The Fables of La Fontaine, by Jean de La Fontaine

Book VII.1

1] Here commences the second collection of La Fontaine’s Fables, comprising Books VII. to XI. This collection was published in 1678-9, ten years after the publication of the foregoing six Books. See Translator’s Preface.

To Madame De Montespan2

The apologue3 is from the immortal gods;

Or, if the gift of man it is,

Its author merits apotheosis.

Whoever magic genius lauds

Will do what in him lies

To raise this art’s inventor to the skies.

It hath the potence of a charm,

On dulness lays a conquering arm,

Subjects the mind to its control,

And works its will upon the soul.

O lady, arm’d with equal power,

If e’er within celestial bower,

With messmate gods reclined,

My muse ambrosially hath dined,

Lend me the favour of a smile

On this her playful toil.

If you support, the tooth of time will shun,

And let my work the envious years outrun.

If authors would themselves survive,

To gain your suffrage they should strive.

On you my verses wait to get their worth;

To you my beauties all will owe their birth, —

For beauties you will recognize

Invisible to other eyes.

Ah! who can boast a taste so true,

Of beauty or of grace,

In either thought or face?

For words and looks are equal charms in you.

Upon a theme so sweet, the truth to tell,

My muse would gladly dwell:

But this employ to others I must yield; —

A greater master claims the field.

For me, fair lady, ’twere enough

Your name should be my wall and roof.

Protect henceforth the favour’d book

Through which for second life I look.

In your auspicious light,

These lines, in envy’s spite,

Will gain the glorious meed,

That all the world shall read.

’Tis not that I deserve such fame; —

I only ask in Fable’s name,

(You know what credit that should claim;)

And, if successfully I sue,

A fane will be to Fable due, —

A thing I would not build — except for you.

2] Madame de Montespan. — Francoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise de Montespan, born 1641, died 1707. She became one of the mistresses of the “Grand Monarque,” Louis XIV., in 1668.

3] The apologue. — Here, as in the opening fable of Books V. and VI., and elsewhere, La Fontaine defines Fable and defends the art of the Fabulist.

I. — The Animals Sick of the Plague.4

The sorest ill that Heaven hath

Sent on this lower world in wrath, —

The plague (to call it by its name,)

One single day of which

Would Pluto’s ferryman enrich, —

Waged war on beasts, both wild and tame.

They died not all, but all were sick:

No hunting now, by force or trick,

To save what might so soon expire.

No food excited their desire;

Nor wolf nor fox now watch’d to slay

The innocent and tender prey.

The turtles fled;

So love and therefore joy were dead.

The lion council held, and said:

‘My friends, I do believe

This awful scourge, for which we grieve,

Is for our sins a punishment

Most righteously by Heaven sent.

Let us our guiltiest beast resign,

A sacrifice to wrath divine.

Perhaps this offering, truly small,

May gain the life and health of all.

By history we find it noted

That lives have been just so devoted.

Then let us all turn eyes within,

And ferret out the hidden sin.

Himself let no one spare nor flatter,

But make clean conscience in the matter.

For me, my appetite has play’d the glutton

Too much and often upon mutton.

What harm had e’er my victims done?

I answer, truly, None.

Perhaps, sometimes, by hunger press’d,

I’ve eat the shepherd with the rest.

I yield myself, if need there be;

And yet I think, in equity,

Each should confess his sins with me;

For laws of right and justice cry,

The guiltiest alone should die.’

‘Sire,’ said the fox, ‘your majesty

Is humbler than a king should be,

And over-squeamish in the case.

What! eating stupid sheep a crime?

No, never, sire, at any time.

It rather was an act of grace,

A mark of honour to their race.

And as to shepherds, one may swear,

The fate your majesty describes,

Is recompense less full than fair

For such usurpers o’er our tribes.’

Thus Renard glibly spoke,

And loud applause from flatterers broke.

Of neither tiger, boar, nor bear,

Did any keen inquirer dare

To ask for crimes of high degree;

The fighters, biters, scratchers, all

From every mortal sin were free;

The very dogs, both great and small,

Were saints, as far as dogs could be.

The ass, confessing in his turn,

Thus spoke in tones of deep concern:—

‘I happen’d through a mead to pass;

The monks, its owners, were at mass;

Keen hunger, leisure, tender grass,

And add to these the devil too,

All tempted me the deed to do.

I browsed the bigness of my tongue;

Since truth must out, I own it wrong.’

On this, a hue and cry arose,

As if the beasts were all his foes:

A wolf, haranguing lawyer-wise,

Denounced the ass for sacrifice —

The bald-pate, scabby, ragged lout,

By whom the plague had come, no doubt.

His fault was judged a hanging crime.

‘What? eat another’s grass? O shame!

The noose of rope and death sublime,’

For that offence, were all too tame!

And soon poor Grizzle felt the same.

Thus human courts acquit the strong,

And doom the weak, as therefore wrong.

4] One of the most original as well as one of the most beautiful of the poet’s fables, yet much of the groundwork of its story may be traced in the Fables of Bidpaii and other collections. See also note to Fable XXII., Book I.

II. — The ILL-Married.

If worth, were not a thing more rare

Than beauty in this planet fair,

There would be then less need of care

About the contracts Hymen closes.

But beauty often is the bait

To love that only ends in hate;

And many hence repent too late

Of wedding thorns from wooing roses.5

My tale makes one of these poor fellows,

Who sought relief from marriage vows,

Send back again his tedious spouse,

Contentious, covetous, and jealous,

With nothing pleased or satisfied,

This restless, comfort-killing bride

Some fault in every one descried.

Her good man went to bed too soon,

Or lay in bed till almost noon.

Too cold, too hot, — too black, too white, —

Were on her tongue from morn till night.

The servants mad and madder grew;

The husband knew not what to do.

’Twas, ‘Dear, you never think or care;’

And, ‘Dear, that price we cannot bear;’

And, ‘Dear, you never stay at home;’

And, ‘Dear, I wish you would just come;’

Till, finally, such ceaseless dearing

Upon her husband’s patience wearing,

Back to her sire’s he sent his wife,

To taste the sweets of country life,

To dance at will the country jigs,

And feed the turkeys, geese, and pigs.

In course of time, he hoped his bride

Might have her temper mollified;

Which hope he duly put to test.

His wife recall’d, said he,

‘How went with you your rural rest,

From vexing cares and fashions free?

Its peace and quiet did you gain, —

Its innocence without a stain?’

‘Enough of all,’ said she; ‘but then

To see those idle, worthless men

Neglect the flocks, it gave me pain.

I told them, plainly, what I thought,

And thus their hatred quickly bought;

For which I do not care — not I.’

‘Ah, madam,’ did her spouse reply,

‘If still your temper’s so morose,

And tongue so virulent, that those

Who only see you morn and night

Are quite grown weary of the sight,

What, then, must be your servants’ case,

Who needs must see you face to face,

Throughout the day?

And what must be the harder lot

Of him, I pray,

Whose days and nights

With you must be by marriage rights?

Return you to your father’s cot.

If I recall you in my life,

Or even wish for such a wife,

Let Heaven, in my hereafter, send

Two such, to tease me without end!’

5] The badinage of La Fontaine having been misunderstood, the translator has altered the introduction to this fable. The intention of the fable is to recommend prudence and good nature, not celibacy. So the peerless Granville understands it, for his pencil tells us that the hero of the fable did finally recall his wife, notwithstanding his fearful imprecation. It seems that even she was better than none. — Translator; (in his sixth edition).

III. — The Rat Retired from the World.

The sage Levantines have a tale

About a rat that weary grew

Of all the cares which life assail,

And to a Holland cheese withdrew.

His solitude was there profound,

Extending through his world so round.

Our hermit lived on that within;

And soon his industry had been

With claws and teeth so good,

That in his novel hermitage,

He had in store, for wants of age,

Both house and livelihood.

What more could any rat desire?

He grew fair, fat, and round.

‘God’s blessings thus redound

To those who in His vows retire.’6

One day this personage devout,

Whose kindness none might doubt,

Was ask’d, by certain delegates

That came from Rat-United-States,

For some small aid, for they

To foreign parts were on their way,

For succour in the great cat-war.

Ratopolis beleaguer’d sore,

Their whole republic drain’d and poor,

No morsel in their scrips they bore.

Slight boon they craved, of succour sure

In days at utmost three or four.

‘My friends,’ the hermit said,

‘To worldly things I’m dead.

How can a poor recluse

To such a mission be of use?

What can he do but pray

That God will aid it on its way?

And so, my friends, it is my prayer

That God will have you in his care.’

His well-fed saintship said no more,

But in their faces shut the door.

What think you, reader, is the service

For which I use this niggard rat?

To paint a monk? No, but a dervise.

A monk, I think, however fat,

Must be more bountiful than that.

6] God’s blessing, &c. — So the rat himself professed to consider the matter. — Translator.

IV. — The Heron.7

One day, — no matter when or where, —

A long-legg’d heron chanced to fare

By a certain river’s brink,

With his long, sharp beak

Helved on his slender neck;

’Twas a fish-spear, you might think.

The water was clear and still,

The carp and the pike there at will

Pursued their silent fun,

Turning up, ever and anon,

A golden side to the sun.

With ease might the heron have made

Great profits in his fishing trade.

So near came the scaly fry,

They might be caught by the passer-by.

But he thought he better might

Wait for a better appetite —

For he lived by rule, and could not eat,

Except at his hours, the best of meat.

Anon his appetite return’d once more;

So, approaching again the shore,

He saw some tench taking their leaps,

Now and then, from their lowest deeps.

With as dainty a taste as Horace’s rat,

He turn’d away from such food as that.

‘What, tench for a heron! poh!

I scorn the thought, and let them go.’

The tench refused, there came a gudgeon;

‘For all that,’ said the bird, ‘I budge on.

I’ll ne’er open my beak, if the gods please,

For such mean little fishes as these.’

He did it for less;

For it came to pass,

That not another fish could he see;

And, at last, so hungry was he,

That he thought it of some avail

To find on the bank a single snail.

Such is the sure result

Of being too difficult.

Would you be strong and great,

Learn to accommodate.

Get what you can, and trust for the rest;

The whole is oft lost by seeking the best.

Above all things beware of disdain;

Where, at most, you have little to gain.

The people are many that make

Every day this sad mistake.

’Tis not for the herons I put this case,

Ye featherless people, of human race.

— List to another tale as true,

And you’ll hear the lesson brought home to you.8

7] Abstemius.

8] The lesson brought home to you. The two last lines refer the reader to the next fable.

V. — The Maid.9

A certain maid, as proud as fair,

A husband thought to find

Exactly to her mind —

Well-form’d and young, genteel in air,

Not cold nor jealous; — mark this well.

Whoe’er would wed this dainty belle

Must have, besides rank, wealth, and wit,

And all good qualities to fit —

A man ’twere difficult to get.

Kind Fate, however, took great care

To grant, if possible, her prayer.

There came a-wooing men of note;

The maiden thought them all,

By half, too mean and small.

‘They marry me! the creatures dote:—

Alas! poor souls! their case I pity.’

(Here mark the bearing of the beauty.)

Some were less delicate than witty;

Some had the nose too short or long;

In others something else was wrong;

Which made each in the maiden’s eyes

An altogether worthless prize.

Profound contempt is aye the vice

Which springs from being over-nice,

Thus were the great dismiss’d; and then

Came offers from inferior men.

The maid, more scornful than before,

Took credit to her tender heart

For giving then an open door.

‘They think me much in haste to part

With independence! God be thank’d

My lonely nights bring no regret;

Nor shall I pine, or greatly fret,

Should I with ancient maids be rank’d.’

Such were the thoughts that pleased the fair:

Age made them only thoughts that were.

Adieu to lovers:— passing years

Awaken doubts and chilling fears.

Regret, at last, brings up the train.

Day after day she sees, with pain,

Some smile or charm take final flight,

And leave the features of a ‘fright.’

Then came a hundred sorts of paint:

But still no trick, nor ruse, nor feint,

Avail’d to hide the cause of grief,

Or bar out Time, that graceless thief.

A house, when gone to wreck and ruin,

May be repair’d and made a new one.

Alas! for ruins of the face

No such rebuilding e’er takes place.

Her daintiness now changed its tune;

Her mirror told her, ‘Marry soon!’

So did a certain wish within,

With more of secrecy than sin, —

A wish that dwells with even prudes,

Annihilating solitudes.

This maiden’s choice was past belief,

She soothing down her restless grief,

And smoothing it of every ripple,

By marrying a cripple.

9] This fable should be read in conjunction with the foregoing one.

VI. — The Wishes.

Within the Great Mogul’s domains there are

Familiar sprites of much domestic use:

They sweep the house, and take a tidy care

Of equipage, nor garden work refuse;

But, if you meddle with their toil,

The whole, at once, you’re sure to spoil.

One, near the mighty Ganges flood,

The garden of a burgher good

Work’d noiselessly and well;

To master, mistress, garden, bore

A love that time and toil outwore,

And bound him like a spell.

Did friendly zephyrs blow,

The demon’s pains to aid?

(For so they do, ’tis said.)

I own I do not know.

But for himself he rested not,

And richly bless’d his master’s lot.

What mark’d his strength of love,

He lived a fixture on the place,

In spite of tendency to rove

So natural to his race.

But brother sprites conspiring

With importunity untiring,

So teased their goblin chief, that he,

Of his caprice, or policy,

Our sprite commanded to attend

A house in Norway’s farther end,

Whose roof was snow-clad through the year,

And shelter’d human kind with deer.

Before departing to his hosts

Thus spake this best of busy ghosts:—

‘To foreign parts I’m forced to go!

For what sad fault I do not know; —

But go I must; a month’s delay,

Or week’s perhaps, and I’m away.

Seize time; three wishes make at will;

For three I’m able to fulfil —

No more.’ Quick at their easy task,

Abundance first these wishers ask —

Abundance, with her stores unlock’d —

Barns, coffers, cellars, larder, stock’d —

Corn, cattle, wine, and money, —

The overflow of milk and honey.

But what to do with all this wealth!

What inventories, cares, and worry!

What wear of temper and of health!

Both lived in constant, slavish hurry.

Thieves took by plot, and lords by loan;

The king by tax, the poor by tone.

Thus felt the curses which

Arise from being rich, —

‘Remove this affluence!’ they pray;

The poor are happier than they

Whose riches make them slaves.

‘Go, treasures, to the winds and waves;

Come, goddess of the quiet breast,

Who sweet’nest toil with rest,

Dear Mediocrity, return!’

The prayer was granted as we learn.

Two wishes thus expended,

Had simply ended

In bringing them exactly where,

When they set out they were.

So, usually, it fares

With those who waste in such vain prayers

The time required by their affairs.

The goblin laugh’d, and so did they.

However, ere he went away,

To profit by his offer kind,

They ask’d for wisdom, wealth of mind, —

A treasure void of care and sorrow —

A treasure fearless of the morrow,

Let who will steal, or beg, or borrow.

VII. — The Lion’s Court.10

His lion majesty would know, one day,

What bestial tribes were subject to his sway.

He therefore gave his vassals all,

By deputies a call,

Despatching everywhere

A written circular,

Which bore his seal, and did import

His majesty would hold his court

A month most splendidly; —

A feast would open his levee,

Which done, Sir Jocko’s sleight

Would give the court delight.

By such sublime magnificence

The king would show his power immense.

Now were they gather’d all

Within the royal hall. —

And such a hall! The charnel scent

Would make the strongest nerves relent.

The bear put up his paw to close

The double access of his nose.

The act had better been omitted;

His throne at once the monarch quitted,

And sent to Pluto’s court the bear,

To show his delicacy there.

The ape approved the cruel deed,

A thorough flatterer by breed.

He praised the prince’s wrath and claws,

He praised the odour and its cause.

Judged by the fragrance of that cave,

The amber of the Baltic wave,

The rose, the pink, the hawthorn bank,

Might with the vulgar garlic rank.

The mark his flattery overshot,

And made him share poor Bruin’s lot;

This lion playing in his way,

The part of Don Caligula.

The fox approach’d. ‘Now,’ said the king,

‘Apply your nostrils to this thing,

And let me hear, without disguise,

The judgment of a beast so wise.’

The fox replied, ‘Your Majesty will please

Excuse’ — and here he took good care to sneeze; —

‘Afflicted with a dreadful cold,

Your majesty need not be told:

My sense of smell is mostly gone.’

From danger thus withdrawn,

He teaches us the while,

That one, to gain the smile

Of kings, must hold the middle place

‘Twixt blunt rebuke and fulsome praise;

And sometimes use with easy grace,

The language of the Norman race.11

10] Phaedrus. IV. 13.

11] The Normans are proverbial among the French for the oracular noncommittal of their responses. — Un Normand, says the proverb, a son dit et son détit. — Translator.

VIII. — The Vultures and the Pigeons.12

Mars once made havoc in the air:

Some cause aroused a quarrel there

Among the birds; — not those that sing,

The courtiers of the merry Spring,

And by their talk, in leafy bowers,

Of loves they feel, enkindle ours;

Nor those which Cupid’s mother yokes

To whirl on high her golden spokes;

But naughty hawk and vulture folks,

Of hooked beak and talons keen.

The carcass of a dog, ’tis said,

Had to this civil carnage led.

Blood rain’d upon the swarded green,

And valiant deeds were done, I ween.

But time and breath would surely fail

To give the fight in full detail;

Suffice to say, that chiefs were slain,

And heroes strow’d the sanguine plain,

Till old Prometheus, in his chains,

Began to hope an end of pains.

’Twas sport to see the battle rage,

And valiant hawk with hawk engage;

’Twas pitiful to see them fall, —

Torn, bleeding, weltering, gasping, all.

Force, courage, cunning, all were plied;

Intrepid troops on either side

No effort spared to populate

The dusky realms of hungry Fate.

This woful strife awoke compassion

Within another feather’d nation,

Of iris neck and tender heart.

They tried their hand at mediation —

To reconcile the foes, or part.

The pigeon people duly chose

Ambassadors, who work’d so well

As soon the murderous rage to quell,

And stanch the source of countless woes.

A truce took place, and peace ensued.

Alas! the people dearly paid

Who such pacification made!

Those cursed hawks at once pursued

The harmless pigeons, slew and ate,

Till towns and fields were desolate.

Small prudence had the friends of peace

To pacify such foes as these!

The safety of the rest requires

The bad should flesh each other’s spears:

Whoever peace with them desires

Had better set them by the ears.

12] Abstemius.

IX. — The Coach and the Fly.13

Upon a sandy, uphill road,

Which naked in the sunshine glow’d,

Six lusty horses drew a coach.

Dames, monks, and invalids, its load,

On foot, outside, at leisure trode.

The team, all weary, stopp’d and blow’d:

Whereon there did a fly approach,

And, with a vastly business air.

Cheer’d up the horses with his buzz, —

Now pricked them here, now prick’d them there,

As neatly as a jockey does, —

And thought the while — he knew ’twas so —

He made the team and carriage go, —

On carriage-pole sometimes alighting —

Or driver’s nose — and biting.

And when the whole did get in motion,

Confirm’d and settled in the notion,

He took, himself, the total glory, —

Flew back and forth in wondrous hurry,

And, as he buzz’d about the cattle,

Seem’d like a sergeant in a battle,

The files and squadrons leading on

To where the victory is won.

Thus charged with all the commonweal,

This single fly began to feel

Responsibility too great,

And cares, a grievous crushing weight;

And made complaint that none would aid

The horses up the tedious hill —

The monk his prayers at leisure said —

Fine time to pray! — the dames, at will,

Were singing songs — not greatly needed!

Thus in their ears he sharply sang,

And notes of indignation ran, —

Notes, after all, not greatly heeded.

Erelong the coach was on the top:

‘Now,’ said the fly, ‘my hearties, stop

And breathe; — I’ve got you up the hill;

And Messrs. Horses, let me say,

I need not ask you if you will

A proper compensation pay.’

Thus certain ever-bustling noddies

Are seen in every great affair;

Important, swelling, busy-bodies,

And bores ’tis easier to bear

Than chase them from their needless care.

13] Aesop; also Phaedrus, III., 6.

X. — The Dairywoman and the Pot of Milk.

A pot of milk upon her cushion’d crown,

Good Peggy hasten’d to the market town;

Short clad and light, with speed she went,

Not fearing any accident;

Indeed, to be the nimbler tripper,

Her dress that day,

The truth to say,

Was simple petticoat and slipper.

And, thus bedight,

Good Peggy, light, —

Her gains already counted, —

Laid out the cash

At single dash,

Which to a hundred eggs amounted.

Three nests she made,

Which, by the aid

Of diligence and care were hatch’d.

‘To raise the chicks,

I’ll easy fix,’

Said she, ‘beside our cottage thatch’d.

The fox must get

More cunning yet,

Or leave enough to buy a pig.

With little care

And any fare,

He’ll grow quite fat and big;

And then the price

Will be so nice,

For which, the pork will sell!

’Twill go quite hard

But in our yard

I’ll bring a cow and calf to dwell —

A calf to frisk among the flock!’

The thought made Peggy do the same;

And down at once the milk-pot came,

And perish’d with the shock.

Calf, cow, and pig, and chicks, adieu!

Your mistress’ face is sad to view;

She gives a tear to fortune spilt;

Then with the downcast look of guilt

Home to her husband empty goes,

Somewhat in danger of his blows.

Who buildeth not, sometimes, in air

His cots, or seats, or castles fair?

From kings to dairy women, — all, —

The wise, the foolish, great and small, —

Each thinks his waking dream the best.

Some flattering error fills the breast:

The world with all its wealth is ours,

Its honours, dames, and loveliest bowers.

Instinct with valour, when alone,

I hurl the monarch from his throne;

The people, glad to see him dead,

Elect me monarch in his stead,

And diadems rain on my head.

Some accident then calls me back,

And I’m no more than simple Jack.14

14] This and the following fable should be read together. See note to next fable.

XI. — The Curate and the Corpse.15

A dead man going slowly, sadly,

To occupy his last abode,

A curate by him, rather gladly,

Did holy service on the road.

Within a coach the dead was borne,

A robe around him duly worn,

Of which I wot he was not proud —

That ghostly garment call’d a shroud.

In summer’s blaze and winter’s blast,

That robe is changeless — ’tis the last.

The curate, with his priestly dress on,

Recited all the church’s prayers,

The psalm, the verse, response, and lesson,

In fullest style of such affairs.

Sir Corpse, we beg you, do not fear

A lack of such things on your bier;

They’ll give abundance every way,

Provided only that you pay.

The Reverend John Cabbagepate

Watch’d o’er the corpse as if it were

A treasure needing guardian care;

And all the while, his looks elate,

This language seem’d to hold:

‘The dead will pay so much in gold,

So much in lights of molten wax,

So much in other sorts of tax:’

With all he hoped to buy a cask of wine,

The best which thereabouts produced the vine.

A pretty niece, on whom he doted,

And eke his chambermaid, should be promoted,

By being newly petticoated.

The coach upset, and dash’d to pieces,

Cut short these thoughts of wine and nieces!

There lay poor John with broken head,

Beneath the coffin of the dead!

His rich, parishioner in lead

Drew on the priest the doom

Of riding with him to the tomb!

The Pot of Milk,16 and fate

Of Curate Cabbagepate,

As emblems, do but give

The history of most that live.

15] This fable is founded upon a fact, which is related by Madame de Sévigné in her Letters under date Feb. 26, 1672, as follows:— “M. Boufflers has killed a man since his death: the circumstance was this: they were carrying him about a league from Boufflers to inter him; the corpse was on a bier in a coach; his own curate attended it; the coach overset, and the bier falling upon the curate’s neck choaked him.” M. de Boufflers had fallen down dead a few days before. He was the eldest brother of the Duke de Boufflers. In another Letter, March 3, 1672, Madame de Sévigné says:— “Here is Fontaine’s fable too, on the adventure of M. de Boufflers’ curate, who was killed in the coach by his dead patron. There was something very extraordinary in the affair itself: the fable is pretty; but not to be compared to the one that follows it: I do not understand the Milk-pot.”

16] This allusion to the preceding fable must be the “milk-pot” which Madame de Sévigné did “not understand” (vide last note); Madame can hardly have meant the “milk-pot” fable, which is easily understood. She often saw La Fontaine’s work before it was published, and the date of her letter quoted at p. 161 shows that she must so have seen the “Curate and the Corpse,” and that, perhaps, without so seeing the “Dairywoman and the Pot of Milk.”

XII. — The Man who Ran After Fortune, and the Man who Waited for Her in His Bed.

Who joins not with his restless race

To give Dame Fortune eager chase?

O, had I but some lofty perch,

From which to view the panting crowd

Of care-worn dreamers, poor and proud,

As on they hurry in the search,

From realm to realm, o’er land and water,

Of Fate’s fantastic, fickle daughter!

Ah! slaves sincere of flying phantom!

Just as their goddess they would clasp,

The jilt divine eludes their grasp,

And flits away to Bantam!

Poor fellows! I bewail their lot.

And here’s the comfort of my ditty;

For fools the mark of wrath are not

So much, I’m sure, as pity.

‘That man,’ say they, and feed their hope,

‘Raised cabbages — and now he’s pope.

Don’t we deserve as rich a prize?’

Ay, richer? But, hath Fortune eyes?

And then the popedom, is it worth

The price that must be given? —

Repose? — the sweetest bliss of earth,

And, ages since, of gods in heaven?

’Tis rarely Fortune’s favourites

Enjoy this cream of all delights.

Seek not the dame, and she will you —

A truth which of her sex is true.

Snug in a country town

A pair of friends were settled down.

One sigh’d unceasingly to find

A fortune better to his mind,

And, as he chanced his friend to meet,

Proposed to quit their dull retreat.

‘No prophet can to honour come,’

Said he, ‘unless he quits his home;

Let’s seek our fortune far and wide.’

‘Seek, if you please,’ his friend replied:

‘For one, I do not wish to see

A better clime or destiny.

I leave the search and prize to you;

Your restless humour please pursue!

You’ll soon come back again.

I vow to nap it here till then.’

The enterprising, or ambitious,

Or, if you please, the avaricious,

Betook him to the road.

The morrow brought him to a place

The flaunting goddess ought to grace

As her particular abode —

I mean the court — whereat he staid,

And plans for seizing Fortune laid.

He rose, and dress’d, and dined, and went to bed,

Exactly as the fashion led:

In short, he did whate’er he could,

But never found the promised good.

Said he, ‘Now somewhere else I’ll try —

And yet I fail’d I know not why;

For Fortune here is much at home

To this and that I see her come,

Astonishingly kind to some.

And, truly, it is hard to see

The reason why she slips from me.

’Tis true, perhaps, as I’ve been told,

That spirits here may be too bold.

To courts and courtiers all I bid adieu;

Deceitful shadows they pursue.

The dame has temples in Surat;

I’ll go and see them — that is flat.’

To say so was t’ embark at once.

O, human hearts are made of bronze!

His must have been of adamant,

Beyond the power of Death to daunt,

Who ventured first this route to try,

And all its frightful risks defy.

’Twas more than once our venturous wight

Did homeward turn his aching sight,

When pirate’s, rocks, and calms and storms,

Presented death in frightful forms —

Death sought with pains on distant shores,

Which soon as wish’d for would have come,

Had he not left the peaceful doors

Of his despised but blessed home.

Arrived, at length, in Hindostan,

The people told our wayward man

That Fortune, ever void of plan,

Dispensed her favours in Japan.

And on he went, the weary sea

His vessel bearing lazily.

This lesson, taught by savage men,

Was after all his only gain:—

Contented in thy country stay,

And seek thy wealth in nature’s way.

Japan refused to him, no less

Than Hindostan, success;

And hence his judgment came to make

His quitting home a great mistake.

Renouncing his ungrateful course,

He hasten’d back with all his force;

And when his village came in sight,

His tears were proof of his delight.

‘Ah, happy he,’ exclaimed the wight,

‘Who, dwelling there with mind sedate,

Employs himself to regulate

His ever-hatching, wild desires;

Who checks his heart when it aspires

To know of courts, and seas, and glory,

More than he can by simple story;

Who seeks not o’er the treacherous wave —

More treacherous Fortune’s willing slave —

The bait of wealth and honours fleeting,

Held by that goddess, aye retreating.

Henceforth from home I budge no more!’

Pop on his sleeping friends he came,

Thus purposing against the dame,

And found her sitting at his door.17

17] See note to preceding fable, for Madame de Sévigné’s opinion.

XIII. — The Two Cocks.18

Two cocks in peace were living, when

A war was kindled by a hen.

O love, thou bane of Troy! ’twas thine

The blood of men and gods to shed

Enough to turn the Xanthus red

As old Port wine!

And long the battle doubtful stood:

(I mean the battle of the cocks;)

They gave each other fearful shocks:

The fame spread o’er the neighbourhood,

And gather’d all the crested brood.

And Helens more than one, of plumage bright,

Led off the victor of that bloody fight.

The vanquish’d, drooping, fled,

Conceal’d his batter’d head,

And in a dark retreat

Bewail’d his sad defeat.

His loss of glory and the prize

His rival now enjoy’d before his eyes.

While this he every day beheld,

His hatred kindled, courage swell’d:

He whet his beak, and flapp’d his wings,

And meditated dreadful things.

Waste rage! His rival flew upon a roof

And crow’d to give his victory proof. —

A hawk this boasting heard:

Now perish’d all his pride,

As suddenly he died

Beneath that savage bird.

In consequence of this reverse,

The vanquish’d sallied from his hole,

And took the harem, master sole,

For moderate penance not the worse.

Imagine the congratulation,

The proud and stately leading,

Gallanting, coaxing, feeding,

Of wives almost a nation!

’Tis thus that Fortune loves to flee

The insolent by victory.

We should mistrust her when we beat,

Lest triumph lead us to defeat.

18] Aesop.

XIV. — The Ingratitude and Injustice of Men Towards Fortune.19

A trader on the sea to riches grew;

Freight after freight the winds in favour blew;

Fate steer’d him clear; gulf, rock, nor shoal

Of all his bales exacted toll.

Of other men the powers of chance and storm

Their dues collected in substantial form;

While smiling Fortune, in her kindest sport,

Took care to waft his vessels to their port.

His partners, factors, agents, faithful proved;

His goods — tobacco, sugar, spice —

Were sure to fetch the highest price.

By fashion and by folly loved,

His rich brocades and laces,

And splendid porcelain vases,

Enkindling strong desires,

Most readily found buyers.

In short, gold rain’d where’er he went —

Abundance, more than could be spent —

Dogs, horses, coaches, downy bedding —

His very fasts were like a wedding.

A bosom friend, a look his table giving,

Inquired whence came such sumptuous living.

‘Whence should it come,’ said he, superb of brow,

‘But from the fountain of my knowing how?

I owe it simply to my skill and care

In risking only where the marts will bear.’

And now, so sweet his swelling profits were,

He risk’d anew his former gains:

Success rewarded not his pains —

His own imprudence was the cause.

One ship, ill-freighted, went awreck;

Another felt of arms the lack,

When pirates, trampling on the laws,

O’ercame, and bore it off a prize.

A third, arriving at its port,

Had fail’d to sell its merchandize, —

The style and folly of the court

Not now requiring such a sort.

His agents, factors, fail’d; — in short,

The man himself, from pomp and princely cheer,

And palaces, and parks, and dogs, and deer,

Fell down to poverty most sad and drear.

His friend, now meeting him in shabby plight,

Exclaim’d, ‘And whence comes this to pass?’

‘From Fortune,’ said the man, ‘alas!’

‘Console yourself,’ replied the friendly wight:

‘For, if to make you rich the dame denies,

She can’t forbid you to be wise.’

What faith he gain’d, I do not wis;

I know, in every case like this,

Each claims the credit of his bliss,

And with a heart ingrate

Imputes his misery to Fate.20

19] Abstemius.

20] On this favourite subject with the easy-going La Fontaine — man’s ungracious treatment of Fortune — see also the two preceding fables, and some neighbouring ones.

XV. — The Fortune-Tellers.

’Tis oft from chance opinion takes its rise,

And into reputation multiplies.

This prologue finds pat applications

In men of all this world’s vocations;

For fashion, prejudice, and party strife,

Conspire to crowd poor justice out of life.

What can you do to counteract

This reckless, rushing cataract?

’Twill have its course for good or bad,

As it, indeed, has always had.

A dame in Paris play’d the Pythoness21

With much of custom, and, of course, success.

Was any trifle lost, or did

Some maid a husband wish,

Or wife of husband to be rid,

Or either sex for fortune fish,

Resort was had to her with gold,

To get the hidden future told.

Her art was made of various tricks,

Wherein the dame contrived to mix,

With much assurance, learned terms.

Now, chance, of course, sometimes confirms;

And just as often as it did,

The news was anything but hid.

In short, though, as to ninety-nine per cent.,

The lady knew not what her answers meant,

Borne up by ever-babbling Fame,

An oracle she soon became.

A garret was this woman’s home,

Till she had gain’d of gold a sum

That raised the station of her spouse —

Bought him an office and a house.

As she could then no longer bear it,

Another tenanted the garret.

To her came up the city crowd, —

Wives, maidens, servants, gentry proud, —

To ask their fortunes, as before;

A Sibyl’s cave was on her garret floor:

Such custom had its former mistress drawn

It lasted even when herself was gone.

It sorely tax’d the present mistress’ wits

To satisfy the throngs of teasing cits.

‘I tell your fortunes! joke, indeed!

Why, gentlemen, I cannot read!

What can you, ladies, learn from me,

Who never learn’d my A, B, C?’

Avaunt with reasons! tell she must, —

Predict as if she understood,

And lay aside more precious dust

Than two the ablest lawyers could.

The stuff that garnish’d out her room —

Four crippled chairs, a broken broom —

Help’d mightily to raise her merits, —

Full proof of intercourse with spirits!

Had she predicted e’er so truly,

On floor with carpet cover’d duly,

Her word had been a mockery made.

The fashion set upon the garret.

Doubt that? — none bold enough to dare it!

The other woman lost her trade.

All shopmen know the force of signs,

And so, indeed, do some divines.

In palaces, a robe awry

Has sometimes set the wearer high;

And crowds his teaching will pursue

Who draws the greatest listening crew.

Ask, if you please, the reason why.

21] Pythoness. — The Pythoness was the priestess who gave out the oracles at Delphi.

XVI. — The Cat, the Weasel, and the Young Rabbit.22

John Rabbit’s palace under ground

Was once by Goody Weasel found.

She, sly of heart, resolved to seize

The place, and did so at her ease.

She took possession while its lord

Was absent on the dewy sward,

Intent upon his usual sport,

A courtier at Aurora’s court.

When he had browsed his fill of clover

And cut his pranks all nicely over,

Home Johnny came to take his drowse,

All snug within his cellar-house.

The weasel’s nose he came to see,

Outsticking through the open door.

‘Ye gods of hospitality!’

Exclaim’d the creature, vexèd sore,

‘Must I give up my father’s lodge?

Ho! Madam Weasel, please to budge,

Or, quicker than a weasel’s dodge,

I’ll call the rats to pay their grudge!’

The sharp-nosed lady made reply,

That she was first to occupy.

The cause of war was surely small —

A house where one could only crawl!

And though it were a vast domain,

Said she, ‘I’d like to know what will

Could grant to John perpetual reign, —

The son of Peter or of Bill, —

More than to Paul, or even me.’

John Rabbit spoke — great lawyer he —

Of custom, usage, as the law,

Whereby the house, from sire to son,

As well as all its store of straw,

From Peter came at length to John.

Who could present a claim, so good

As he, the first possessor, could?

‘Now,’ said the dame, ‘let’s drop dispute,

And go before Raminagrobis, 23

Who’ll judge, not only in this suit,

But tell us truly whose the globe is.’

This person was a hermit cat,

A cat that play’d the hypocrite,

A saintly mouser, sleek and fat,

An arbiter of keenest wit.

John Rabbit in the judge concurr’d,

And off went both their case to broach

Before his majesty, the furr’d.

Said Clapperclaw, ‘My kits, approach,

And put your noses to my ears:

I’m deaf, almost, by weight of years.’

And so they did, not fearing aught.

The good apostle, Clapperclaw,

Then laid on each a well-arm’d paw,

And both to an agreement brought,

By virtue of his tuskèd jaw.

This brings to mind the fate

Of little kings before the great.

22] Fables of Bidpaii, “The Rat and the Cat.” In Knatchbull’s English edition it will be found at p. 275. Also in the Lokman Collection.

23] Raminagrobis. — This name occurs in Rabelais (Book III., ch. 21), where, however, it is not the name of a cat, but of a poet — understood to be meant for Guillaume Cretin, who lived in the times of Kings Charles VIII., Louis XII., and Francis I. See note to Bohn’s edition of Rabelais.

XVII. — The Head and the Tail of the Serpent.24

Two parts the serpent has —

Of men the enemies —

The head and tail: the same

Have won a mighty fame,

Next to the cruel Fates; —

So that, indeed, hence

They once had great debates

About precedence.

The first had always gone ahead;

The tail had been for ever led;

And now to Heaven it pray’d,

And said,

‘O, many and many a league,

Dragg’d on in sore fatigue,

Behind his back I go.

Shall he for ever use me so?

Am I his humble servant;

No. Thanks to God most fervent!

His brother I was born,

And not his slave forlorn.

The self-same blood in both,

I’m just as good as he:

A poison dwells in me

As virulent as doth25

In him. In mercy, heed,

And grant me this decree,

That I, in turn, may lead —

My brother, follow me.

My course shall be so wise,

That no complaint shall rise.’

With cruel kindness Heaven granted

The very thing he blindly wanted:

To such desires of beasts and men,

Though often deaf, it was not then.

At once this novel guide,

That saw no more in broad daylight

Than in the murk of darkest night,

His powers of leading tried,

Struck trees, and men, and stones, and bricks,

And led his brother straight to Styx.

And to the same unlovely home,

Some states by such an error come.

24] Plutarch’s Lives, Agis, “The fable of the servant, enforcing the moral that you cannot have the same man both for your governor and your slave.”

25] An ancient mistake in natural history. — Translator.

XVIII. — An Animal in the Moon.26

While one philosopher27 affirms

That by our senses we’re deceived,

Another28 swears, in plainest terms,

The senses are to be believed.

The twain are right. Philosophy

Correctly calls us dupes whene’er

Upon mere senses we rely.

But when we wisely rectify

The raw report of eye or ear,

By distance, medium, circumstance,

In real knowledge we advance.

These things hath nature wisely plann’d —

Whereof the proof shall be at hand.

I see the sun: its dazzling glow

Seems but a hand-breadth here below;

But should I see it in its home,

That azure, star-besprinkled dome,

Of all the universe the eye,

Its blaze would fill one half the sky.

The powers of trigonometry

Have set my mind from blunder free.

The ignorant believe it flat;

I make it round, instead of that.

I fasten, fix, on nothing ground it,

And send the earth to travel round it.

In short, I contradict my eyes,

And sift the truth from constant lies.

The mind, not hasty at conclusion,

Resists the onset of illusion,

Forbids the sense to get the better,

And ne’er believes it to the letter.

Between my eyes, perhaps too ready,

And ears as much or more too slow,

A judge with balance true and steady,

I come, at last, some things to know.

Thus when the water crooks a stick,29

My reason straightens it as quick —

Kind Mistress Reason — foe of error,

And best of shields from needless terror!

The creed is common with our race,

The moon contains a woman’s face.

True? No. Whence, then, the notion,

From mountain top to ocean?

The roughness of that satellite,

Its hills and dales, of every grade,

Effect a change of light and shade

Deceptive to our feeble sight;

So that, besides the human face,

All sorts of creatures one might trace.

Indeed, a living beast, I ween,

Has lately been by England seen.

All duly placed the telescope,

And keen observers full of hope,

An animal entirely new,

In that fair planet, came to view.

Abroad and fast the wonder flew; —

Some change had taken place on high,

Presaging earthly changes nigh;

Perhaps, indeed, it might betoken

The wars30 that had already broken

Out wildly o’er the Continent.

The king to see the wonder went:

(As patron of the sciences,

No right to go more plain than his.)

To him, in turn, distinct and clear,

This lunar monster did appear. —

A mouse, between the lenses caged,

Had caused these wars, so fiercely waged!

No doubt the happy English folks

Laugh’d at it as the best of jokes.

How soon will Mars afford the chance

For like amusements here in France!

He makes us reap broad fields of glory.

Our foes may fear the battle-ground;

For us, it is no sooner found,

Than Louis, with fresh laurels crown’d,

Bears higher up our country’s story.

The daughters, too, of Memory, —

The Pleasures and the Graces, —

Still show their cheering faces:

We wish for peace, but do not sigh.

The English Charles the secret knows

To make the most of his repose.

And more than this, he’ll know the way,

By valour, working sword in hand,

To bring his sea-encircled land

To share the fight it only sees to-day.

Yet, could he but this quarrel quell,

What incense-clouds would grateful swell!

What deed more worthy of his fame!

Augustus, Julius31 — pray, which Caesar’s name

Shines now on story’s page with purest flame?

O people happy in your sturdy hearts!

Say, when shall Peace pack up these bloody darts,

And send us all, like you, to softer arts?

26] This fable is founded on a fact which occurred in the experience of the astronomer Sir Paul Neal, a member of the Royal Society of London. — Translator. Sir Paul Neal, whose lapsus suggested this fable, thought he had discovered an animal in the moon. Unluckily, however, after having made his “discovery” known, it was found that the ground of it was simply the accidental presence of a mouse in the object-glass of his telescope. Samuel Butler, the author of “Hudibras,” has also made fun of this otherwise rather tragical episode in the early history of the Royal Society of London, vide his “Elephant in the Moon.”

27] One philosopher. — Democritus, the so-called “laughing (or scoffing) philosopher.” He lived B.C. about 400 years. Fable XXVI., Book VIII., is devoted to him and how he was treated by his contemporaries.

28] Another. — Epicurus, founder of the Epicurean philosophy. He lived B. C. about 300 years.

29] Water crooks a stick. — An allusion to the bent appearance which a stick has in water, consequent upon the refraction of light.

30] The wars. — This fable appears to have been composed about the beginning of the year 1677. The European powers then found themselves exhausted by wars, and desirous of peace. England, the only neutral, became, of course, the arbiter of the negotiations which ensued at Nimeguen. All the belligerent parties invoked her mediation. Charles II., however, felt himself exceedingly embarrassed by his secret connections with Louis XIV., which made him desire to prescribe conditions favourable to that monarch; while, on the other hand, he feared the people of England, if, treacherous to her interests, he should fail to favour the nations allied and combined against France. — Translator. Vide Hume: who also says that the English king “had actually in secret sold his neutrality to France, and he received remittances of 1,000,000 livres a year, which was afterwards increased to 2,000,000 livres; a considerable sum in the embarrassed state of his revenue.” Hume’s Hist. England, Bell’s edit., 1854, vol. vi., p. 242.

31] Augustus, Julius. — Augustus Caesar was eminent for his pacific policy, as Julius Caesar was eminent for his warlike policy.

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