The throes of death was throbbing.
 
Or that bold Lucifer approaches
   With his fearsome throng,
And would on him who eats cockroaches
   Take revenge ere long.
 
At last he did some courage find;
   Resolved to boldly go,
He ventured out with valiant mind
   To ferret out his foe.
 
But now the bee no longer toiled
   Loose from his trap he was;
Still he was very badly soiled,
   Wrapped in a sticky gauze.
 
And as from cobweb remnants he
   His wings to clean did strive,
He wished in his extremity
   To fly back to his hive!
 
The spider did his fort survey,
   And its dilapidation,
Its ruin, and its disarray
   Did cause much consternation.
 
So that he stormed around and swore
   And like a madman cursed;
His anger swelled up more and more
   Until he nearly burst.
 
For on the bee his gaze was cast,
   And putting two and two
Together he deduced at last
   The how, the why, and who.
 
"A no good son-of-a-whore you are,
   For you the plague's too good;
I'd boil you in a vat of tar,
   Upon a pyre of wood.
 
You think I've nothing else to do
   But to repair and mend
The damage that is caused by you
   When you my palace rend?"
 
The bee was now completely pruned
   From evey filthy thread,
And with a  dulcet voice, well tuned,
   Unto the spider said:
 
"I will no more come near this lair
   For never was I caught
In such a pickle, nor, I swear,
   In water quite so hot!"
 
"I'll show you better manners, Sir,"
   The spider said, "but nay,
My custom's not abroad to stir
   My enemies to slay."
 
"Have patience pray," replied the bee, 
   "Your substance do not spend,
For you will need it all, you'll see,
   Your tattered flat to mend."
 
"Thou rogue", the spider, miffed, replied,
   "Show more repect unto
A person whom the world hold's high,
   As better far than you."
 
"A good jest," said the bee, "Please do
   This favor - I'm amused -
Some reasons give me, one or two,
   Why all the world's confused."
 
At this the spider's posture grew, 
   For controvery's sake;
Into a fierce debate he flew,
   His honor was at stake.
 
To urge his reasons scurrilously
   He angrily resolved;
But reason to a large degree
   Immediately dissolved.
 
For to objections from his foe
   His mind was firmly closed;
In ignorant conviction, lo,
   His tiny brain reposed.
 
"A rascal such as you" he said,
   "Cannot compare with me.
A vagabond without a bed,
   No home nor stock have ye.
 
You've no  belongings of your own
   But one: that pair of wings,
And two: a drone-pipe monotone
   That only one note sings.
 
You plunder over plot and field,
   In pastures not your own,
Freeloading on the fruitful yield
   Which other men have sown.
 
You'd rob a nettle, I suppose,
   Whether it shines or rains,
As easily as you would a rose;
   Your theft this world disdains.
 
Now me, I'm tame and better trained,
   Not near as wild as you;
Within myself is all contained -
   So well endowed are few.
 
This home I fabricate with care
   I from myself extrude
All needed to trim and repair."
   Thus went their angry feud.
 
Replied the bee, "At least you grant
   I honestly acquire
My wings to fly, my voice to chant,
   My freedom, and my lyre.
 
For then to Heaven alone am I
   Obliged for every thing,
The wings with which I soar so high,
   The music that I sing.
 
And Providence in vain would not
   Design such gifts as these
But with some noble purpose fraught -
   She blessed the bumble bees!
 
Yes, I collect for my own taste 
   From all the garden's flowers;
But there's no injury, no waste
   And nothing dies or sours.
 
Of you as architect, I fear,
   To say, I have but little;
Your math is flawed, that's all too clear,
   You house is weak and brittle.
 
Method and toil might well be in
   Your house of snares and traps
But both of us saw with chagrin
   That it did all collapse!
 
I hope henceforth this clue you'll take
   That durability,
Way more than art and method make
   A building defect free.
 
You other creatures, so ye boast,
   No obligation owe,
To draw and spin your webs you most
   Sufficient are - but lo,
 
By that that issues from it we
   The well's health can adjudge;
And you are very full we see
   Of poison, dirt, and sludge.
 
From whence does this defilement come?
   To whom is owed this bane? 
I do believe you ordure from
   Some other source obtain.
 
Unto your own inherent dirt 
   Some other bugs donate,
The venal venom that you squirt
   Contains their poison hate.
 
The matter comes to this, in short,
   Whose on the nobler side,
He that within a four-inch fort,
   By overweening pride,
 
Feeds and engenders on itself,
   Turns all to venom there,
And leaves a cobweb on the shelf,
   And flybane everywhere -
 
Pray is it him - or is it he
   That far and wide doth roam,
And with much thought and industry
   Brings wax and honey home."

 
Web Counter says you are visitor number