The Humourist (March 5, 1754)

Today, the Humourist continues his mock literary analysis of the dreadful combat between Moore of Moore Hall and the Dragon of Wantley. It might be beneficial to read the full text of the ballad before reading today’s essay: “The Dragon of Wantley.”

[Numb. 1029]


Arma virumq; cano.  VIRGIL.1

In my last, I just lead the Reader into the Scene of Action:  I come now to be more explicit, as well as the ingenious Poet under Consideration, and shall conclude my Remarks in the Paper of this Day.

‘But there is a Hedge,

‘Just on the Hill Edge,

‘And Mathew’s House hard by it.

Is it possible for any Tongue to express more Simplicity, or to discover a more natural Ease of Delivery than the above Lines?  Nothing can give us a finer Idea of Mathew‘s House but the Sight of it.  There our Poet strongly conjectures, that this Dragon was a Witch:  I believe ’tis the first Time any Genius ever stumbled upon so singular a Sentiment; and then the burning Snivel he cast into the Well, is so beauteous and so exquisite a Comparison, added to the Consideration of its being the first Tho’t of the kind either amongst ancient or modern Writers, that a prime Genius would not scruple to have purchased it at the Expence of his most correct Performance.

Our Poet, speaking of this Snivel in the Well, informs you of its Effect,

‘Which made it look

‘Just like a Brook

‘Running with burning Brandy.

Does not this Piece of Imagery put any sensible Man in mind of Snap-Dragon?  Every Child in the Town will discover this Beauty.  The People of these Days (the lower Class I mean) may perhaps be of Opinion, that burning Gin would be a brighter Expression than that of Brandy, but then they are not apprised of a manifest Error, viz. that the Verse would not run so sweet as in the present Case, and then it might fairly be said to be a Specimen of what Swift calls the Art of sinking in Poetry.2

We have a charming Description of our Hero’s excellent Qualities, far superior to what Ajax3 ever had Pretension to boast, or Marshal Saxe4 to assume:  He made nothing of swinging a Horse to Death and eating him:  The Country People of those Days, who had with Christian Patience submitted to the Power of priestly Government, began to entertain most sanguine Expectations of our Hero’s Appetite, and address’d him in one of the greatest Strokes of Oratory, that for its Singularity I cannot omit transcribing.

‘These Children, as I told, being eat,

‘Men, Women, Girls and Boys,

“Sighing and sobbing, came to his Lodging,

‘And made a hideous Noise.

Observe the Harmony.  Pope never murmured so delightfully in his Life.

‘O save us all,

‘Moore of Moore-Hall,

‘Thou peerless Knight of these Woods,

‘Do but slay this Dragon,

‘He won’t leave us a Rag on,

We’ll give thee all our Goods.

He won’t leave us a Rag on!  Is it in the Power of Man to write a more pathetic Line, or one more forcible than the last?  But the Hero generously refused the Offer, and only asks for a smiling Girl about the Mouth.

The armed Terror with which he stalks into the Field is well express’d, being beset, as he informs us,

‘With Spikes about,

‘Not within, but without.

Thus has our Poet excelled in the descriptive Part of Poetry, and the following Stanza is a full Proof of his Talents for the instructive.

‘It is not Strength that always wins,

‘For wit does Strength excel,

‘Which made our cunning Champion

‘Creep down into a Well.

This put me in Mind of these old Lines,

He that

— — — — runs away

May live to fight another Day;

But he that is in Battle slain,

Can never rise to fight again.6

However we find, by what follows, that the Well had near proved an unfortunate Asylum for our Champion; for you must know, that this Dragon was hugely given to Drinking,

‘And as he stoop’d low,

‘He rose up, and cry’d Boo,

‘And hit him in the Mouth.

This was the Praeludium Mortis, so far the Incident was of use to the Combatant; I omit the Speeches upon the Occasion, in order to make Room for that extraordinary one of the Dragon just before his Exit.

‘Then his Head he shak’d,

‘Trembled and quak’d,

‘And down he sat and cry’d’;

‘First on one Knee,

‘Then on Back tumbled he,

‘So groaned, kick’d, s–t, and dy’d.


1 In the Aeneid, Virgil sang “of arms and a man.”

2 Johathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and John Arbuthnot were members of the Scriblerus Club, a group of writers who mocked mediocrity in the arts and sciences.  Their output included Pope’s Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1727).

3 In Homer’s Iliad, Ajax is known for his colossal frame and strength.

4 Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750), who distinguished himself in the War of Austrian Succession.

5 An old proverb, generally attributed to Tacitus.

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