"A Flea Hath Smaller Fleas That On Him Prey"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: A lengthy and brilliantly sarcastic poem, On Poetry is representative of Swift's finest work in poetry and satire. In it he sets out to instruct the beginning poet who would become rich and famous. First he points out some of the obstacles; not only are there a great many scribblers for every real poet, but most of them are doomed to penury and derision. None is "so disqualified by Fate" as he who has "poetick fire." If, in spite of these warnings, the beginner is still undaunted, "an old experienc'd Sinner" named Swift will tell him how to write. A description of the writing process is followed by this comment on the poet's joy when he sees his first effort appear anonymously in print: "The Product of your Toil and Sweating;/ A Bastard of your own begetting." If he is not willing to quit after hearing his friends' criticism, the poet must try a second and third time; if he is still hopeless he can either become a critic or make a good living turning out trashy doggerel in praise of the Court. Such is fame, and Swift describes its hierarchy:

Each Poet of inferior size
On you shall rail and criticize;
. . .
So, Nat'ralists observe, a Flea
Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller Fleas to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum:
Thus ev'ry Poet in his Kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind. . . .