The Day Swift Came to Call Upon Pascal

The Day Swift Came to Call Upon Pascal

The road winds unpredictably about Pascal’s estate,
‘Least, so complains a certain bloke who traveled it of late,
In coming to return a book he’d borrowed and perused,
Was wearied by the blasted thing and felt himself abused,
(He’d borrowed it that winter from my master’s library
Which he keeps for his convenience at the Port-Royal Society)
Jonathan Swift, I mean, for by the sheerest accident
They are the best of friends, although of different sentiments.
And where was I, you ask yourself, that I so well recall?
Why, I’m the gent’s own gardener and overheard it all!
I’ll tell you all about it too, if you would be so kind
To suffer informality and let me drop this rhyme.
A bit of such perfection makes the finest introduction
But you’d soon loose your taste for it with constant repetition,
And I can’t keep such language up, nor could you, I conceive,
Unless you’re better born than I, and that I won’t believe.

I was half-way up the ladder with my pruning-shears in hand,
Pruning a tree I should have pruned a day or so ago,
When I saw him half-way down the road and heard him curse the land.
He gave a stone a hearty kick and gave the sky a shout
But his anger’s sole success was to rebuke himself, I know.
I watched him as he slowly limped across the stable yard.
Pascal was sitting lost in thought beneath the very tree.
Indeed, they never saw me there and to this very day
Neither knows that I was hearing every word they said.
It was a sunny afternoon, close to three I’d say
When John Swift stumbled through the gate and shook the dust away.

“Pascal, I say, you’ve built your house a damn long way from town
And give a man a ways to walk to bring a book and turn around again!”

“Swift! How long has it been since the Port-Royal Inn
When we entered our great drinking contest,
When you wagered whoever drank more than his measure
Was more of a man than the other?
Four months I conjecture, it still was cold weather,
You drank me right under the table!
And if you’re not the better man,
At least you are more able!
But come, sit down, there’s room for two,
Talk and rest awhile.
Admire the products of my art,
My sole joy and distraction.”

“What shall we talk about?”

“The book, of course!
I’m anxious to hear your thoughts upon the matter.
I see you have a marker in the middle.”

“Middle indeed!
I thought it was the beginning
Or perhaps the end,
But middle, it could never serve as middle.
This book has a surplus of beginnings and ends
And is sorely in need of a middle.
Mister Aristotle would not think kindly
Of such deficiencies.”

“To hell with Aristotle.
What did you think of what it had to say?”

“Oh, please, I really wish you would discuss it.
I loaned it to you for a special reason.
You weren’t half so intractable as this
The night I was defeated in our contest.
It was part of our bargain.
You said you’d read it over if I’d play.”

“That was before I knew what it was about!
I’m adamant.
If we talk at all, we’ll talk of something different.”

“By all means, then, out of regard for you,
No further words about the book will ever pass between us.
I give you my promise, as good as the word Jehovah gave to Moses.”

I felt myself an awkward bird in my ungainly nest,
Watching to see what scheme would hatch
From this strange conversation.
I left my ladder while the gentlemen were getting seated,
Crawling out upon a limb whose angles fit my features.
To hear him treat my master so, I thought to take my shears
And prune this fellow’s haughty ways a little at the ears.
I was dissuaded by my present delicate situation,
And greatly feared discovery when my foot chanced to dislodge
An over-ripened apple which dropped in their conversation.

“Damn, an apple!” Swift cried out, “It nearly broke my skull!”

“Your head is far to hard, I fear, to let an apple dent it.”

“Your garden is too cramped, I fear, to possibly prevent it.”

“Cramped? What do you mean?
I’ve spent some years in planning this estate
Constructed from meticulous design
Which I devised according to some geometric laws.
Everything is most purposefully placed
And has a cause behind it, either from utility or beauty,
Though principally from beauty, I would say.”

“If this were my estate, I’d build it very differently.
I’d let the hedges gain some height,
and put a lock upon the garden gate.
I’d move the stable closer to the house.”

“Those beasts are just as well off where they are.”

“You’ve grown too gentile in your ways.
Although I never cared for gardens, or for country life.
Give me a city!
If you want a garden, take a king’s garden or a grand park,
With statues of Heroes and Muses along the walks,
And mazes, to amuse the gentlewomen.
If you wanted country life,
You should have been a farmer
Like your farmer-neighbor down the road a ways,
The furrows in his fields as orderly,
As if he’d used a straightedge, not a plow.
You want to be a farmer without the sweat.
I’d hardly call your estate a work of art.
Why, look at your garden hedge.
There’s not one angle in it to be found.
That makes your garden look more like some egg.
It doesn’t even have a front or back.
And just these two trees standing in the center.
This place falls short of a garden, and more so of art.
It’s hardly fit to entertain a friend
Who comes upon a Sunday afternoon.”

“You’re wrong on one thing, Jonathan,
I’m far from growing soft on my estate.
And for another, this is something more than just a garden.
It’s more, I’m sure, than you suspect it is.”

“More than I suspect!
What parable is this?
Have you some critic buried underneath us?”

“If you want a grave,
You’ll find the churchyard half-way up the road.
And as for that solemn gentleman you mentioned,
It’s even more than critics would expect.
This garden serves as paradigm of sorts,
Or diagram to aid me in my vision.
I sit here days and wander its perspectives.
I am a sedentary traveler.”

“Sedentary traveler? What kind is that?”

“The best!
Quite like Odysseus in retrospect,
In Ithaca reflecting in his garden
Upon a man encountered in his journey,
Or even more, like Homer by a fire
As he reflected on the Odyssey.
What fruits this yields lie in one’s point of view.
As for the garden, it is its own fruit,
Ripening in the light of my understanding.
It takes on different shades from day to day.
And just this afternoon it came to be
The most revealing land I’ve ever been to.”

“What more can a garden be than what it seems to be?”

“A wilderness!”

“Wilderness? You must be mad!
Some apples surely fell on your head too!”

“No apples, just imagination,
That noble philosophic laboratory.
I would assert that a garden
Is not a garden, but a forest
In which a man may loose himself in jest.
But many call a forest a garden in earnest
From which no man has found his way out yet.
Artifice becomes manifest in proportion to the person.
That a large garden is a small forest is certain,
Or a large forest to small inhabitants.
It’s character relies upon the stature,
In mind and body, of its occupants.
To give example from a fairy tale,
A garden is a children’s wilderness.”

“Why, this is most absurd.
When gardens become forests
Do children become men?
When animals become men,
What do men become, Gods?”

“Jonathan, how well you learn your lesson!”

“I’m not so sure I want to be a pupil to a teaching
Which has in it the power to make
Some Englishmen I know appear divine.”

“It’s only a mixture of fiction and mathematics.
Can innocence as this affect your scruples?”

“It’s not my scruples, though I have a number,
But all the scruples I find lacking
In my fellow-creatures which deter me.”

“Man is not disposed thus by my notion.
This is where he is,
Just where I found him,
Lost amid terms of a grand proportion.
It’s only natural that
A thing is where you find it.
My estate is nowhere but where you found it.
The garden is my contrivance,
Showing only where I’ve sown it.
But it’s fruits are natural,
Composed by God’s own wit!”

The meaning of the two was quite beyond me,
Swift for all his rudeness,
And my master for all his philosophy.
I was listening to their discourse most intently.
My stomach, distracted by my mind,
Forgot it’s recent dinner.
Each alone could be digested only with difficulty.
The two together in such intimacy,
Like Dido and Aeneas in the cavern of my innards,
Married and conceived a child so clamorous and loathsome
A noise and a shame so great,
I fead the leaves would fail to clothe them.

The two below in their surprise
Sky-ward turned their heads,
Vainly searching with their eyes,
“What beast is this?”, they said.

“Perhaps it is no beast at all
But some divine portent.”

“I’d be more inclined to say a demon, devil-sent
To inflict some false opinion on our conversation.”

“I’m confident that we can find a natural explanation!”

“One might sooner hunt a unicorn than hunt the truth,
Although he’ll testify in court as proof
To a cow he once glimpsed sideways through a barn door,
Or set himself to catch and tame a centaur,
his expectations may be raised indeed,
If he follows a farm boy riding through the reeds.”

“A creature which might otherwise elude us
Should we confront it full-faced and focus our attention,
May linger near us if we sit in profile
And at the limits of our vision study it a while.”

“Oh, curses, I’ve lost my glasses.
Were it as bloody big as me, I still would fail to see it.”

“Were you a dog, perhaps you’d SNIFF it out.”

“I’d do it if my nose were slightly longer.”

My master chose to follow his own prescription,
And fixed his gaze in my tool shed’s direction,
But Swift would not adhere to such a preaching.
Staring at me, pardon my laughter as I recall this joke,
He seized the only missile in his reach
And hurled it at me, but his aim was foul.
To my amazement and his satisfaction,
It dislodged a sleeping owl,
Who, being so unjustly made to wake,
Flew down and chose to sit in judgment
On the garden gate,
Reeling in the daylight like one drunk.

“Only four?” said Swift.

“Why so it is, my pocket watch agrees.
To me, it seemed much longer than an hour.
Well, I’ll go back to town I guess.
I’ve got a lot to do.
I’ve got a book myself to write,
(It has a MIDDLE too!)”

The owl abandoned the gate as Swift approached
And returned to his hollow, his eyes now used to the light.
Swift departed just the way he came,
But did not kick the stone a second time.
Pascal too retired to his house.
And I descended the ladder and stood in the garden,
Alone, sole witness to the sun now setting.

The book lay on the ground, I picked it up,
Opened it to the marker, and read a while.

I mused upon the happy accidents which had concealed me,
But, then, what seems an accident may be most natural.
This tree I prune would not be here unless an apple fell
Many years ago, by chance,
While I secured the parent in its place,
Upon whose seed have been inscribed
The pattern of the race.

Poor Pascal, he really needs a gardener I’m afraid,
For he’s so busy with his thoughts he’d never be reminded
To tend his garden but would let it grow out of proportion.

I suspect Swift never read the book at all,
But accepted it and returned it out of politeness.
Rumor has it that his French is poor.

It really is a gardening book of sorts,
Although my master never would say so,
For my reading in it
Taught me everything I know.

(written circa 1970)


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