The Fables of La Fontaine, by Jean de La Fontaine

Book V.

I. — The Woodman and Mercury.1

To M. The Chevalier De Bouillon.2

Your taste has served my work to guide;

To gain its suffrage I have tried.

You’d have me shun a care too nice,

Or beauty at too dear a price,

Or too much effort, as a vice.

My taste with yours agrees:

Such effort cannot please;

And too much pains about the polish

Is apt the substance to abolish;

Not that it would be right or wise

The graces all to ostracize.

You love them much when delicate;

Nor is it left for me to hate.

As to the scope of Aesop’s plan,3

I fail as little as I can.

If this my rhymed and measured speech

Availeth not to please or teach,

I own it not a fault of mine;

Some unknown reason I assign.

With little strength endued

For battles rough and rude,

Or with Herculean arm to smite,

I show to vice its foolish plight.

In this my talent wholly lies;

Not that it does at all suffice.

My fable sometimes brings to view

The face of vanity purblind

With that of restless envy join’d;

And life now turns upon these pivots two.

Such is the silly little frog

That aped the ox upon her bog.

A double image sometimes shows

How vice and folly do oppose

The ways of virtue and good sense;

As lambs with wolves so grim and gaunt,

The silly fly and frugal ant.

Thus swells my work — a comedy immense —

Its acts unnumber’d and diverse,

Its scene the boundless universe.

Gods, men, and brutes, all play their part

In fields of nature or of art,

And Jupiter among the rest.

Here comes the god who’s wont to bear

Jove’s frequent errands to the fair,

With winged heels and haste;

But other work’s in hand to-day.

A man that labour’d in the wood

Had lost his honest livelihood;

That is to say,

His axe was gone astray.

He had no tools to spare;

This wholly earn’d his fare.

Without a hope beside,

He sat him down and cried,

‘Alas, my axe! where can it be?

O Jove! but send it back to me,

And it shall strike good blows for thee.’

His prayer in high Olympus heard,

Swift Mercury started at the word.

‘Your axe must not be lost,’ said he:

‘Now, will you know it when you see?

An axe I found upon the road.’

With that an axe of gold he show’d.

‘Is’t this?’ The woodman answer’d, ‘Nay.’

An axe of silver, bright and gay,

Refused the honest woodman too.

At last the finder brought to view

An axe of iron, steel, and wood.

‘That’s mine,’ he said, in joyful mood;

‘With that I’ll quite contented be.’

The god replied, ‘I give the three,

As due reward of honesty.’

This luck when neighbouring choppers knew,

They lost their axes, not a few,

And sent their prayers to Jupiter

So fast, he knew not which to hear.

His winged son, however, sent

With gold and silver axes, went.

Each would have thought himself a fool

Not to have own’d the richest tool.

But Mercury promptly gave, instead

Of it, a blow upon the head.

With simple truth to be contented,

Is surest not to be repented;

But still there are who would

With evil trap the good, —

Whose cunning is but stupid,

For Jove is never dupèd.

1] Aesop. There is also a version of the story in Rabelais, Book IV, Prologue.

2] La Fontaine’s dedication is in initials thus:— “A. M. L. C. D. B.” which are interpreted by some as meaning, “To M. the Chevalier de Bouillon” (as above), and by others as meaning, “To Monseigneur le Cardinal de Bouillon.”

3] Aesop’s plan. — Here, as in the dedication of Book VII., Fable II., Book I., Fable I., Book III., Fable I., Book VI., Fable IV., Book VIII., and Fable I., Book IX., the poet treats of the nature and uses of Fable.

II. — The Earthen Pot and the Iron Pot.4

An iron pot proposed

To an earthen pot a journey.

The latter was opposed,

Expressing the concern he

Had felt about the danger

Of going out a ranger.

He thought the kitchen hearth

The safest place on earth

For one so very brittle.

‘For thee, who art a kettle,

And hast a tougher skin,

There’s nought to keep thee in.’

‘I’ll be thy body-guard,’

Replied the iron pot;

‘If anything that’s hard

Should threaten thee a jot,

Between you I will go,

And save thee from the blow.’

This offer him persuaded.

The iron pot paraded

Himself as guard and guide

Close at his cousin’s side.

Now, in their tripod way,

They hobble as they may;

And eke together bolt

At every little jolt, —

Which gives the crockery pain;

But presently his comrade hits

So hard, he dashes him to bits,

Before he can complain.

Take care that you associate

With equals only, lest your fate

Between these pots should find its mate.

4] Aesop.

III. — The Little Fish and the Fisher.5

A little fish will grow,

If life be spared, a great;

But yet to let him go,

And for his growing wait,

May not be very wise,

As ’tis not sure your bait

Will catch him when of size.

Upon a river bank, a fisher took

A tiny troutling from his hook.

Said he, “Twill serve to count, at least,

As the beginning of my feast;

And so I’ll put it with the rest.’

This little fish, thus caught,

His clemency besought.

‘What will your honour do with me?

I’m not a mouthful, as you see.

Pray let me grow to be a trout,

And then come here and fish me out.

Some alderman, who likes things nice,

Will buy me then at any price.

But now, a hundred such you’ll have to fish,

To make a single good-for-nothing dish.’

‘Well, well, be it so,’ replied the fisher,

‘My little fish, who play the preacher,

The frying-pan must be your lot,

Although, no doubt, you like it not:

I fry the fry that can be got.’

In some things, men of sense

Prefer the present to the future tense.

5] Aesop.

IV. — The Ears of the Hare.6

Some beast with horns did gore

The lion; and that sovereign dread,

Resolved to suffer so no more,

Straight banish’d from his realm, ’tis said,

All sorts of beasts with horns —

Rams, bulls, goats, stags, and unicorns.

Such brutes all promptly fled.

A hare, the shadow of his ears perceiving,

Could hardly help believing

That some vile spy for horns would take them,

And food for accusation make them.

‘Adieu,’ said he, ‘my neighbour cricket;

I take my foreign ticket.

My ears, should I stay here,

Will turn to horns, I fear;

And were they shorter than a bird’s,

I fear the effect of words.’

‘These horns!’ the cricket answer’d; ‘why,

God made them ears who can deny?’

‘Yes,’ said the coward, ‘still they’ll make them horns,

And horns, perhaps of unicorns!

In vain shall I protest,

With all the learning of the schools:

My reasons they will send to rest

In th’ Hospital of Fools.’7

6] Faerno.

7] Hospital of Fools, i.e., madhouse.

V. — The Fox with His Tail Cut off.8

A cunning old fox, of plundering habits,

Great crauncher of fowls, great catcher of rabbits,

Whom none of his sort had caught in a nap,

Was finally caught in somebody’s trap.

By luck he escaped, not wholly and hale,

For the price of his luck was the loss of his tail.

Escaped in this way, to save his disgrace,

He thought to get others in similar case.

One day that the foxes in council were met,

‘Why wear we,’ said he, ‘this cumbering weight,

Which sweeps in the dirt wherever it goes?

Pray tell me its use, if any one knows.

If the council will take my advice,

We shall dock off our tails in a trice.’

‘Your advice may be good,’ said one on the ground;

‘But, ere I reply, pray turn yourself round.’

Whereat such a shout from the council was heard,

Poor bob-tail, confounded, could say not a word.

To urge the reform would have wasted his breath.

Long tails were the mode till the day of his death.

8] Aesop; Faerno.

VI. — The Old Woman and Her Two Servants.9

A beldam kept two spinning maids,

Who plied so handily their trades,

Those spinning sisters down below

Were bunglers when compared with these.

No care did this old woman know

But giving tasks as she might please.

No sooner did the god of day

His glorious locks enkindle,

Than both the wheels began to play,

And from each whirling spindle

Forth danced the thread right merrily,

And back was coil’d unceasingly.

Soon as the dawn, I say, its tresses show’d,

A graceless cock most punctual crow’d.

The beldam roused, more graceless yet,

In greasy petticoat bedight,

Struck up her farthing light,

And then forthwith the bed beset,

Where deeply, blessedly did snore

Those two maid-servants tired and poor.

One oped an eye, an arm one stretch’d,

And both their breath most sadly fetch’d,

This threat concealing in the sigh —

‘That cursed cock shall surely die!’

And so he did:— they cut his throat,

And put to sleep his rousing note.

And yet this murder mended not

The cruel hardship of their lot;

For now the twain were scarce in bed

Before they heard the summons dread.

The beldam, full of apprehension

Lest oversleep should cause detention,

Ran like a goblin through her mansion.

Thus often, when one thinks

To clear himself from ill,

His effort only sinks

Him in the deeper still.

The beldam, acting for the cock,

Was Scylla for Charybdis’ rock.

9] Aesop.

VII. — The Satyr and the Traveller.10

Within a savage forest grot

A satyr and his chips

Were taking down their porridge hot;

Their cups were at their lips.

You might have seen in mossy den,

Himself, his wife, and brood;

They had not tailor-clothes, like men,

But appetites as good.

In came a traveller, benighted,

All hungry, cold, and wet,

Who heard himself to eat invited

With nothing like regret.

He did not give his host the pain

His asking to repeat;

But first he blew with might and main

To give his fingers heat.

Then in his steaming porridge dish

He delicately blew.

The wondering satyr said, ‘I wish

The use of both I knew.’

‘Why, first, my blowing warms my hand,

And then it cools my porridge.’

‘Ah!’ said his host, ‘then understand

I cannot give you storage.

‘To sleep beneath one roof with you,

I may not be so bold.

Far be from me that mouth untrue

Which blows both hot and cold.’

10] Aesop.

VIII. — The Horse and the Wolf.11

A wolf, what time the thawing breeze

Renews the life of plants and trees,

And beasts go forth from winter lair

To seek abroad their various fare, —

A wolf, I say, about those days,

In sharp look-out for means and ways,

Espied a horse turn’d out to graze.

His joy the reader may opine.

‘Once got,’ said he, ‘this game were fine;

But if a sheep, ’twere sooner mine.

I can’t proceed my usual way;

Some trick must now be put in play.’

This said,

He came with measured tread,

As if a healer of disease, —

Some pupil of Hippocrates, —

And told the horse, with learned verbs,

He knew the power of roots and herbs, —

Whatever grew about those borders, —

And not at all to flatter

Himself in such a matter,

Could cure of all disorders.

If he, Sir Horse, would not conceal

The symptoms of his case,

He, Doctor Wolf, would gratis heal;

For that to feed in such a place,

And run about untied,

Was proof itself of some disease,

As all the books decide.

‘I have, good doctor, if you please,’

Replied the horse, ‘as I presume,

Beneath my foot, an aposthume.’

‘My son,’ replied the learned leech,

‘That part, as all our authors teach,

Is strikingly susceptible

Of ills which make acceptable

What you may also have from me —

The aid of skilful surgery;

Which noble art, the fact is,

For horses of the blood I practise.’

The fellow, with this talk sublime,

Watch’d for a snap the fitting time.

Meanwhile, suspicious of some trick,

The wary patient nearer draws,

And gives his doctor such a kick,

As makes a chowder of his jaws.

Exclaim’d the wolf, in sorry plight,

‘I own those heels have served me right.

I err’d to quit my trade,

As I will not in future;

Me nature surely made

For nothing but a butcher.’

11] Aesop; also in Faerno.

IX. — The Ploughman and His Sons.12

The farmer’s patient care and toil

Are oftener wanting than the soil.

A wealthy ploughman drawing near his end,

Call’d in his sons apart from every friend,

And said, ‘When of your sire bereft,

The heritage our fathers left

Guard well, nor sell a single field.

A treasure in it is conceal’d:

The place, precisely, I don’t know,

But industry will serve to show.

The harvest past, Time’s forelock take,

And search with plough, and spade, and rake;

Turn over every inch of sod,

Nor leave unsearch’d a single clod.’

The father died. The sons — and not in vain —

Turn’d o’er the soil, and o’er again;

That year their acres bore

More grain than e’er before.

Though hidden money found they none,

Yet had their father wisely done,

To show by such a measure,

That toil itself is treasure.

12] Aesop.

X. — The Mountain in Labour.13

A mountain was in travail pang;

The country with her clamour rang.

Out ran the people all, to see,

Supposing that the birth would be

A city, or at least a house.

It was a mouse!

In thinking of this fable,

Of story feign’d and false,

But meaning veritable,

My mind the image calls

Of one who writes, “The war I sing

Which Titans waged against the Thunder-king."14

As on the sounding verses ring,

What will be brought to birth?

Why, dearth.

13] Phaedrus, IV. 22.

14] The War, &c. — The war of the Gods and Titans (sons of Heaven and Earth); vide Hesiod, Theogony, I. 1083, Bohn’s ed.

XI. — Fortune and the Boy.15

Beside a well, uncurb’d and deep,

A schoolboy laid him down to sleep:

(Such rogues can do so anywhere.)

If some kind man had seen him there,

He would have leap’d as if distracted;

But Fortune much more wisely acted;

For, passing by, she softly waked the child,

Thus whispering in accents mild:

‘I save your life, my little dear,

And beg you not to venture here

Again, for had you fallen in,

I should have had to bear the sin;

But I demand, in reason’s name,

If for your rashness I’m to blame?’

With this the goddess went her way.

I like her logic, I must say.

There takes place nothing on this planet,

But Fortune ends, whoe’er began it.

In all adventures good or ill,

We look to her to foot the bill.

Has one a stupid, empty pate,

That serves him never till too late,

He clears himself by blaming Fate!

15] Aesop.

XII. — The Doctors.16

The selfsame patient put to test

Two doctors, Fear-the-worst and Hope-the-best.

The latter hoped; the former did maintain

The man would take all medicine in vain.

By different cures the patient was beset,

But erelong cancell’d nature’s debt,

While nursed

As was prescribed by Fear-the-worst.

But over the disease both triumph’d still.

Said one, ‘I well foresaw his death.’

‘Yes,’ said the other, ‘but my pill

Would certainly have saved his breath.’

16] Aesop, and others.

XIII. — The Hen with the Golden Eggs.17

How avarice loseth all,

By striving all to gain,

I need no witness call

But him whose thrifty hen,

As by the fable we are told,

Laid every day an egg of gold.

‘She hath a treasure in her body,’

Bethinks the avaricious noddy.

He kills and opens — vexed to find

All things like hens of common kind.

Thus spoil’d the source of all his riches,

To misers he a lesson teaches.

In these last changes of the moon,

How often doth one see

Men made as poor as he

By force of getting rich too soon!

17] Aesop.

XIV. — The Ass Carrying Relics.18

An ass, with relics for his load,

Supposed the worship on the road

Meant for himself alone,

And took on lofty airs,

Receiving as his own

The incense and the prayers.

Some one, who saw his great mistake,

Cried, ‘Master Donkey, do not make

Yourself so big a fool.

Not you they worship, but your pack;

They praise the idols on your back,

And count yourself a paltry tool.’

’Tis thus a brainless magistrate

Is honour’d for his robe of state.

18] Aesop; also Faerno.

XV. — The Stag and the Vine.19

A stag, by favour of a vine,

Which grew where suns most genial shine,

And form’d a thick and matted bower

Which might have turn’d a summer shower,

Was saved from ruinous assault.

The hunters thought their dogs at fault,

And call’d them off. In danger now no more

The stag, a thankless wretch and vile,

Began to browse his benefactress o’er.

The hunters, listening the while,

The rustling heard, came back,

With all their yelping pack,

And seized him in that very place.

‘This is,’ said he, ‘but justice, in my case.

Let every black ingrate

Henceforward profit by my fate.’

The dogs fell to — ’twere wasting breath

To pray those hunters at the death.

They left, and we will not revile ’em,

A warning for profaners of asylum.

19] Aesop.

XVI. — The Serpent and the File.20

A serpent, neighbour to a smith,

(A neighbour bad to meddle with,)

Went through his shop, in search of food,

But nothing found, ’tis understood,

To eat, except a file of steel,

Of which he tried to make a meal.

The file, without a spark of passion,

Address’d him in the following fashion:—

‘Poor simpleton! you surely bite

With less of sense than appetite;

For ere from me you gain

One quarter of a grain,

You’ll break your teeth from ear to ear.

Time’s are the only teeth I fear.’

This tale concerns those men of letters,

Who, good for nothing, bite their betters.

Their biting so is quite unwise.

Think you, ye literary sharks,

Your teeth will leave their marks

Upon the deathless works you criticise?

Fie! fie! fie! men!

To you they’re brass — they’re steel — they’re diamond!

20] Phaedrus, Book IV. 8; also Aesop.

XVII. — The Hare and the Partridge.

Beware how you deride

The exiles from life’s sunny side:

To you is little known

How soon their case may be your own.

On this, sage Aesop gives a tale or two,

As in my verses I propose to do.

A field in common share

A partridge and a hare,

And live in peaceful state,

Till, woeful to relate!

The hunters’ mingled cry

Compels the hare to fly.

He hurries to his fort,

And spoils almost the sport

By faulting every hound

That yelps upon the ground.

At last his reeking heat

Betrays his snug retreat.

Old Tray, with philosophic nose,

Snuffs carefully, and grows

So certain, that he cries,

‘The hare is here; bow wow!’

And veteran Ranger now, —

The dog that never lies, —

‘The hare is gone,’ replies.

Alas! poor, wretched hare,

Back comes he to his lair,

To meet destruction there!

The partridge, void of fear,

Begins her friend to jeer:—

‘You bragg’d of being fleet;

How serve you, now, your feet?’

Scarce has she ceased to speak, —

The laugh yet in her beak, —

When comes her turn to die,

From which she could not fly.

She thought her wings, indeed,

Enough for every need;

But in her laugh and talk,

Forgot the cruel hawk!

XVIII. — The Eagle and the Owl.21

The eagle and the owl, resolved to cease

Their war, embraced in pledge of peace.

On faith of king, on faith of owl, they swore

That they would eat each other’s chicks no more.

‘But know you mine?’ said Wisdom’s bird.22

‘Not I, indeed,’ the eagle cried.

‘The worse for that,’ the owl replied:

‘I fear your oath’s a useless word;

I fear that you, as king, will not

Consider duly who or what:

You kings and gods, of what’s before ye,

Are apt to make one category.

Adieu, my young, if you should meet them!’

‘Describe them, then, or let me greet them,

And, on my life, I will not eat them,’

The eagle said. The owl replied:

‘My little ones, I say with pride,

For grace of form cannot be match’d, —

The prettiest birds that e’er were hatch’d;

By this you cannot fail to know them;

’Tis needless, therefore, that I show them.

Pray don’t forget, but keep this mark in view,

Lest fate should curse my happy nest by you.’

At length God gives the owl a set of heirs,

And while at early eve abroad he fares,

In quest of birds and mice for food,

Our eagle haply spies the brood,

As on some craggy rock they sprawl,

Or nestle in some ruined wall,

(But which it matters not at all,)

And thinks them ugly little frights,

Grim, sad, with voice like shrieking sprites.

‘These chicks,’ says he, ‘with looks almost infernal,

Can’t be the darlings of our friend nocturnal.

I’ll sup of them.’ And so he did, not slightly:—

He never sups, if he can help it, lightly.

The owl return’d; and, sad, he found

Nought left but claws upon the ground.

He pray’d the gods above and gods below

To smite the brigand who had caused his woe.

Quoth one, ‘On you alone the blame must fall;

Or rather on the law of nature,

Which wills that every earthly creature

Shall think its like the loveliest of all.

You told the eagle of your young ones’ graces;

You gave the picture of their faces:—

Had it of likeness any traces?’

21] Avianus; also Verdizotti.

22] Wisdom’s bird. — The owl was the bird of Minerva, as the eagle was that of Jupiter.

XIX. — The Lion Going to War.23

The lion had an enterprise in hand;

Held a war-council, sent his provost-marshal,

And gave the animals a call impartial —

Each, in his way, to serve his high command.

The elephant should carry on his back

The tools of war, the mighty public pack,

And fight in elephantine way and form;

The bear should hold himself prepared to storm;

The fox all secret stratagems should fix;

The monkey should amuse the foe by tricks.

‘Dismiss,’ said one, ‘the blockhead asses,

And hares, too cowardly and fleet.’

‘No,’ said the king; ‘I use all classes;

Without their aid my force were incomplete.

The ass shall be our trumpeter, to scare

Our enemy. And then the nimble hare

Our royal bulletins shall homeward bear.’

A monarch provident and wise

Will hold his subjects all of consequence,

And know in each what talent lies.

There’s nothing useless to a man of sense.

23] Abstemius.

XX. — The Bear and the Two Companions.24

Two fellows, needing funds, and bold,

A bearskin to a furrier sold,

Of which the bear was living still,

But which they presently would kill —

At least they said they would.

And, if their word was good,

It was a king of bears — an Ursa Major —

The biggest bear beneath the sun.

Its skin, the chaps would wager,

Was cheap at double cost;

‘Twould make one laugh at frost —

And make two robes as well as one.

Old Dindenaut,25 in sheep who dealt,

Less prized his sheep, than they their pelt —

(In their account ’twas theirs,

But in his own, the bears.)

By bargain struck upon the skin,

Two days at most must bring it in.

Forth went the two. More easy found than got,

The bear came growling at them on the trot.

Behold our dealers both confounded,

As if by thunderbolt astounded!

Their bargain vanish’d suddenly in air;

For who could plead his interest with a bear?

One of the friends sprung up a tree;

The other, cold as ice could be,

Fell on his face, feign’d death,

And closely held his breath, —

He having somewhere heard it said

The bear ne’er preys upon the dead.

Sir Bear, sad blockhead, was deceived —

The prostrate man a corpse believed;

But, half suspecting some deceit,

He feels and snuffs from head to feet,

And in the nostrils blows.

The body’s surely dead, he thinks.

‘I’ll leave it,’ says he, ‘for it stinks;’

And off into the woods he goes.

The other dealer, from his tree

Descending cautiously, to see

His comrade lying in the dirt,

Consoling, says, ‘It is a wonder

That, by the monster forced asunder,

We’re, after all, more scared than hurt.

But,’ addeth he, ‘what of the creature’s skin?

He held his muzzle very near;

What did he whisper in your ear?’

‘He gave this caution, — “Never dare

Again to sell the skin of bear

Its owner has not ceased to wear.”’26

24] Versions will be found in Aesop, Avianus, and Abstemius.

25] Old Dindenaut. — Vide Rabelais, Pantagruel, Book IV. chap. viii. — Translator. The character in Rabelais is a sheep-stealer as well as a sheep-dealer.

26] According to Philip de Commines, the Emperor Frederic III. of Germany used a story conveying the substance of this fable, with its moral of Never sell your bear-skin till the beast is dead, as his sole reply to the ambassadors of the French king when that monarch sent him proposals for dividing between them the provinces of the Duke of Burgundy. The meaning of which was, says de Commines, “That if the King came according to his promise, they would take the Duke, if they could; and when he was taken, they would talk of dividing his dominions." — Vide Bohn’s edition of the “Memoirs of De Commines,” vol. i., p. 246.

XXI. — The Ass Dressed in the Lion’s Skin.27

Clad in a lion’s shaggy hide,

An ass spread terror far and wide,

And, though himself a coward brute,

Put all the world to scampering rout:

But, by a piece of evil luck,

A portion of an ear outstuck,

Which soon reveal’d the error

Of all the panic-terror.

Old Martin did his office quick.

Surprised were all who did not know the trick,

To see that Martin,28 at his will,

Was driving lions to the mill!

In France, the men are not a few

Of whom this fable proves too true;

Whose valour chiefly doth reside

In coat they wear and horse they ride.

27] Aesop, and Avianus.

28] Martin. — Martin-bâton, again as in Fable V., Book IV.

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