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Title: "The Eagle Doesn't Catch Flies," Class Composition of Thomas W. Mason, [1856]: Electronic Edition.
Author: Mason, Thomas Williams, 1839-1921
Editor: Erika Lindemann
Funding from the State Library of North Carolina supported the electronic publication of this title.
Text transcribed by Erika Lindemann, Suzanne Craymer, and Laura Gribbin
Images scanned by Mara E. Dabrishus
Text encoded by Brian Dietz
First Edition, 2005
Size of electronic edition: ca. 26K
Publisher: The University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
© This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text
The electronic edition is a part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill digital library, Documenting the American South.
Languages used in the text: English Latin
Revision history:
2005-04-25, Brian Dietz finished TEI/XML encoding.
Part of a series:
This transcribed document is part of a digital collection, titled True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students in North Carolina
written by Lindemann, Erika
Title of collection: Sally Long Jarman Papers (#4005), Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Title of document: "The Eagle Doesn't Catch Flies," Class Composition of Thomas W. Mason, [1856]
Author: Thomas W. Mason
Description: 5 pages, 6 page images
Note: Call number 4005 (Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Topics covered:
Education/Goals and Purposes
Politics and Government/Political Issues
Reading and Writing/Reading
Examples of Student Writing/Compositions, Examples of
Religion and Philosophy/Christianity and Christian Theology
Editorial practices
The text has been encoded using the recommendations for Level 5 of the TEI in Libraries Guidelines.
Transcript of the class composition. Originals are in the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Original grammar, punctuation, and spelling have been preserved.
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Any hyphens occurring in line breaks have been removed, and the trailing part of a word has been joined to the preceding line.
Letters, words and passages marked as deleted or added in originals have been encoded accordingly.
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All double right and left quotation marks are encoded as ".
All single right and left quotation marks are encoded as '.
All em dashes are encoded as —.
Indentation in lines has not been preserved.

For more information about transcription and other editorial decisions, see Dr. Erika Lindemann's explanation under the section Editorial Practices.

Document Summary

Mason's composition interprets the proverb, "The Eagle Doesn't Catch Flies," as referring to the eagle's selectivity in choosing noble animals, not flies, for his prey. A preeminent symbol in Greek mythology and Christianity, the eagle teaches us to develop characters that show fixedness of purpose, choose the best pursuits in life, and aspire to greatness.
"The Eagle Doesn't Catch Flies," Class Composition of Thomas W. Mason , [1856]1
Mason, Thomas Williams, 1839-1921

Page 1


The Eagle do'es-n't catch flies2
It is a fact, worthy of notice, that while the eagle3 is, of all birds, the most4 merciless towards and eager after5 his prey, he nevertheless makes good choice of it, in selecting the noblest animals that come within reach of his cruel talons. With his airie6 upon the mountains, and his home among the clouds, he scorns, as it were, to devour the little insect that he may meet with in his flight, or to descend upon the piteous worm that crawls the earth. As if really feeling himself king of birds, he seems to have higher aspirations than to destroy so mean a creature as a fly. He would not degrade his noble young by bringing them such humble food; but would, with revolting cruelty, bare7 through the air the bleating lamb or wailing infant, as a triumphant conqueror returning from the field of conquest.8 The God of Nature has placed within his breast a noble instinct that guides him in a brighter career, and teaches him that there is no glory in destroying a creature so much weaker than himself. He will not pollute his throne by the blood of the9 meaner creatures: his noble instinct forbids.10
It is for this reason that he has always been styled king of birds, and has obtained the sceptre over them. He has been represented in fable as leading their armies out to battle. He is said, in Greek mythology, to have been employed by Jupiter to snatch the yellow-haired Ganymede from his flocks and transport him to heaven to be his future cup-bearer. He is also represented with Jove's thunderbolts in his talons, the messengers of his direful wrath.

1 verso page

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Powerful nations have felt proud to have the eagle represented as bearing in his talons their banner, emblematic of the prosperity that should attend their country, and their rank among other nations. He has been stamped upon their coin, as though his mere image would promote it's currency. And still more to his glory, our blessed Lord has not forgotten to remind the disconsolate children of Israel to be faithful in the observance of his laws since he had brought them out from the lands of Egypt on "eagle's wings".11 The eagle then seems to be the type of all that is most noble and good: of liberty, learning and christianity, all three combined in the star-spangled banner which he may be said to have borne so nobly for the last eighty years, of constancy and durability which his image upon our coin implies, of vengeance upon the wicked and unjust, as the carrier of Jove's thunderbolt, and, above all, of that sentiment which pervades the whole of12 sacred writings, and which has thrown a halo of glory around the Messiah's name, protective to the poor and oppressed: "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself".13 What a glorious picture is this for the poet or the painter: The mighty eagle of Christianity bearing on his outstretched pinions the care-worn Israelites from the oppression of Pharaoh, through the wilderness, for forty long years of trial and trouble, and placing them at last in the Canaan of their hopes, "a land flowing with milk and honey"14—in the very bosom of their God! What a noble office is the eagle here represented as performing: carrying on his wings God's chosen people! Many are the types of nobility which his character has procured him, among the other birds.

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And why has he thus been so distinguished? Because he never stops to catch flies. Because he has high aspirations, congenial with the clouds upon which he rides, and the mountain tops upon which he rests. His character, to use the expression, has constituted him king of the birds, and he sits, as a wise ruler upon his throne, dispensing justice.
From these simple words, "The Eagle doesnt catch flies", a moral lesson is taught the human race. The eagle, by his qualities, has obtained preeminence among the other birds, and if we wish to be preeminent with our own kind, we must try to possess similar qualities. Let us see what these are15 in order that we may try to ingraft them into16 our own natures. In the first place the moral inculcates that only sure guide to prosperity and happiness, fixedness of purpose and resolution. without this a man can certainly attain to nothing great or good. As the eagle descries the object of prey, worthy of it's talons, and then darts upon it with a velocity that heeds not small obstacles, so we must find out some noble object of pursuit, and then set out resolutely to obtain it. We must not stop at every little thing on the way-side, that asks for some attention; for if we do, we will17 be like a traveller who sets out on a journey to some beautiful city, but sees so many things to admire on the way that he never reaches his journey's end, and dies with broken hopes. If we see a beautiful object in the distance, and obstacles intervene so that we are unwilling to approach it, it will never come to us. Fixedness of purpose and resolution will alone carry a person

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well through this life of change and chance. Without these,18 we are a cipher. Those lines of Byron, in a translation of an ode of Horace, should ever be before our eyes:
The man of firm and fixed resolve
No factious clamors can control
No Tyrant, by his threatening nod
Can swerve him from his just intent.19
As the eagle shows discretion in selecting the object of prey, so ought we to use discretion in chosing the best pursuits in life, and especially in the training of our moral and intellectual faculties, pruning20 the evil and cultivating the good. When we are about to enter upon life we stand at the intersection of four wide roads; the one leading to ruin and misery, another to earthly happiness, another to earthly glory, and the fourth to glory and happiness, in heaven and on earth, combined. We need discretion then to select one of the four. We must not catch a fly. Again, life is a garden of various flowers, all equally beautiful; but some containing the poison of those meaner passions which corrupt man's heart. We need discretion then lest, like the poor bird that falls beneath the fatal Upas tree, we inhale some of these noxious odors, ere we are aware.
Our moral also teaches us to have high aspirations. The noble bird does not catch flies, neither ought we to catch trifling things. We are created with a loftier statue21 than the rest of the animals, and all our thoughts and actions should be lofty also. High aspirations have made all our great and good mean, have raised many from the lowest depth of poverty and ignorance. As the small essence of the acorn, hardly breaking at first the earth's crust, and aspiring, as it were, to sweep the

Page 5
very floor of heaven with its branches, becomes a mighty oak, so we, though weak at first, must turn our eyes, our body, our thoughts upward, and we will22 be the tall oak, 'neath whose branches the weary and oppressed will delight to sit. If we aspire to something great or good, ambition is apt to urge us on to it, as it did Jason in search of the "Golden Fleece", Aeneas in search of the oracle—told loud of Italy, and Columbus in search of our own country. Had he not have23 had high aspirations to confer a great benefit on the human race, this goodly land of ours might still have been buried, as it were, in the depths of the ocean. Lastly since our moral teaches us to have high aspirations and fixedness of purpose, it may be said to teach us everything that is great and good. Then let learning and Christianity be our aspirations, moral courage and faith our watch-word, and prosperity on earth, happiness in heaven will be ours.
That Eagles do not catch at24 flies
Let us remember, and be wise.


1. Sally Jarman Long Papers, SHC. Though undated, the composition was written for John Thomas Wheat , professor of rhetoric and logic, who corrected it in pencil (see Prof. Wheat's comment on page 1 verso image). The topic, a proverb, is consistent with assignments that would have been given in the sophomore composition class. A second essay on the same topic, written by William Carey Dowd and also corrected by Wheat , survives (see "Class Composition of William C. Dowd").

2. The title is a proverb attributed to Erasmus (c. 1467-1536): "Ad aquila non captat muscas."

3. Mason wrote a on top of g as the second character of eagle.

4. Wheat inserted eager & above most in pencil.

5. Wheat crossed out in pencil "towards and eager after" and wrote "in the pursuit" above the phrase.

6. Wheat crossed out airie and pencilled eyry above the word.

7. Wheat corrected bare to bear by crossing out e and inserting e between b and a.

8. Wheat crossed out conquest and pencilled battle above the word.

9. Wheat crossed out the in pencil.

10. Wheat inserted it in pencil after forbids.

11. Exodus 19:4 : "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you to myself."Wheat pencilled an X after this sentence to indicate an insertion, the text of which he wrote on the verso of the previous page: "Again in Rev. a 'flying eagle' is one of the four beasts that are before the throne, symbolizing the Gospel agencies that are hastening the coming of the Millenium."

12. Wheat inserted the in pencil after of.

13. Exodus 19:4 .

14. Exodus 3:8 : "And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey."

15. Wheat inserted a comma in pencil after are.

16. Wheat crossed out into and pencilled upon above the word.

17. Wheat crossed out will and pencilled shall above the word.

18. Mason wrote these on top of this.

19. George Noel Gordon, Lord Byron, "Horace, Ode 3, Lib. 3," Hours of Idleness (1806?): "The man of firm, and noble soul/No factious clamours can controul;/No threat'ning tyrant's darkling brow/Can swerve him from his just intent."

20. Wheat crossed out pruning and pencilled eradicating above the word.

21. Wheat corrected statue to stature by inserting r between u and e.

22. Wheat crossed out will and pencilled shall above the word.

23. Wheat crossed out have in pencil.

24. Wheat wrote in pencil "feast on" above "catch at."