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Two Views of Power

The Hawk and the Nightingale

After Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 202-212

A hawk rode in his kingdom
one ancient summer’s day.
He spotted, stooped and fell upon
a nightingale for prey.

He grabbed her pretty coloured neck.
Up to the clouds he swept.
His claws had pierced her deeply
so that piteously she wept.

The hawk spoke roughly: ‘Stupid bird,
there’s no point crying out.
You think you’ve got a lovely voice?
You sing quite well, no doubt,

but I’m the daddy; in my grip
you’ll travel where I wish.
I’ll have you for my dinner;
you’re a tasty little dish.

Or if today’s your lucky day
I might — you never know —
decide that I’m not hungry now
and let this morsel go.

The point is: know your place, my friend,
don’t punch above your weight.
You’ll always come off second best
when tangling with the great.’

The hawk’s words caused the nightingale
to quiver in despair
at high-speed, long-winged psychopaths
who terrorise the air.

The poet told this tale
‘to kings who understand’, at least,
that human nature’s nobler
than the nature of the beast.

Alas, the record since he wrote
inclines to the reverse.
Our cruelty’s not cannibal;
our wickedness is worse.

Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 202-212

νῦν δ᾿ αἶνον βασιλεῦσ᾿ ἐρέω, φρονέουσι καὶ αὐτοῖς.
ὧδ᾿ ἴρηξ προσέειπεν ἀηδόνα ποικιλόδειρον,
ὕψι μάλ᾿ ἐν νεφέεσσι φέρων, ὀνύχεσσι μεμαρπώς·
ἡ δ᾿ ἐλεόν, γναμπτοῖσι πεπαρμένη ἀμφ᾿ ὀνύχεσσιν,
μύρετο· τὴν ὅ γ᾿ ἐπικρατέως πρὸς μῦθον ἔειπεν·
“δαιμονίη, τί λέληκας; ἔχει νύ σε πολλὸν ἀρείων·
τῇ δ᾿ εἶς ᾗ σ᾿ ἂν ἐγώ περ ἄγω καὶ ἀοιδὸν ἐοῦσαν·
δεῖπνον δ᾿ αἴ κ᾿ ἐθέλω ποιήσομαι ἠὲ μεθήσω.
ἄφρων δ᾿ ὅς κ᾿ ἐθέλῃ πρὸς κρείσσονας ἀντιφερίζειν·
νίκης τε στέρεται πρός τ᾿ αἴσχεσιν ἄλγεα πάσχει.”
ὣς ἔφατ᾿ ὠκυπέτης ἴρηξ, τανυσίπτερος ὄρνις.

The Eagle and the Wren

From Aesop, according to Plutarch

The birds had heard that men have kings
(the fabulist relates).
Some wondered, ‘Should we do the same?’
This led to fierce debates.

‘I move that we select a king…’
Here was the magpie’s voice.
That chatterbox of vanity
thought he should be their choice.

‘…and I’d be willing, if you wish…’
‘No, no,’ the others said.
‘You strut your stuff enough
without a crown put on your head.’

They then discussed what qualities
befit a royal fowl.
The sparrow sensibly proposed:
‘Let’s go and ask the owl.’

They flocked to seek the wisdom
of the old man in the oak.
He scratched his chin, considered long,
and finally he spoke.

‘Why imitate a species
that’s restricted to the earth?
From what I’ve seen, their monarchs
are more trouble than they’re worth.

But if you must, here’s my advice:
choose as your chief the bird
who flies the highest in the air.’
They took him at his word.

Equipped with keen binoculars,
the owl lined up the crowds.
He gave a great ‘To-woo!’ and off
they headed for the clouds.

It was an awesome sight to see
a hundred birds take wing,
when ninety-nine would fail the test
and one return a king.

(The ostrich had abstained
from all this nonsense from the start.
‘In my opinion, flying’s such
an overrated art.’)

Who would emerge victorious?
Whose feathers would be crowned?
The weaklings — ninety-eight — fell back
exhausted to the ground.

Only the eagle now remained.
Pride was his overthrow.
During a lap of honour
for his public down below,

he felt a wriggling on his back,
a pushing-off; and then
there fluttered higher still, he saw,
a small, triumphant wren.

‘You cheat!’ he squawked. ‘You can’t do that!’
‘Why not?’ the wren replied.
‘It’s called collaboration. Shall we
let the owl decide?’

The owl, consulted, judged the case
with words to this effect:
‘I will admit, the question strains
my humble intellect,

but since you’re set on copying
the foolish ways of men:
it’s brains, not force, that leaders need.
The winner is: the wren!’

The owl was a republican.
On royalty, the doubt
in his first thoughts was best, I think;
we’re better off without.

Audio file

Listen to this poem — read by the author