Three Riddles

by Jonathan Swift

In Youth exalted high in Air,
Or bathing in the Waters fair;
Nature to form me took Delight,
And clad my Body all in White:
My Person tall, and slender Waste,
On either Side with Fringes grac’d;
Till me that Tyrant Man espy’d,
And drag’d me from my Mother’s side:
No Wonder now I look so thin;
The Tyrant strip’t me to the Skin:
My Skin he flay’d, my Hair he cropt;
At Head and Foot my Body lopt:
And then, with Heart more hard than Stone,
He pick’t my Marrow from the Bone.
To vex me more, he took a Freak,
To slit my Tongue, and made me speak:
But, that which wonderful appears,
I speak to Eyes and not to Ears.
He oft employs me in Disguise,
And makes me tell a Thousand Lyes:
To me he chiefly gives in Trust
To please his Malice, or his Lust.
From me no Secret he can hide;
I see his Vanity and Pride:
And my Delight is to expose
His Follies to his greatest Foes.

All languages I can command,
Yet not a Word I understand.
Without my Aid, the best Divine
In Learning would not know a Line:
The Lawyer must forget his Pleading,
The Scholar could not shew his Reading.
Nay; Man, my Master, is my Slave:
I give Command to kill or save.
Can grant ten Thousand Pounds a Year,
And make a Beggar’s Brat a Peer.

But, while I thus my Life relate,
I only hasten on my Fate.
My Tongue is black, my Mouth is furr’d,
I hardly now can force a Word.
I dye unpity’d and forgot;
And on some Dunghill left to rot.

The “slit tongue” reference might seem odd today, but it comes from an ancient theory about making some birds “talk” as explained by John Marzluff and Tony Angell in the book “In the Company of Crows and Ravens”:

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