The Fables of La Fontaine, by Jean de La Fontaine

Book II.

I. — Against the Hard to Suit.1

Were I a pet of fair Calliope,

I would devote the gifts conferr’d on me

To dress in verse old Aesop’s lies divine;

For verse, and they, and truth, do well combine;

But, not a favourite on the Muses’ hill,

I dare not arrogate the magic skill,

To ornament these charming stories.

A bard might brighten up their glories,

No doubt. I try, — what one more wise must do.

Thus much I have accomplish’d hitherto:—

By help of my translation,

The beasts hold conversation,

In French, as ne’er they did before.

Indeed, to claim a little more,

The plants and trees,2 with smiling features,

Are turn’d by me to talking creatures.

Who says, that this is not enchanting?

‘Ah,’ says the critics, ‘hear what vaunting!

From one whose work, all told, no more is

Than half-a-dozen baby stories.’3

Would you a theme more credible, my censors,

In graver tone, and style which now and then soars?

Then list! For ten long years the men of Troy,

By means that only heroes can employ,

Had held the allied hosts of Greece at bay, —

Their minings, batterings, stormings day by day,

Their hundred battles on the crimson plain,

Their blood of thousand heroes, all in vain, —

When, by Minerva’s art, a horse of wood,

Of lofty size before their city stood,

Whose flanks immense the sage Ulysses hold,

Brave Diomed, and Ajax fierce and bold,

Whom, with their myrmidons, the huge machine

Would bear within the fated town unseen,

To wreak upon its very gods their rage —

Unheard-of stratagem, in any age.

Which well its crafty authors did repay. . . .

‘Enough, enough,’ our critic folks will say;

‘Your period excites alarm,

Lest you should do your lungs some harm;

And then your monstrous wooden horse,

With squadrons in it at their ease,

Is even harder to endorse

Than Renard cheating Raven of his cheese.

And, more than that, it fits you ill

To wield the old heroic quill.’

Well, then, a humbler tone, if such your will is:—

Long sigh’d and pined the jealous Amaryllis

For her Alcippus, in the sad belief,

None, save her sheep and dog, would know her grief.

Thyrsis, who knows, among the willows slips,

And hears the gentle shepherdess’s lips

Beseech the kind and gentle zephyr

To bear these accents to her lover. . . .

‘Stop!’ says my censor:

‘To laws of rhyme quite irreducible,

That couplet needs again the crucible;

Poetic men, sir,

Must nicely shun the shocks

Of rhymes unorthodox.’

A curse on critics! hold your tongue!

Know I not how to end my song?

Of time and strength what greater waste

Than my attempt to suit your taste?

Some men, more nice than wise,

There’s nought that satisfies.

1] Phaedrus, Book IV. 7.

2] The plants and trees. — Aristotle’s rule for pure fable is that its dramatis personae should be animals only — excluding man. Dr. Johnson (writing upon Gay’s Fables) agrees in this dictum “generally.” But hardly any of the fabulists, from Aesop downwards, seem to have bound themselves by the rule; and in this fable we have La Fontaine rather exulting in his assignment of speech, &c., not only to the lower animals but to “plants and trees,” &c., as well as otherwise defying the “hard to suit,” i.e., the critics.

3] Half-a-dozen baby stories. — Here La Fontaine exalts his muse as a fabulist. This is in reply to certain of his critics who pronounced his work puerile, and pretended to wish him to adopt the higher forms of poetry. Some of the fables of the first six Books were originally published in a semi-private way before 1668. See the Translators Preface. La Fontaine defends his art as a writer of fables also in Book III. (Fable I.); Book V. (Fable I.); Book VI. (Fable I.); Book VII. (Introduction); Book VIII. (Fable IV.), and Book IX. (Fable I).

II. — The Council Held by the Rats 4

Old Rodilard,5 a certain cat,

Such havoc of the rats had made,

’Twas difficult to find a rat

With nature’s debt unpaid.

The few that did remain,

To leave their holes afraid,

From usual food abstain,

Not eating half their fill.

And wonder no one will

That one who made of rats his revel,

With rats pass’d not for cat, but devil.

Now, on a day, this dread rat-eater,

Who had a wife, went out to meet her;

And while he held his caterwauling,

The unkill’d rats, their chapter calling,

Discuss’d the point, in grave debate,

How they might shun impending fate.

Their dean, a prudent rat,

Thought best, and better soon than late,

To bell the fatal cat;

That, when he took his hunting round,

The rats, well caution’d by the sound,

Might hide in safety under ground;

Indeed he knew no other means.

And all the rest

At once confess’d

Their minds were with the dean’s .

No better plan, they all believed,

Could possibly have been conceived,

No doubt the thing would work right well,

If any one would hang the bell.

But, one by one, said every rat,

‘I’m not so big a fool as that.’

The plan, knock’d up in this respect,

The council closed without effect.

And many a council I have seen,

Or reverend chapter with its dean,

That, thus resolving wisely,

Fell through like this precisely.

To argue or refute

Wise counsellors abound;

The man to execute

Is harder to be found.

4] Faerno and Abstemius both have fables upon this subject. Gabriel Faerno (1500-1561) was an Italian writer who published fables in Latin. Perrault translated these into French verse, and published them at Paris in 1699. Faerno was also a famous editor of Terence. Laurentius Abstemius, or Astemio, was an Italian fabulist of the fifteenth century. After their first publication his fables often appeared in editions of Aesop.

5] Rodilard. — The name no doubt taken from the famous cat Rodilardus (bacon-gnawer), in Rabelais, Pantagruel, IV., ch. LXVII.

III. — The Wolf Accusing the Fox Before the Monkey.6

A wolf, affirming his belief

That he had suffer’d by a thief,

Brought up his neighbour fox —

Of whom it was by all confess’d,

His character was not the best —

To fill the prisoner’s box.

As judge between these vermin,

A monkey graced the ermine;

And truly other gifts of Themis7

Did scarcely seem his;

For while each party plead his cause,

Appealing boldly to the laws,

And much the question vex’d,

Our monkey sat perplex’d.

Their words and wrath expended,

Their strife at length was ended;

When, by their malice taught,

The judge this judgment brought:

‘Your characters, my friends, I long have known,

As on this trial clearly shown;

And hence I fine you both — the grounds at large

To state would little profit —

You wolf, in short, as bringing groundless charge,

You fox, as guilty of it.’

Come at it right or wrong, the judge opined

No other than a villain could be fined.8

6] Phaedrus, I. 10.

7] Themis. — The goddess of Justice.

8] So Philip of Macedon is said to have decided a suit by condemning the defendant to banishment and the plaintiff to follow him. The wisdom of each decision lies in taking advantage of a doubtful case to convict two well-known rogues of — previous bad character.

IV. — The Two Bulls and the Frog.9

Two bulls engaged in shocking battle,

Both for a certain heifer’s sake,

And lordship over certain cattle,

A frog began to groan and quake.

‘But what is this to you?’

Inquired another of the croaking crew.

‘Why, sister, don’t you see,

The end of this will be,

That one of these big brutes will yield,

And then be exiled from the field?

No more permitted on the grass to feed,

He’ll forage through our marsh, on rush and reed;

And while he eats or chews the cud,

Will trample on us in the mud.

Alas! to think how frogs must suffer

By means of this proud lady heifer!’

This fear was not without good sense.

One bull was beat, and much to their expense;

For, quick retreating to their reedy bower,

He trod on twenty of them in an hour.

Of little folks it oft has been the fate

To suffer for the follies of the great.

9] Phaedrus, I. 30.

V. — The Bat and the Two Weasels.10

A blundering bat once stuck her head

Into a wakeful weasel’s bed;

Whereat the mistress of the house,

A deadly foe of rats and mice,

Was making ready in a trice

To eat the stranger as a mouse.

‘What! do you dare,’ she said, ‘to creep in

The very bed I sometimes sleep in,

Now, after all the provocation

I’ve suffer’d from your thievish nation?

Are you not really a mouse,

That gnawing pest of every house,

Your special aim to do the cheese ill?

Ay, that you are, or I’m no weasel.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ said the bat;

‘My kind is very far from that.

What! I a mouse! Who told you such a lie?

Why, ma’am, I am a bird;

And, if you doubt my word,

Just see the wings with which I fly.

Long live the mice that cleave the sky!’

These reasons had so fair a show,

The weasel let the creature go.

By some strange fancy led,

The same wise blunderhead,

But two or three days later,

Had chosen for her rest

Another weasel’s nest,

This last, of birds a special hater.

New peril brought this step absurd;

Without a moment’s thought or puzzle,

Dame weasel oped her peaked muzzle

To eat th’ intruder as a bird.

‘Hold! do not wrong me,’ cried the bat;

‘I’m truly no such thing as that.

Your eyesight strange conclusions gathers.

What makes a bird, I pray? Its feathers.

I’m cousin of the mice and rats.

Great Jupiter confound the cats!’

The bat, by such adroit replying,

Twice saved herself from dying.

And many a human stranger

Thus turns his coat in danger;

And sings, as suits, where’er he goes,

‘God save the king!’ — or ‘save his foes!’11

10] Aesop.

11] Or save his foes! — La Fontaine’s last line is — “Vive le roi! Vive la ligue!” conveying an allusion to the “Holy League” of the French Catholic party, which, under the Guises, brought about the war with Henry III. and the Huguenots, which ended, for a time, in the edict of Nantes, promulgated by Henry IV. in 1598.

VI. — The Bird Wounded by an Arrow.12

A bird, with plumèd arrow shot,

In dying case deplored her lot:

‘Alas!’ she cried, ‘the anguish of the thought!

This ruin partly by myself was brought!

Hard-hearted men! from us to borrow

What wings to us the fatal arrow!

But mock us not, ye cruel race,

For you must often take our place.’

The work of half the human brothers

Is making arms against the others.

12] Aesop.

VII. — The Bitch and Her Friend.13

A bitch, that felt her time approaching,

And had no place for parturition,

Went to a female friend, and, broaching

Her delicate condition,

Got leave herself to shut

Within the other’s hut.

At proper time the lender came

Her little premises to claim.

The bitch crawl’d meekly to the door,

And humbly begg’d a fortnight more.

Her little pups, she said, could hardly walk.

In short, the lender yielded to her talk.

The second term expired; the friend had come

To take possession of her house and home.

The bitch, this time, as if she would have bit her,

Replied, ‘I’m ready, madam, with my litter,

To go when you can turn me out.’

Her pups, you see, were fierce and stout.

The creditor, from whom a villain borrows,

Will fewer shillings get again than sorrows.

If you have trusted people of this sort,

You’ll have to plead, and dun, and fight; in short,

If in your house you let one step a foot,

He’ll surely step the other in to boot.

13] Phaedrus, I. 19. See the Translator’s Preface.

VIII. — The Eagle and the Beetle.14

John Rabbit, by Dame Eagle chased,

Was making for his hole in haste,

When, on his way, he met a beetle’s burrow.

I leave you all to think

If such a little chink

Could to a rabbit give protection thorough.

But, since no better could be got,

John Rabbit there was fain to squat.

Of course, in an asylum so absurd,

John felt ere long the talons of the bird.

But first, the beetle, interceding, cried,

‘Great queen of birds, it cannot be denied,

That, maugre my protection, you can bear

My trembling guest, John Rabbit, through the air.

But do not give me such affront, I pray;

And since he craves your grace,

In pity of his case,

Grant him his life, or take us both away;

For he’s my gossip, friend, and neighbour.’

In vain the beetle’s friendly labour;

The eagle clutch’d her prey without reply,

And as she flapp’d her vasty wings to fly,

Struck down our orator and still’d him;

The wonder is she hadn’t kill’d him.

The beetle soon, of sweet revenge in quest,

Flew to the old, gnarl’d mountain oak,

Which proudly bore that haughty eagle’s nest.

And while the bird was gone,

Her eggs, her cherish’d eggs, he broke,

Not sparing one.

Returning from her flight, the eagle’s cry,

Of rage and bitter anguish, fill’d the sky.

But, by excess of passion blind,

Her enemy she fail’d to find.

Her wrath in vain, that year it was her fate

To live a mourning mother, desolate.

The next, she built a loftier nest; ’twas vain;

The beetle found and dash’d her eggs again.

John Rabbit’s death was thus revenged anew.

The second mourning for her murder’d brood

Was such, that through the giant mountain wood,

For six long months, the sleepless echo flew.

The bird, once Ganymede, now made

Her prayer to Jupiter for aid;

And, laying them within his godship’s lap,

She thought her eggs now safe from all mishap;

The god his own could not but make them —

No wretch, would venture there to break them.

And no one did. Their enemy, this time,

Upsoaring to a place sublime,

Let fall upon his royal robes some dirt,

Which Jove just shaking, with a sudden flirt,

Threw out the eggs, no one knows whither.

When Jupiter inform’d her how th’ event

Occurr’d by purest accident,

The eagle raved; there was no reasoning with her;

She gave out threats of leaving court,

To make the desert her resort,

And other brav’ries of this sort.

Poor Jupiter in silence heard

The uproar of his favourite bird.

Before his throne the beetle now appear’d,

And by a clear complaint the mystery clear’d.

The god pronounced the eagle in the wrong.

But still, their hatred was so old and strong,

These enemies could not be reconciled;

And, that the general peace might not be spoil’d, —

The best that he could do, — the god arranged,

That thence the eagle’s pairing should be changed,

To come when beetle folks are only found

Conceal’d and dormant under ground.

14] Aesop.

IX. — The Lion and the Gnat.15

‘Go, paltry insect, nature’s meanest brat!’

Thus said the royal lion to the gnat.

The gnat declared immediate war.

‘Think you,’ said he, ‘your royal name

To me worth caring for?

Think you I tremble at your power or fame?

The ox is bigger far than you;

Yet him I drive, and all his crew.’

This said, as one that did no fear owe,

Himself he blew the battle charge,

Himself both trumpeter and hero.

At first he play’d about at large,

Then on the lion’s neck, at leisure, settled,

And there the royal beast full sorely nettled.

With foaming mouth, and flashing eye,

He roars. All creatures hide or fly, —

Such mortal terror at

The work of one poor gnat!

With constant change of his attack,

The snout now stinging, now the back,

And now the chambers of the nose;

The pigmy fly no mercy shows.

The lion’s rage was at its height;

His viewless foe now laugh’d outright,

When on his battle-ground he saw,

That every savage tooth and claw

Had got its proper beauty

By doing bloody duty;

Himself, the hapless lion, tore his hide,

And lash’d with sounding tail from side to side.

Ah! bootless blow, and bite, and curse!

He beat the harmless air, and worse;

For, though so fierce and stout,

By effort wearied out,

He fainted, fell, gave up the quarrel.

The gnat retires with verdant laurel.

Now rings his trumpet clang,

As at the charge it rang.

But while his triumph note he blows,

Straight on our valiant conqueror goes

A spider’s ambuscade to meet,

And make its web his winding-sheet.

We often have the most to fear

From those we most despise;

Again, great risks a man may clear,

Who by the smallest dies.

15] Aesop.

X. — The Ass Loaded with Sponges, and the Ass Loaded with Salt.16

A man, whom I shall call an ass-eteer,

His sceptre like some Roman emperor bearing,

Drove on two coursers of protracted ear,

The one, with sponges laden, briskly faring;

The other lifting legs

As if he trod on eggs,

With constant need of goading,

And bags of salt for loading.

O’er hill and dale our merry pilgrims pass’d,

Till, coming to a river’s ford at last,

They stopp’d quite puzzled on the shore.

Our asseteer had cross’d the stream before;

So, on the lighter beast astride,

He drives the other, spite of dread,

Which, loath indeed to go ahead,

Into a deep hole turns aside,

And, facing right about,

Where he went in, comes out;

For duckings two or three

Had power the salt to melt,

So that the creature felt

His burden’d shoulders free.

The sponger, like a sequent sheep,

Pursuing through the water deep,

Into the same hole plunges

Himself, his rider, and the sponges.

All three drank deeply: asseteer and ass

For boon companions of their load might pass;

Which last became so sore a weight,

The ass fell down,

Belike to drown,

His rider risking equal fate.

A helper came, no matter who.

The moral needs no more ado —

That all can’t act alike, —

The point I wish’d to strike.

16] Aesop.

XI. — The Lion and the Rat.17

To show to all your kindness, it behoves:

There’s none so small but you his aid may need.

I quote two fables for this weighty creed,

Which either of them fully proves.

From underneath the sward

A rat, quite off his guard,

Popp’d out between a lion’s paws.

The beast of royal bearing

Show’d what a lion was

The creature’s life by sparing —

A kindness well repaid;

For, little as you would have thought

His majesty would ever need his aid,

It proved full soon

A precious boon.

Forth issuing from his forest glen,

T’ explore the haunts of men,

In lion net his majesty was caught,

From which his strength and rage

Served not to disengage.

The rat ran up, with grateful glee,

Gnaw’d off a rope, and set him free.

By time and toil we sever

What strength and rage could never.

17] Aesop. In the original editions of La Fontaine’s Fables, XI. and XII. are printed together, and headed “Fables XI. et XII.”

XII. — The Dove and the Ant.18

The same instruction we may get

From another couple, smaller yet.

A dove came to a brook to drink,

When, leaning o’er its crumbling brink,

An ant fell in, and vainly tried,

In this, to her, an ocean tide,

To reach the land; whereat the dove,

With every living thing in love,

Was prompt a spire of grass to throw her,

By which the ant regain’d the shore.

A barefoot scamp, both mean and sly,

Soon after chanced this dove to spy;

And, being arm’d with bow and arrow,

The hungry codger doubted not

The bird of Venus, in his pot,

Would make a soup before the morrow.

Just as his deadly bow he drew,

Our ant just bit his heel.

Roused by the villain’s squeal,

The dove took timely hint, and flew

Far from the rascal’s coop; —

And with her flew his soup.

18] Aesop.

XIII. — The Astrologer who Stumbled into a Well.19

To an astrologer who fell

Plump to the bottom of a well,

‘Poor blockhead!’ cried a passer-by,

‘Not see your feet, and read the sky?’

This upshot of a story will suffice

To give a useful hint to most;

For few there are in this our world so wise

As not to trust in star or ghost,

Or cherish secretly the creed

That men the book of destiny may read.

This book, by Homer and his pupils sung,

What is it, in plain common sense,

But what was chance those ancient folks among,

And with ourselves, God’s providence?

Now chance doth bid defiance

To every thing like science;

’Twere wrong, if not,

To call it hazard, fortune, lot —

Things palpably uncertain.

But from the purposes divine,

The deep of infinite design,

Who boasts to lift the curtain?

Whom but himself doth God allow

To read his bosom thoughts? and how

Would he imprint upon the stars sublime

The shrouded secrets of the night of time?

And all for what? To exercise the wit

Of those who on astrology have writ?

To help us shun inevitable ills?

To poison for us even pleasure’s rills?

The choicest blessings to destroy,

Exhausting, ere they come, their joy?

Such faith is worse than error — ’tis a crime.

The sky-host moves and marks the course of time;

The sun sheds on our nicely-measured days

The glory of his night-dispelling rays;

And all from this we can divine

Is, that they need to rise and shine, —

To roll the seasons, ripen fruits,

And cheer the hearts of men and brutes.

How tallies this revolving universe

With human things, eternally diverse?

Ye horoscopers, waning quacks,

Please turn on Europe’s courts your backs,

And, taking on your travelling lists

The bellows-blowing alchemists,

Budge off together to the land of mists.

But I’ve digress’d. Return we now, bethinking

Of our poor star-man, whom we left a drinking.

Besides the folly of his lying trade,

This man the type may well be made

Of those who at chimeras stare

When they should mind the things that are.

19] Aesop. Diogenes Laertius tells the story of this fable of Thales of Miletus. “It is said that once he (Thales) was led out of his house by an old woman for the purpose of observing the stars, and he fell into a ditch and bewailed himself. On which the old woman said to him — ‘Do you, O Thales, who cannot see what is under your feet, think that thou shalt understand what is in heaven?’" — Diogenes Laertius, Bohn’s edition.

XIV. — The Hare and the Frogs.20

Once in his bed deep mused the hare,

(What else but muse could he do there?)

And soon by gloom was much afflicted; —

To gloom the creature’s much addicted.

‘Alas! these constitutions nervous,’

He cried, ‘how wretchedly they serve us!

We timid people, by their action,

Can’t eat nor sleep with satisfaction;

We can’t enjoy a pleasure single,

But with some misery it must mingle.

Myself, for one, am forced by cursed fear

To sleep with open eye as well as ear.

“Correct yourself,” says some adviser.

Grows fear, by such advice, the wiser?

Indeed, I well enough descry

That men have fear, as well as I.’

With such revolving thoughts our hare

Kept watch in soul-consuming care.

A passing shade, or leaflet’s quiver

Would give his blood a boiling fever.

Full soon, his melancholy soul

Aroused from dreaming doze

By noise too slight for foes,

He scuds in haste to reach his hole.

He pass’d a pond; and from its border bogs,

Plunge after plunge, in leap’d the timid frogs,

‘Aha! I do to them, I see,’

He cried, ‘what others do to me.

The sight of even me, a hare,

Sufficeth some, I find, to scare.

And here, the terror of my tramp

Hath put to rout, it seems, a camp.

The trembling fools! they take me for

The very thunderbolt of war!

I see, the coward never skulk’d a foe

That might not scare a coward still below.’

20] Aesop.

XV. — The Cock and the Fox.21

Upon a tree there mounted guard

A veteran cock, adroit and cunning;

When to the roots a fox up running,

Spoke thus, in tones of kind regard:—

‘Our quarrel, brother, ’s at an end;

Henceforth I hope to live your friend;

For peace now reigns

Throughout the animal domains.

I bear the news:— come down, I pray,

And give me the embrace fraternal;

And please, my brother, don’t delay.

So much the tidings do concern all,

That I must spread them far to-day.

Now you and yours can take your walks

Without a fear or thought of hawks.

And should you clash with them or others,

In us you’ll find the best of brothers; —

For which you may, this joyful night,

Your merry bonfires light.

But, first, let’s seal the bliss

With one fraternal kiss.’

‘Good friend,’ the cock replied, ‘upon my word,

A better thing I never heard;

And doubly I rejoice

To hear it from your voice;

And, really there must be something in it,

For yonder come two greyhounds, which I flatter

Myself are couriers on this very matter.

They come so fast, they’ll be here in a minute.

I’ll down, and all of us will seal the blessing

With general kissing and caressing.’

‘Adieu,’ said fox; ‘my errand’s pressing;

I’ll hurry on my way,

And we’ll rejoice some other day.’

So off the fellow scamper’d, quick and light,

To gain the fox-holes of a neighbouring height,

Less happy in his stratagem than flight.

The cock laugh’d sweetly in his sleeve; —

’Tis doubly sweet deceiver to deceive.

21] Aesop.

XVI. — The Raven Wishing to Imitate the Eagle.22

The bird of Jove bore off a mutton,

A raven being witness.

That weaker bird, but equal glutton,

Not doubting of his fitness

To do the same with ease,

And bent his taste to please,

Took round the flock his sweep,

And mark’d among the sheep,

The one of fairest flesh and size,

A real sheep of sacrifice —

A dainty titbit bestial,

Reserved for mouth celestial.

Our gormand, gloating round,

Cried, ‘Sheep, I wonder much

Who could have made you such.

You’re far the fattest I have found;

I’ll take you for my eating.’

And on the creature bleating

He settled down. Now, sooth to say,

This sheep would weigh

More than a cheese;

And had a fleece

Much like that matting famous

Which graced the chin of Polyphemus;23

So fast it clung to every claw,

It was not easy to withdraw.

The shepherd came, caught, caged, and, to their joy,

Gave croaker to his children for a toy.

Ill plays the pilferer the bigger thief;

One’s self one ought to know; — in brief,

Example is a dangerous lure;

Death strikes the gnat, where flies the wasp secure.

22] Aesop; and Corrozet.

23] Polyphemus. — The Cyclop king: vide Homer’s Odyssey, Book IX.

XVII. — The Peacock Complaining to Juno.24

The peacock25 to the queen of heaven

Complain’d in some such words:—

‘Great goddess, you have given

To me, the laughing-stock of birds,

A voice which fills, by taste quite just,

All nature with disgust;

Whereas that little paltry thing,

The nightingale, pours from her throat

So sweet and ravishing a note,

She bears alone the honours of the spring.’

In anger Juno heard,

And cried, ‘Shame on you, jealous bird!

Grudge you the nightingale her voice,

Who in the rainbow neck rejoice,

Than costliest silks more richly tinted,

In charms of grace and form unstinted, —

Who strut in kingly pride,

Your glorious tail spread wide

With brilliants which in sheen do

Outshine the jeweller’s bow window?

Is there a bird beneath the blue

That has more charms than you?

No animal in everything can shine.

By just partition of our gifts divine,

Each has its full and proper share;

Among the birds that cleave the air,

The hawk’s a swift, the eagle is a brave one,

For omens serves the hoarse old raven,

The rook’s of coming ills the prophet;

And if there’s any discontent,

I’ve heard not of it.

‘Cease, then, your envious complaint;

Or I, instead of making up your lack,

Will take your boasted plumage from your back.’

24] Phaedrus, III. 17.

25] The peacock was consecrated to Juno the “Queen of Heaven,” and was under her protection.

XVIII. — The Cat Metamorphosed into a Woman.26

A bachelor caress’d his cat,

A darling, fair, and delicate;

So deep in love, he thought her mew

The sweetest voice he ever knew.

By prayers, and tears, and magic art,

The man got Fate to take his part;

And, lo! one morning at his side

His cat, transform’d, became his bride.

In wedded state our man was seen

The fool in courtship he had been.

No lover e’er was so bewitch’d

By any maiden’s charms

As was this husband, so enrich’d

By hers within his arms.

He praised her beauties, this and that,

And saw there nothing of the cat.

In short, by passion’s aid, he

Thought her a perfect lady.

’Twas night: some carpet-gnawing mice

Disturb’d the nuptial joys.

Excited by the noise,

The bride sprang at them in a trice;

The mice were scared and fled.

The bride, scarce in her bed,

The gnawing heard, and sprang again, —

And this time not in vain,

For, in this novel form array’d,

Of her the mice were less afraid.

Through life she loved this mousing course,

So great is stubborn nature’s force.

In mockery of change, the old

Will keep their youthful bent.

When once the cloth has got its fold,

The smelling-pot its scent,

In vain your efforts and your care

To make them other than they are.

To work reform, do what you will,

Old habit will be habit still.

Nor fork27 nor strap can mend its manners,

Nor cudgel-blows beat down its banners.

Secure the doors against the renter,

And through the windows it will enter.

26] Aesop.

27] Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret. — Hor. Epist. Bk. I. 10. — Translator.

XIX. — The Lion and the Ass Hunting.28

The king of animals, with royal grace,

Would celebrate his birthday in the chase.

’Twas not with bow and arrows,

To slay some wretched sparrows;

The lion hunts the wild boar of the wood,

The antlered deer and stags, the fat and good.

This time, the king, t’ insure success,

Took for his aide-de-camp an ass,

A creature of stentorian voice,

That felt much honour’d by the choice.

The lion hid him in a proper station,

And order’d him to bray, for his vocation,

Assured that his tempestuous cry

The boldest beasts would terrify,

And cause them from their lairs to fly.

And, sooth, the horrid noise the creature made

Did strike the tenants of the wood with dread;

And, as they headlong fled,

All fell within the lion’s ambuscade.

‘Has not my service glorious

Made both of us victorious?’

Cried out the much-elated ass.

‘Yes,’ said the lion; ‘bravely bray’d!

Had I not known yourself and race,

I should have been myself afraid!’

If he had dared, the donkey

Had shown himself right spunky

At this retort, though justly made;

For who could suffer boasts to pass

So ill-befitting to an ass?

28] Phaedrus, I. 11: Aesop.

XX. — The Will Explained by Aesop.29

If what old story says of Aesop’s true,

The oracle of Greece he was,

And more than Areopagus30 he knew,

With all its wisdom in the laws.

The following tale gives but a sample

Of what has made his fame so ample.

Three daughters shared a father’s purse,

Of habits totally diverse.

The first, bewitched with drinks delicious;

The next, coquettish and capricious;

The third, supremely avaricious.

The sire, expectant of his fate,

Bequeathed his whole estate,

In equal shares, to them,

And to their mother just the same, —

To her then payable, and not before,

Each daughter should possess her part no more.

The father died. The females three

Were much in haste the will to see.

They read, and read, but still

Saw not the willer’s will.

For could it well be understood

That each of this sweet sisterhood,

When she possess’d her part no more,

Should to her mother pay it o’er?

’Twas surely not so easy saying

How lack of means would help the paying.

What meant their honour’d father, then?

Th’ affair was brought to legal men,

Who, after turning o’er the case

Some hundred thousand different ways,

Threw down the learned bonnet,

Unable to decide upon it;

And then advised the heirs,

Without more thought, t’ adjust affairs.

As to the widow’s share, the counsel say,

‘We hold it just the daughters each should pay

One third to her upon demand,

Should she not choose to have it stand

Commuted as a life annuity,

Paid from her husband’s death, with due congruity.’

The thing thus order’d, the estate

Is duly cut in portions three.

And in the first they all agree

To put the feasting-lodges, plate,

Luxurious cooling mugs,

Enormous liquor jugs,

Rich cupboards, — built beneath the trellised vine, —

The stores of ancient, sweet Malvoisian wine,

The slaves to serve it at a sign;

In short, whatever, in a great house,

There is of feasting apparatus.

The second part is made

Of what might help the jilting trade —

The city house and furniture,

Exquisite and genteel, be sure,

The eunuchs, milliners, and laces,

The jewels, shawls, and costly dresses.

The third is made of household stuff,

More vulgar, rude, and rough —

Farms, fences, flocks, and fodder,

And men and beasts to turn the sod o’er.

This done, since it was thought

To give the parts by lot

Might suit, or it might not,

Each paid her share of fees dear,

And took the part that pleased her.

’Twas in great Athens town,

Such judgment gave the gown.

And there the public voice

Applauded both the judgment and the choice.

But Aesop well was satisfied

The learned men had set aside,

In judging thus the testament,

The very gist of its intent.

‘The dead,’ quoth he, ‘could he but know of it,

Would heap reproaches on such Attic wit.

What! men who proudly take their place

As sages of the human race,

Lack they the simple skill

To settle such a will?’

This said, he undertook himself

The task of portioning the pelf;

And straightway gave each maid the part

The least according to her heart —

The prim coquette, the drinking stuff,

The drinker, then, the farms and cattle;

And on the miser, rude and rough,

The robes and lace did Aesop settle;

For thus, he said, ‘an early date

Would see the sisters alienate

Their several shares of the estate.

No motive now in maidenhood to tarry,

They all would seek, post haste, to marry;

And, having each a splendid bait,

Each soon would find a well-bred mate;

And, leaving thus their father’s goods intact,

Would to their mother pay them all, in fact,’ —

Which of the testament

Was plainly the intent.

The people, who had thought a slave an ass,

Much wonder’d how it came to pass

That one alone should have more sense

Than all their men of most pretence.

29] Phaedrus, IV. 5.

30] Areopagus. — This was the Athenian Court of Justice at Mars Hill. It is said to have been called Areiopagos (the Hill of Mars) because, according to tradition, the first trial there was that of Mars for the murder of Halirrhotius.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38