The Fables of La Fontaine, by Jean de La Fontaine

Book VIII.

I. — Death and the Dying.1

Death never taketh by surprise

The well-prepared, to wit, the wise —

They knowing of themselves the time

To meditate the final change of clime.

That time, alas! embraces all

Which into hours and minutes we divide;

There is no part, however small,

That from this tribute one can hide.

The very moment, oft, which bids

The heirs of empire see the light

Is that which shuts their fringèd lids

In everlasting night.

Defend yourself by rank and wealth,

Plead beauty, virtue, youth, and health, —

Unblushing Death will ravish all;

The world itself shall pass beneath his pall.

No truth is better known; but, truth to say,

No truth is oftener thrown away.

A man, well in his second century,

Complain’d that Death had call’d him suddenly;

Had left no time his plans to fill,

To balance books, or make his will.

‘O Death,’ said he, ‘d’ ye call it fair,

Without a warning to prepare,

To take a man on lifted leg?

O, wait a little while, I beg.

My wife cannot be left alone;

I must set out my nephew’s son,

And let me build my house a wing,

Before you strike, O cruel king!’

‘Old man,’ said Death, ‘one thing is sure, —

My visit here’s not premature.

Hast thou not lived a century!

Darest thou engage to find for me?

In Paris’ walls two older men

Has France, among her millions ten?

Thou say’st I should have sent thee word

Thy lamp to trim, thy loins to gird,

And then my coming had been meet —

Thy will engross’d,

Thy house complete!

Did not thy feelings notify?

Did not they tell thee thou must die?

Thy taste and hearing are no more;

Thy sight itself is gone before;

For thee the sun superfluous shines,

And all the wealth of Indian mines;

Thy mates I’ve shown thee dead or dying.

What’s this, indeed, but notifying?

Come on, old man, without reply;

For to the great and common weal

It doth but little signify

Whether thy will shall ever feel

The impress of thy hand and seal.’

And Death had reason, — ghastly sage!

For surely man, at such an age,

Should part from life as from a feast,

Returning decent thanks, at least,

To Him who spread the various cheer,

And unrepining take his bier;

For shun it long no creature can.

Repinest thou, grey-headed man?

See younger mortals rushing by

To meet their death without a sigh —

Death full of triumph and of fame,

But in its terrors still the same. —

But, ah! my words are thrown away!

Those most like Death most dread his sway.

1] Abstemius.

II. — The Cobbler and the Financier.

A cobbler sang from morn till night;

’Twas sweet and marvellous to hear,

His trills and quavers told the ear

Of more contentment and delight,

Enjoy’d by that laborious wight

Than e’er enjoy’d the sages seven,

Or any mortals short of heaven.

His neighbour, on the other hand,

With gold in plenty at command,

But little sang, and slumber’d less —

A financier of great success.

If e’er he dozed, at break of day,

The cobbler’s song drove sleep away;

And much he wish’d that Heaven had made

Sleep a commodity of trade,

In market sold, like food and drink,

So much an hour, so much a wink.

At last, our songster did he call

To meet him in his princely hall.

Said he, ‘Now, honest Gregory,

What may your yearly earnings be?’

‘My yearly earnings! faith, good sir,

I never go, at once, so far,’

The cheerful cobbler said,

And queerly scratch’d his head, —

‘I never reckon in that way,

But cobble on from day to day,

Content with daily bread.’

‘Indeed! Well, Gregory, pray,

What may your earnings be per day?’

‘Why, sometimes more and sometimes less.

The worst of all, I must confess,

(And but for which our gains would be

A pretty sight, indeed, to see,)

Is that the days are made so many

In which we cannot earn a penny —

The sorest ill the poor man feels:

They tread upon each other’s heels,

Those idle days of holy saints!

And though the year is shingled o’er,

The parson keeps a-finding more!’2

With smiles provoked by these complaints,

Replied the lordly financier,

‘I’ll give you better cause to sing.

These hundred pounds I hand you here

Will make you happy as a king.

Go, spend them with a frugal heed;

They’ll long supply your every need.’

The cobbler thought the silver more

Than he had ever dream’d before,

The mines for ages could produce,

Or world, with all its people, use.

He took it home, and there did hide —

And with it laid his joy aside.

No more of song, no more of sleep,

But cares, suspicions in their stead,

And false alarms, by fancy fed.

His eyes and ears their vigils keep,

And not a cat can tread the floor

But seems a thief slipp’d through the door.

At last, poor man!

Up to the financier he ran, —

Then in his morning nap profound:

‘O, give me back my songs,’ cried he,

‘And sleep, that used so sweet to be,

And take the money, every pound!’

2] The parson keeps a-finding more! — Under the old regime of France the parish priest of each church had usually every Sunday, at sermon time, to announce more than one religious fast or feast for the coming week, which the poor at least were expected to observe.

III. — The Lion, the Wolf, and the Fox.3

A lion, old, and impotent with gout,

Would have some cure for age found out.

Impossibilities, on all occasions,

With kings, are rank abominations.

This king, from every species, —

For each abounds in every sort, —

Call’d to his aid the leeches.

They came in throngs to court,

From doctors of the highest fee

To nostrum-quacks without degree, —

Advised, prescribed, talk’d learnedly;

But with the rest

Came not Sir Cunning Fox, M.D.

Sir Wolf the royal couch attended,

And his suspicions there express’d.

Forthwith his majesty, offended,

Resolved Sir Cunning Fox should come,

And sent to smoke him from his home.

He came, was duly usher’d in,

And, knowing where Sir Wolf had been,

Said, ‘Sire, your royal ear

Has been abused, I fear,

By rumours false and insincere;

To wit, that I’ve been self-exempt

From coming here, through sheer contempt.

But, sire, I’ve been on pilgrimage,

By vow expressly made,

Your royal health to aid,

And, on my way, met doctors sage,

In skill the wonder of the age,

Whom carefully I did consult

About that great debility

Term’d in the books senility,

Of which you fear, with reason, the result.

You lack, they say, the vital heat,

By age extreme become effete.

Drawn from a living wolf, the hide

Should warm and smoking be applied.

The secret’s good, beyond a doubt,

For nature’s weak, and wearing out.

Sir Wolf, here, won’t refuse to give

His hide to cure you, as I live.’

The king was pleased with this advice.

Flay’d, jointed, served up in a trice,

Sir Wolf first wrapp’d the monarch up,

Then furnish’d him whereon to sup.

Beware, ye courtiers, lest ye gain,

By slander’s arts, less power than pain;

For in the world where ye are living,

A pardon no one thinks of giving.

3] Aesop; also Bidpaii, and Lokman.

IV. — The Power of Fables.

To M. De Barillon.4

Can diplomatic dignity

To simple fables condescend?

Can I your famed benignity

Invoke, my muse an ear to lend?

If once she dares a high intent,

Will you esteem her impudent?

Your cares are weightier, indeed,

Than listening to the sage debates

Of rabbit or of weasel states:

So, as it pleases, burn or read;

But save us from the woful harms

Of Europe roused in hostile arms.

That from a thousand other places

Our enemies should show their faces,

May well be granted with a smile,

But not that England’s Isle

Our friendly kings should set

Their fatal blades to whet.

Comes not the time for Louis to repose?

What Hercules, against these hydra foes,

Would not grow weary? Must new heads oppose

His ever-waxing energy of blows?

Now, if your gentle, soul-persuasive powers,

As sweet as mighty in this world of ours,

Can soften hearts, and lull this war to sleep,5

I’ll pile your altars with a hundred sheep;

And this is not a small affair

For a Parnassian mountaineer.

Meantime, (if you have time to spare,)

Accept a little incense-cheer.

A homely, but an ardent prayer,

And tale in verse, I give you here.

I’ll only say, the theme is fit for you.

With praise, which envy must confess

To worth like yours is justly due,

No man on earth needs propping less.

In Athens, once, that city fickle,

An orator,6 awake to feel

His country in a dangerous pickle,

Would sway the proud republic’s heart,

Discoursing of the common weal,

As taught by his tyrannic art.

The people listen’d — not a word.

Meanwhile the orator recurr’d

To bolder tropes — enough to rouse

The dullest blocks that e’er did drowse;

He clothed in life the very dead,

And thunder’d all that could be said.

The wind received his breath,

As to the ear of death.

That beast of many heads and light,7

The crowd, accustom’d to the sound

Was all intent upon a sight —

A brace of lads in mimic fight.

A new resource the speaker found.

‘Ceres,’ in lower tone said he,

‘Went forth her harvest fields to see:

An eel, as such a fish might he,

And swallow, were her company.

A river check’d the travellers three.

Two cross’d it soon without ado;

The smooth eel swam, the swallow flew. — ’

Outcried the crowd

With voices loud —

‘And Ceres — what did she?’

‘Why, what she pleased; but first

Yourselves she justly cursed —

A people puzzling aye your brains

With children’s tales and children’s play,

While Greece puts on her steel array,

To save her limbs from, tyrant chains!

Why ask you not what Philip8 does?’

At this reproach the idle buzz

Fell to the silence of the grave,

Or moonstruck sea without a wave,

And every eye and ear awoke

To drink the words the patriot spoke.

This feather stick in Fable’s cap.

We’re all Athenians, mayhap;

And I, for one, confess the sin;

For, while I write this moral here,

If one should tell that tale so queer

Ycleped, I think, “The Ass’s Skin,"9

I should not mind my work a pin.

The world is old, they say; I don’t deny it; —

But, infant still

In taste and will,

Whoe’er would teach, must gratify it.10

4] M. De Barillon. — Ambassador to the Court of St. James. — Translator. M. De Barillon was a great friend of La Fontaine, and also of other literary lights of the time.

5] And lull this war to sleep. — The parliament of England was determined that, in case Louis XIV. did not make peace with the allies, Charles II. should join them to make war on France. — Translator.

6] An orator. — Demades. — Translator.

7] That beast of many heads. — Horace, speaking of the Roman people, said, “Bellua multorum est capitum." — Epist. I., Book I., 76. — Translator.

8] Philip. — Philip of Macedon, then at war with the Greeks.

9] “The Ass’s Skin," — an old French nursery tale so called.

10] La Fontaine’s views on “the power of fables” are further given in Fable I., Book II.; Fable I., Book III.; Fable I., Book V.; Fable I., Book VI; the Introduction to Book VII., and Fable I., Book IX.

V. — The Man and the Flea.11

Impertinent, we tease and weary Heaven

With prayers which would insult mere mortals even.

‘Twould seem that not a god in all the skies

From our affairs must ever turn his eyes,

And that the smallest of our race

Could hardly eat, or wash his face,

Without, like Greece and Troy for ten years’ space,

Embroiling all Olympus in the case.

A flea some blockhead’s shoulder bit,

And then his clothes refused to quit.

‘O Hercules,’ he cried, ‘you ought to purge

This world of this far worse than hydra scourge!

O Jupiter, what are your bolts about,

They do not put these foes of mine to rout?’

To crush a flea, this fellow’s fingers under,

The gods must lend the fool their club and thunder!

11] Aesop.

VI. — The Women and the Secret.12

There’s nothing like a secret weighs;

Too heavy ’tis for women tender;

And, for this matter, in my days,

I’ve seen some men of female gender.

To prove his wife, a husband cried,

(The night he knew the truth would hide,)

‘O Heavens! What’s this? O dear — I beg —

I’m torn — O! O! I’ve laid an egg!’

‘An egg?’ ‘Why, yes, it’s gospel-true.

Look here — see — feel it, fresh and new;

But, wife, don’t mention it, lest men

Should laugh at me, and call me hen:

Indeed, don’t say a word about it.’

On this, as other matters, green and young,

The wife, all wonder, did not doubt it,

And pledged herself by Heaven to hold her tongue.

Her oath, however, fled the light

As quick as did the shades of night.

Before Dan Phoebus waked to labour

The dame was off to see a neighbour.

‘My friend,’ she said, half-whispering.

‘There’s come to pass the strangest thing —

If you should tell, ‘twould turn me out of door:—

My husband’s laid an egg as big as four!

As you would taste of heaven’s bliss,

Don’t tell a living soul of this.’

‘I tell! why if you knew a thing about me,

You wouldn’t for an instant doubt me;

Your confidence I’ll ne’er abuse.’

The layer’s wife went home relieved;

The other broil’d to tell the news;

You need not ask if she believed.

A dame more busy could not be;

In twenty places, ere her tea,

Instead of one egg, she said three!

Nor was the story finish’d here:

A gossip, still more keen than she,

Said four, and spoke it in the ear —

A caution truly little worth,

Applied to all the ears on earth.

Of eggs, the number, thanks to Fame,

As on from mouth to mouth she sped,

Had grown a hundred, soothly said,

Ere Sol had quench’d his golden flame!

12] Abstemius.

VII. — The Dog that Carried His Master’s Dinner.

Our eyes are not made proof against the fair,

Nor hands against the touch of gold.

Fidelity is sadly rare,

And has been from the days of old.

Well taught his appetite to check,

And do full many a handy trick,

A dog was trotting, light and quick,

His master’s dinner on his neck.

A temperate, self-denying dog was he,

More than, with such a load, he liked to be.

But still he was, while many such as we

Would not have scrupled to make free.

Strange that to dogs a virtue you may teach,

Which, do your best, to men you vainly preach!

This dog of ours, thus richly fitted out,

A mastiff met, who wish’d the meat, no doubt.

To get it was less easy than he thought:

The porter laid it down and fought.

Meantime some other dogs arrive:

Such dogs are always thick enough,

And, fearing neither kick nor cuff,

Upon the public thrive.

Our hero, thus o’ermatch’d and press’d, —

The meat in danger manifest, —

Is fain to share it with the rest;

And, looking very calm and wise,

‘No anger, gentlemen,’ he cries:

‘My morsel will myself suffice;

The rest shall be your welcome prize.’

With this, the first his charge to violate,

He snaps a mouthful from his freight.

Then follow mastiff, cur, and pup,

Till all is cleanly eaten up.

Not sparingly the party feasted,

And not a dog of all but tasted.

In some such manner men abuse

Of towns and states the revenues.

The sheriffs, aldermen, and mayor,

Come in for each a liberal share.

The strongest gives the rest example:

’Tis sport to see with what a zest

They sweep and lick the public chest

Of all its funds, however ample.

If any commonweal’s defender

Should dare to say a single word,

He’s shown his scruples are absurd,

And finds it easy to surrender —

Perhaps, to be the first offender.

VIII. — The Joker and the Fishes.13

Some seek for jokers; I avoid.

A joke must be, to be enjoy’d,

Of wisdom’s words, by wit employ’d.

God never meant for men of sense,

The wits that joke to give offence.

Perchance of these I shall be able

To show you one preserved in fable.

A joker at a banker’s table,

Most amply spread to satisfy

The height of epicurean wishes,

Had nothing near but little fishes.

So, taking several of the fry,

He whisper’d to them very nigh,

And seem’d to listen for reply.

The guests much wonder’d what it meant,

And stared upon him all intent.

The joker, then with sober face,

Politely thus explain’d the case:

‘A friend of mine, to India bound,

Has been, I fear,

Within a year,

By rocks or tempests wreck’d and drown’d.

I ask’d these strangers from the sea

To tell me where my friend might be.

But all replied they were too young

To know the least of such a matter —

The older fish could tell me better.

Pray, may I hear some older tongue?’

What relish had the gentlefolks

For such a sample of his jokes,

Is more than I can now relate.

They put, I’m sure, upon his plate,

A monster of so old a date,

He must have known the names and fate

Of all the daring voyagers,

Who, following the moon and stars,

Have, by mischances, sunk their bones,

Within the realms of Davy Jones;

And who, for centuries, had seen,

Far down, within the fathomless,

Where whales themselves are sceptreless,

The ancients in their halls of green.

13] Abstemius.

IX. — The Rat and the Oyster14

A country rat, of little brains,

Grown weary of inglorious rest,

Left home with all its straws and grains,

Resolved to know beyond his nest.

When peeping through the nearest fence,

‘How big the world is, how immense!’

He cried; ‘there rise the Alps, and that

Is doubtless famous Ararat.’

His mountains were the works of moles,

Or dirt thrown up in digging holes!

Some days of travel brought him where

The tide had left the oysters bare.

Since here our traveller saw the sea,

He thought these shells the ships must be.

‘My father was, in truth,’ said he,

‘A coward, and an ignoramus;

He dared not travel: as for me,

I’ve seen the ships and ocean famous;

Have cross’d the deserts without drinking,

And many dangerous streams unshrinking;

Such things I know from having seen and felt them.’

And, as he went, in tales he proudly dealt them,

Not being of those rats whose knowledge

Comes by their teeth on books in college.

Among the shut-up shell-fish, one

Was gaping widely at the sun;

It breathed, and drank the air’s perfume,

Expanding, like a flower in bloom.

Both white and fat, its meat

Appear’d a dainty treat.

Our rat, when he this shell espied,

Thought for his stomach to provide.

‘If not mistaken in the matter,’

Said he, ‘no meat was ever fatter,

Or in its flavour half so fine,

As that on which to-day I dine.’

Thus full of hope, the foolish chap

Thrust in his head to taste,

And felt the pinching of a trap —

The oyster closed in haste.

We’re first instructed, by this case,

That those to whom the world is new

Are wonder-struck at every view;

And, in the second place,

That the marauder finds his match,

And he is caught who thinks to catch.

14] Abstemius; also Aesop.

X. — The Bear and the Amateur Gardener.15

A certain mountain bear, unlick’d and rude,

By fate confined within a lonely wood,

A new Bellerophon,16 whose life,

Knew neither comrade, friend, nor wife, —

Became insane; for reason, as we term it,

Dwells never long with any hermit.

’Tis good to mix in good society,

Obeying rules of due propriety;

And better yet to be alone;

But both are ills when overdone.

No animal had business where

All grimly dwelt our hermit bear;

Hence, bearish as he was, he grew

Heart-sick, and long’d for something new.

While he to sadness was addicted,

An aged man, not far from there,

Was by the same disease afflicted.

A garden was his favourite care, —

Sweet Flora’s priesthood, light and fair,

And eke Pomona’s — ripe and red

The presents that her fingers shed.

These two employments, true, are sweet

When made so by some friend discreet.

The gardens, gaily as they look,

Talk not, (except in this my book;)

So, tiring of the deaf and dumb,

Our man one morning left his home

Some company to seek,

That had the power to speak. —

The bear, with thoughts the same,

Down from his mountain came;

And in a solitary place,

They met each other, face to face.

It would have made the boldest tremble;

What did our man? To play the Gascon

The safest seem’d. He put the mask on,

His fear contriving to dissemble.

The bear, unused to compliment,

Growl’d bluntly, but with good intent,

‘Come home with me.’ The man replied:

‘Sir Bear, my lodgings, nearer by,

In yonder garden you may spy,

Where, if you’ll honour me the while,

We’ll break our fast in rural style.

I’ve fruits and milk, — unworthy fare,

It may be, for a wealthy bear;

But then I offer what I have.’

The bear accepts, with visage grave,

But not unpleased; and on their way,

They grow familiar, friendly, gay.

Arrived, you see them, side by side,

As if their friendship had been tried.

To a companion so absurd,

Blank solitude were well preferr’d,

Yet, as the bear scarce spoke a word,

The man was left quite at his leisure

To trim his garden at his pleasure.

Sir Bruin hunted — always brought

His friend whatever game he caught;

But chiefly aim’d at driving flies —

Those hold and shameless parasites,

That vex us with their ceaseless bites —

From off our gardener’s face and eyes.

One day, while, stretch’d upon the ground

The old man lay, in sleep profound,

A fly that buzz’d around his nose, —

And bit it sometimes, I suppose, —

Put Bruin sadly to his trumps.

At last, determined, up he jumps;

‘I’ll stop thy noisy buzzing now,’

Says he; ‘I know precisely how.’

No sooner said than done.

He seized a paving-stone;

And by his modus operandi

Did both the fly and man die.

A foolish friend may cause more woe

Than could, indeed, the wisest foe.

15] Bidpaii.

16] Bellerophon. — The son of King Glaucus, who, after a wandering life, died a prey to melancholy.

XI. — The Two Friends.17

Two friends, in Monomotapa,

Had all their interests combined.

Their friendship, faithful and refined,

Our country can’t exceed, do what it may.

One night, when potent Sleep had laid

All still within our planet’s shade,

One of the two gets up alarm’d,

Runs over to the other’s palace,

And hastily the servants rallies.

His startled friend, quick arm’d,

With purse and sword his comrade meets,

And thus right kindly greets:—

‘Thou seldom com’st at such an hour;

I take thee for a man of sounder mind

Than to abuse the time for sleep design’d.

Hast lost thy purse, by Fortune’s power?

Here’s mine. Hast suffer’d insult, or a blow,

I’ve here my sword — to avenge it let us go.’

‘No,’ said his friend, ‘no need I feel

Of either silver, gold, or steel;

I thank thee for thy friendly zeal.

In sleep I saw thee rather sad,

And thought the truth might be as bad.

Unable to endure the fear,

That cursed dream has brought me here.’

Which think you, reader, loved the most!

If doubtful this, one truth may be proposed:

There’s nothing sweeter than a real friend:

Not only is he prompt to lend —

An angler delicate, he fishes

The very deepest of your wishes,

And spares your modesty the task

His friendly aid to ask.

A dream, a shadow, wakes his fear,

When pointing at the object dear.18

17] Bidpaii.

18] This fable is thought to have been inspired by the friendship of La Fontaine for Fouquet, the minister whom Louis XIV., actuated mostly by jealousy and envy, disgraced and imprisoned. See the Translator’s Preface.

XII. — The Hog, the Goat, and the Sheep.19

A goat, a sheep, and porker fat,

All to the market rode together.

Their own amusement was not that

Which caused their journey thither.

Their coachman did not mean to ‘set them down’

To see the shows and wonders of the town.

The porker cried, in piercing squeals,

As if with butchers at his heels.

The other beasts, of milder mood,

The cause by no means understood.

They saw no harm, and wonder’d why

At such a rate the hog should cry.

‘Hush there, old piggy!’ said the man,

‘And keep as quiet as you can.

What wrong have you to squeal about,

And raise this dev’lish, deaf’ning shout?

These stiller persons at your side

Have manners much more dignified.

Pray, have you heard

A single word

Come from that gentleman in wool?

That proves him wise.’ ‘That proves him fool!’

The testy hog replied;

‘For did he know

To what we go,

He’d cry almost to split his throat;

So would her ladyship the goat.

They only think to lose with ease,

The goat her milk, the sheep his fleece:

They’re, maybe, right; but as for me,

This ride is quite another matter.

Of service only on the platter,

My death is quite a certainty.

Adieu, my dear old piggery!’

The porker’s logic proved at once

Himself a prophet and a dunce.

Hope ever gives a present ease,

But fear beforehand kills:

The wisest he who least foresees

Inevitable ills.

19] Aesop.

XIII. — Thyrsis and Amaranth.

For Mademoiselle De Sillery.20

I had the Phrygian quit,

Charm’d with Italian wit;21

But a divinity

Would on Parnassus see

A fable more from me.

Such challenge to refuse,

Without a good excuse,

Is not the way to use

Divinity or muse.

Especially to one

Of those who truly are,

By force of being fair,

Made queens of human will.

A thing should not be done

In all respects so ill.

For, be it known to all,

From Sillery the call

Has come for bird, and beast,

And insects, to the least;

To clothe their thoughts sublime

In this my simple rhyme.

In saying Sillery,

All’s said that need to be.

Her claim to it so good,

Few fail to give her place

Above the human race:

How could they, if they would?

Now come we to our end:—

As she opines my tales

Are hard to comprehend —

For even genius fails

Some things to understand —

So let us take in hand

To make unnecessary,

For once, a commentary.

Come shepherds now, — and rhyme we afterwards

The talk between the wolves and fleecy herds.

To Amaranth, the young and fair,

Said Thyrsis, once, with serious air, —

‘O, if you knew, like me, a certain ill,

With which we men are harm’d,

As well as strangely charm’d,

No boon from Heaven your heart could like it fill!

Please let me name it in your ear, —

A harmless word, — you need not fear.

Would I deceive you, you, for whom I bear

The tenderest sentiments that ever were?’

Then Amaranth replied,

‘What is its name? I beg you, do not hide’

“Tis LOVE.’ — ’ The word is beautiful! reveal

Its signs and symptoms, how it makes one feel.’ —

‘Its pains are ecstacies. So sweet its stings,

The nectar-cups and incense-pots of kings,

Compared, are flat, insipid things.

One strays all lonely in the wood —

Leans silent o’er the placid flood,

And there with great complacency,

A certain face can see —

’Tis not one’s own — but image fair,

Retreating,

Fleeting,

Meeting,

Greeting,

Following everywhere.

For all the rest of human kind,

One is as good, in short, as blind.

There is a shepherd wight, I ween,

Well known upon the village green,

Whose voice, whose name, whose turning of the hinge

Excites upon the cheek a richer tinge —

The thought of whom is signal for a sigh —

The breast that heaves it knows not why —

Whose face the maiden fears to see,

Yet none so welcome still as he.’ —

Here Amaranth cut short his speech:

‘O! O! is that the evil which you preach?

To me I think it is no stranger;

I must have felt its power and danger.’

Here Thrysis thought his end was gain’d,

When further thus the maid explain’d:

“Tis just the very sentiment

Which I have felt for Clidamant!’

The other, vex’d and mortified,

Now bit his lips, and nearly died.

Like him are multitudes, who when

Their own advancement they have meant,

Have play’d the game of other men.

20] Mdlle. de Sillery. — Gabrielle-Françoise Brulart de Sillery, niece of La Fontaine’s friend and patron, the Duke de La Rochefoucauld (author of the Maximes). She married Louis de Tibergeau, Marquis de La Motte-au-Maine, and died in 1732.

21] Italian wit. — Referring to his Tales, in which he had borrowed many subjects from Boccaccio. — Translator.

XIV. — The Funeral of the Lioness.22

The lion’s consort died:

Crowds, gather’d at his side,

Must needs console the prince,

And thus their loyalty evince

By compliments of course;

Which make affliction worse.

Officially he cites

His realm to funeral rites,

At such a time and place;

His marshals of the mace

Would order the affair.

Judge you if all came there.

Meantime, the prince gave way

To sorrow night and day.

With cries of wild lament

His cave he well-nigh rent.

And from his courtiers far and near,

Sounds imitative you might hear.

The court a country seems to me,

Whose people are, no matter what, —

Sad, gay, indifferent, or not, —

As suits the will of majesty;

Or, if unable so to be,

Their task it is to seem it all —

Chameleons, monkeys, great and small.

‘Twould seem one spirit serves a thousand bodies —

A paradise, indeed, for soulless noddies.

But to our tale again:

The stag graced not the funeral train;

Of tears his cheeks bore not a stain;

For how could such a thing have been,

When death avenged him on the queen,

Who, not content with taking one,

Had choked to death his wife and son?

The tears, in truth, refused to run.

A flatterer, who watch’d the while,

Affirm’d that he had seen him smile.

If, as the wise man somewhere saith,

A king’s is like a lion’s wrath,

What should King Lion’s be but death?

The stag, however, could not read;

Hence paid this proverb little heed,

And walk’d, intrepid, to’ards the throne;

When thus the king, in fearful tone:

‘Thou caitiff of the wood!

Presum’st to laugh at such a time?

Joins not thy voice the mournful chime?

We suffer not the blood

Of such a wretch profane

Our sacred claws to stain.

Wolves, let a sacrifice be made,

Avenge your mistress’ awful shade.’

‘Sire,’ did the stag reply,

The time for tears is quite gone by;

For in the flowers, not far from here,

Your worthy consort did appear;

Her form, in spite of my surprise,

I could not fail to recognise.

“My friend,” said she, “beware

Lest funeral pomp about my bier,

When I shall go with gods to share,

Compel thine eye to drop a tear.

With kindred saints I rove

In the Elysian grove,

And taste a sort of bliss

Unknown in worlds like this.

Still, let the royal sorrow flow

Its proper season here below;

’Tis not unpleasing, I confess."’

The king and court scarce hear him out.

Up goes the loud and welcome shout —

‘A miracle! an apotheosis!’

And such at once the fashion is,

So far from dying in a ditch,

The stag retires with presents rich.

Amuse the ear of royalty

With pleasant dreams, and flattery, —

No matter what you may have done,

Nor yet how high its wrath may run, —

The bait is swallow’d — object won.

22] Abstemius.

XV. — The Rat and the Elephant.

One’s own importance to enhance,

Inspirited by self-esteem,

Is quite a common thing in France;

A French disease it well might seem.

The strutting cavaliers of Spain

Are in another manner vain.

Their pride has more insanity;

More silliness our vanity.

Let’s shadow forth our own disease —

Well worth a hundred tales like these.

A rat, of quite the smallest size,

Fix’d on an elephant his eyes,

And jeer’d the beast of high descent

Because his feet so slowly went.

Upon his back, three stories high,

There sat, beneath a canopy,

A certain sultan of renown,

His dog, and cat, and concubine,

His parrot, servant, and his wine,

All pilgrims to a distant town.

The rat profess’d to be amazed

That all the people stood and gazed

With wonder, as he pass’d the road,

Both at the creature and his load.

‘As if,’ said he, ‘to occupy

A little more of land or sky

Made one, in view of common sense,

Of greater worth and consequence!

What see ye, men, in this parade,

That food for wonder need be made?

The bulk which makes a child afraid?

In truth, I take myself to be,

In all aspects, as good as he.’

And further might have gone his vaunt;

But, darting down, the cat

Convinced him that a rat

Is smaller than an elephant.

XVI. — The Horoscope.

On death we mortals often run,

Just by the roads we take to shun.

A father’s only heir, a son,

Was over-loved, and doted on

So greatly, that astrology

Was question’d what his fate might be.

The man of stars this caution gave —

That, until twenty years of age,

No lion, even in a cage,

The boy should see, — his life to save.

The sire, to silence every fear

About a life so very dear,

Forbade that any one should let

His son beyond his threshold get.

Within his palace walls, the boy

Might all that heart could wish enjoy —

Might with his mates walk, leap, and run,

And frolic in the wildest fun.

When come of age to love the chase,

That exercise was oft depicted

To him as one that brought disgrace,

To which but blackguards were addicted.

But neither warning nor derision

Could change his ardent disposition.

The youth, fierce, restless, full of blood,

Was prompted by the boiling flood

To love the dangers of the wood.

The more opposed, the stronger grew

His mad desire. The cause he knew,

For which he was so closely pent;

And as, where’er he went,

In that magnificent abode,

Both tapestry and canvas show’d

The feats he did so much admire,

A painted lion roused his ire.

‘Ah, monster!’ cried he, in his rage,

’Tis you that keep me in my cage.’

With that, he clinch’d his fist,

To strike the harmless beast —

And did his hand impale

Upon a hidden nail!

And thus this cherish’d head,

For which the healing art

But vainly did its part,

Was hurried to the dead,

By caution blindly meant

To shun that sad event.

The poet Aeschylus, ’tis said,

By much the same precaution bled.

A conjuror foretold

A house would crush him in its fall; —

Forth sallied he, though old,

From town and roof-protected hall,

And took his lodgings, wet or dry,

Abroad, beneath the open sky.

An eagle, bearing through the air

A tortoise for her household fare,

Which first she wish’d to break,

The creature dropp’d, by sad mistake,

Plump on the poet’s forehead bare,

As if it were a naked rock —

To Aeschylus a fatal shock!

From these examples, it appears,

This art, if true in any wise,

Makes men fulfil the very fears

Engender’d by its prophecies.

But from this charge I justify,

By branding it a total lie.

I don’t believe that Nature’s powers

Have tied her hands or pinion’d ours,

By marking on the heavenly vault

Our fate without mistake or fault.

That fate depends upon conjunctions

Of places, persons, times, and tracks,

And not upon the functions

Of more or less of quacks.

A king and clown beneath one planet’s nod

Are born; one wields a sceptre, one a hod.

But it is Jupiter that wills it so!

And who is he?23 A soulless clod.

How can he cause such different powers to flow

Upon the aforesaid mortals here below?

And how, indeed, to this far distant ball

Can he impart his energy at all? —

How pierce the ether deeps profound,

The sun and globes that whirl around?

A mote might turn his potent ray

For ever from its earthward way.

Will find, it, then, in starry cope,

The makers of the horoscope?

The war24 with which all Europe’s now afflicted —

Deserves it not by them to’ve been predicted?

Yet heard we not a whisper of it,

Before it came, from any prophet.

The suddenness of passion’s gush,

Of wayward life the headlong rush, —

Permit they that the feeble ray

Of twinkling planet, far away,

Should trace our winding, zigzag course?

And yet this planetary force,

As steady as it is unknown,

These fools would make our guide alone —

Of all our varied life the source!

Such doubtful facts as I relate —

The petted child’s and poet’s fate —

Our argument may well admit.

The blindest man that lives in France,

The smallest mark would doubtless hit —

Once in a thousand times — by chance.

23] And who is he? — By Jupiter, “the soulless clod,” is of course meant the planet, not the god.

24] The war. — See note to Fable XVIII., Book VII.

XVII. — The Ass and the Dog.25

Dame Nature, our respected mother,

Ordains that we should aid each other.

The ass this ordinance neglected,

Though not a creature ill-affected.

Along the road a dog and he

One master follow’d silently.

Their master slept: meanwhile, the ass

Applied his nippers to the grass,

Much pleased in such a place to stop,

Though there no thistle he could crop.

He would not be too delicate,

Nor spoil a dinner for a plate,

Which, but for that, his favourite dish,

Were all that any ass could wish.

‘My dear companion,’ Towser said, —

“Tis as a starving dog I ask it, —

Pray lower down your loaded basket,

And let me get a piece of bread.’

No answer — not a word! — indeed,

The truth was, our Arcadian steed26

Fear’d lest, for every moment’s flight,

His nimble teeth should lose a bite.

At last, ‘I counsel you,’ said he, ‘to wait

Till master is himself awake,

Who then, unless I much mistake,

Will give his dog the usual bait.’

Meanwhile, there issued from the wood

A creature of the wolfish brood,

Himself by famine sorely pinch’d.

At sight of him the donkey flinch’d,

And begg’d the dog to give him aid.

The dog budged not, but answer made, —

‘I counsel thee, my friend, to run,

Till master’s nap is fairly done;

There can, indeed, be no mistake,

That he will very soon awake;

Till then, scud off with all your might;

And should he snap you in your flight,

This ugly wolf, — why, let him feel

The greeting of your well-shod heel.

I do not doubt, at all, but that

Will be enough to lay him flat.’

But ere he ceased it was too late;

The ass had met his cruel fate.

Thus selfishness we reprobate.

25] Abstemius.

26] Arcadian steed. — La Fontaine has “roussin d’Arcadie.” The ass was so derisively nicknamed. See also Fable XIX., Book VI.

XVIII. — The Pashaw and the Merchant.27

A trading Greek, for want of law,

Protection bought of a pashaw;

And like a nobleman he paid,

Much rather than a man of trade —

Protection being, Turkish-wise,

A costly sort of merchandise.

So costly was it, in this case,

The Greek complain’d, with tongue and face.

Three other Turks, of lower rank,

Would guard his substance as their own,

And all draw less upon his bank,

Than did the great pashaw alone.

The Greek their offer gladly heard,

And closed the bargain with a word.

The said pashaw was made aware,

And counsel’d, with a prudent care

These rivals to anticipate,

By sending them to heaven’s gate,

As messengers to Mahomet —

Which measure should he much delay,

Himself might go the self-same way,

By poison offer’d secretly,

Sent on, before his time, to be

Protector to such arts and trades

As flourish in the world of shades.

On this advice, the Turk — no gander —

Behaved himself like Alexander.28

Straight to the merchant’s, firm and stable,

He went, and took a seat at table.

Such calm assurance there was seen,

Both in his words and in his mien,

That e’en that weasel-sighted Grecian

Could not suspect him of suspicion.

‘My friend,’ said he, ‘I know you’ve quit me,

And some think caution would befit me,

Lest to despatch me be your plan:

But, deeming you too good a man

To injure either friends or foes

With poison’d cups or secret blows,

I drown the thought, and say no more.

But, as regards the three or four

Who take my place,

I crave your grace

To listen to an apologue.

‘A shepherd, with a single dog,

Was ask’d the reason why

He kept a dog, whose least supply

Amounted to a loaf of bread

For every day. The people said

He’d better give the animal

To guard the village seignior’s hall;

For him, a shepherd, it would be

A thriftier economy

To keep small curs, say two or three,

That would not cost him half the food,

And yet for watching be as good.

The fools, perhaps, forgot to tell

If they would fight the wolf as well.

The silly shepherd, giving heed,

Cast off his dog of mastiff breed,

And took three dogs to watch his cattle,

Which ate far less, but fled in battle.

His flock such counsel lived to rue,

As doubtlessly, my friend, will you.

If wise, my aid again you’ll seek — ’

And so, persuaded, did the Greek.

Not vain our tale, if it convinces

Small states that ’tis a wiser thing

To trust a single powerful king,

Than half a dozen petty princes.

27] Gilbert Cousin.

28] Alexander. — Who took the medicine presented to him by his physician Philip, the moment after he had received a letter announcing that that very man designed to poison him. — Arrian, L. II. Chap. XIV. — Translator.

XIX. — The Use of Knowledge.29

Between two citizens

A controversy grew.

The one was poor, but much he knew:

The other, rich, with little sense,

Claim’d that, in point of excellence,

The merely wise should bow the knee

To all such money’d men as he.

The merely fools, he should have said;

For why should wealth hold up its head,

When merit from its side hath fled?

‘My friend,’ quoth Bloated-purse,

To his reverse,

‘You think yourself considerable.

Pray, tell me, do you keep a table?

What comes of this incessant reading,

In point of lodging, clothing, feeding?

It gives one, true, the highest chamber,

One coat for June and for December,

His shadow for his sole attendant,

And hunger always in th’ ascendant.

What profits he his country, too,

Who scarcely ever spends a sou —

Will, haply, be a public charge?

Who profits more the state at large,

Than he whose luxuries dispense

Among the people wealth immense?

We set the streams of life a-flowing;

We set all sorts of trades a-going.

The spinner, weaver, sewer, vender,

And many a wearer, fair and tender,

All live and flourish on the spender —

As do, indeed, the reverend rooks

Who waste their time in making books.’

These words, so full of impudence,

Received their proper recompense.

The man of letters held his peace,

Though much he might have said with ease.

A war avenged him soon and well;

In it their common city fell.

Both fled abroad; the ignorant,

By fortune thus brought down to want,

Was treated everywhere with scorn,

And roamed about, a wretch forlorn;

Whereas the scholar, everywhere,

Was nourish’d by the public care.

Let fools the studious despise;

There’s nothing lost by being wise.

29] Abstemius.

XX. — Jupiter and the Thunderbolts.

Said Jupiter, one day,

As on a cloud he lay,

‘Observing all our crimes,

Come, let us change the times,

By leasing out anew

A world whose wicked crew

Have wearied out our grace,

And cursed us to our face.

Hie hellward, Mercury;

A Fury bring to me,

The direst of the three.

Race nursed too tenderly,

This day your doom shall be!’

E’en while he spoke their fate,

His wrath began to moderate.

O kings, with whom His will

Hath lodged our good and ill,

Your wrath and storm between

One night should intervene!

The god of rapid wing,

And lip unfaltering,

To sunless regions sped,

And met the sisters dread.

To grim Tisiphone,

And pale Megaera, he

Preferr’d, as murderess,

Alecto, pitiless.

This choice so roused the fiend,

By Pluto’s beard she swore

The human race no more

Should be by handfuls glean’d,

But in one solid mass

Th’ infernal gates should pass.

But Jove, displeased with both

The Fury and her oath,

Despatched her back to hell.

And then a bolt he hurl’d,

Down on a faithless world,

Which in a desert fell.

Aim’d by a father’s arm,

It caused more fear than harm.

(All fathers strike aside.)

What did from this betide?

Our evil race grew bold,

Resumed their wicked tricks,

Increased them manifold,

Till, all Olympus through,

Indignant murmurs flew.

When, swearing by the Styx,

The sire that rules the air

Storms promised to prepare

More terrible and dark,

Which should not miss their mark.

‘A father’s wrath it is!’

The other deities

All in one voice exclaim’d;

‘And, might the thing be named,

Some other god would make

Bolts better for our sake.’

This Vulcan undertook.

His rumbling forges shook,

And glow’d with fervent heat,

While Cyclops blew and beat.

Forth, from the plastic flame

Two sorts of bolts there came.

Of these, one misses not:

’Tis by Olympus shot, —

That is, the gods at large.

The other, bearing wide,

Hits mountain-top or side,

Or makes a cloud its targe.

And this it is alone

Which leaves the father’s throne.

XXI. — The Falcon and the Capon.30

You often hear a sweet seductive call:

If wise, you haste towards it not at all; —

And, if you heed my apologue,

You act like John de Nivelle’s dog.31

A capon, citizen of Mans,

Was summon’d from a throng

To answer to the village squire,

Before tribunal call’d the fire.

The matter to disguise

The kitchen sheriff wise

Cried, ‘Biddy — Biddy — Biddy! — ’

But not a moment did he —

This Norman and a half32 —

The smooth official trust.

‘Your bait,’ said he, ‘is dust,

And I’m too old for chaff.’

Meantime, a falcon, on his perch,

Observed the flight and search.

In man, by instinct or experience,

The capons have so little confidence,

That this was not without much trouble caught,

Though for a splendid supper sought.

To lie, the morrow night,

In brilliant candle-light,

Supinely on a dish

‘Midst viands, fowl, and fish,

With all the ease that heart could wish —

This honour, from his master kind,

The fowl would gladly have declined.

Outcried the bird of chase,

As in the weeds he eyed the skulker’s face,

‘Why, what a stupid, blockhead race! —

Such witless, brainless fools

Might well defy the schools.

For me, I understand

To chase at word

The swiftest bird,

Aloft, o’er sea or land;

At slightest beck,

Returning quick

To perch upon my master’s hand.

There, at his window he appears —

He waits thee — hasten — hast no ears?’

‘Ah! that I have,’ the fowl replied;

‘But what from master might betide?

Or cook, with cleaver at his side?

Return you may for such a call,

But let me fly their fatal hall;

And spare your mirth at my expense:

Whate’er I lack, ’tis not the sense

To know that all this sweet-toned breath

Is spent to lure me to my death.

If you had seen upon the spit

As many of the falcons roast

As I have of the capon host,

You would, not thus reproach my wit.’

30] In the Bidpaii Fables it is “The Falcon and the Cock.”

31] John de Nivelle’s dog. — A dog which, according to the French proverb, ran away when his master called him. — Translator.

32] This Norman and a half. — Though the Normans are proverbial for their shrewdness, the French have, nevertheless, a proverb that they come to Paris to be hanged. Hence La Fontaine makes his capon, who knew how to shun a similar fate, le Normand et demi — the Norman and a half. — Translator.

XXII. — The Cat and the Rat.33

Four creatures, wont to prowl, —

Sly Grab-and-Snatch, the cat,

Grave Evil-bode, the owl,

Thief Nibble-stitch, the rat,

And Madam Weasel, prim and fine, —

Inhabited a rotten pine.

A man their home discover’d there,

And set, one night, a cunning snare.

The cat, a noted early-riser,

Went forth, at break of day,

To hunt her usual prey.

Not much the wiser

For morning’s feeble ray,

The noose did suddenly surprise her.

Waked by her strangling cry,

Grey Nibble-stitch drew nigh:

As full of joy was he

As of despair was she,

For in the noose he saw

His foe of mortal paw.

‘Dear friend,’ said Mrs. Grab-and-Snatch,

‘Do, pray, this cursed cord detach.

I’ve always known your skill,

And often your good-will;

Now help me from this worst of snares,

In which I fell at unawares.

’Tis by a sacred right,

You, sole of all your race,

By special love and grace,

Have been my favourite —

The darling of my eyes.

’Twas order’d by celestial cares,

No doubt; I thank the blessed skies,

That, going out to say my prayers,

As cats devout each morning do,

This net has made me pray to you.

Come, fall to work upon the cord.’

Replied the rat, ‘And what reward

Shall pay me, if I dare?’

‘Why,’ said the cat, ‘I swear

To be your firm ally:

Henceforth, eternally,

These powerful claws are yours,

Which safe your life insures.

I’ll guard from quadruped and fowl;

I’ll eat the weasel and the owl.’

‘Ah,’ cried the rat, ‘you fool!

I’m quite too wise to be your tool.’

He said, and sought his snug retreat,

Close at the rotten pine-tree’s feet.

Where plump he did the weasel meet;

Whom shunning by a happy dodge,

He climb’d the hollow trunk to lodge;

And there the savage owl he saw.

Necessity became his law,

And down he went, the rope to gnaw.

Strand after strand in two he bit,

And freed, at last, the hypocrite.

That moment came the man in sight;

The new allies took hasty flight.

A good while after that,

Our liberated cat

Espied her favourite rat,

Quite out of reach, and on his guard.

‘My friend,’ said she, ‘I take your shyness hard;

Your caution wrongs my gratitude;

Approach, and greet your staunch ally.

Do you suppose, dear rat, that I

Forget the solemn oath I mew’d?’

‘Do I forget,’ the rat replied,

‘To what your nature is allied?

To thankfulness, or even pity,

Can cats be ever bound by treaty?’

Alliance from necessity

Is safe just while it has to be.

33] Another rendering of “The Rat and the Cat” of the Bidpaii collection. See Fable XVI., Book VII.

XXIII. — The Torrent and the River.34

With mighty rush and roar,

Adown a mountain steep

A torrent tumbled, — swelling o’er

Its rugged banks, — and bore

Vast ruin in its sweep.

The traveller were surely rash

To brave its whirling, foaming dash,

But one, by robbers sorely press’d,

Its terrors haply put to test.

They were but threats of foam and sound,

The loudest where the least profound.

With courage from his safe success,

His foes continuing to press,

He met a river in his course:

On stole its waters, calm and deep,

So silently they seem’d asleep,

All sweetly cradled, as I ween,

In sloping banks, and gravel clean, —

They threaten’d neither man nor horse.

Both ventured; but the noble steed,

That saved from robbers by his speed,

From that deep water could not save;

Both went to drink the Stygian wave;

Both went to cross, (but not to swim,)

Where reigns a monarch stern and grim,

Far other streams than ours.

Still men are men of dangerous powers;

Elsewhere, ’tis only ignorance that cowers.

34] Abstemius.

XXIV. — Education.

Lapluck and Caesar brothers were, descended

From dogs by Fame the most commended,

Who falling, in their puppyhood,

To different masters anciently,

One dwelt and hunted in the boundless wood;

From thieves the other kept a kitchen free.

At first, each had another name;

But, by their bringing up, it came,

While one improved upon his nature,

The other grew a sordid creature,

Till, by some scullion called Lapluck,

The name ungracious ever stuck.

To high exploits his brother grew,

Put many a stag at bay, and tore

Full many a trophy from the boar;

In short, him first, of all his crew,

The world as Caesar knew;

And care was had, lest, by a baser mate,

His noble blood should e’er degenerate.

Not so with his neglected brother;

He made whatever came a mother;

And, by the laws of population,

His race became a countless nation —

The common turnspits throughout France —

Where danger is, they don’t advance —

Precisely the antipodes

Of what we call the Caesars, these!

Oft falls the son below his sire’s estate:

Through want of care all things degenerate.

For lack of nursing Nature and her gifts.

What crowds from gods become mere kitchen-thrifts!

XXV. — The Two Dogs and the Dead Ass.35

The Virtues should be sisters, hand in hand,

Since banded brothers all the Vices stand:

When one of these our hearts attacks,

All come in file; there only lacks,

From out the cluster, here and there,

A mate of some antagonizing pair,

That can’t agree the common roof to share.

But all the Virtues, as a sisterhood,

Have scarcely ever in one subject stood.

We find one brave, but passionate;

Another prudent, but ingrate.

Of beasts, the dog may claim to be

The pattern of fidelity;

But, for our teaching little wiser,

He’s both a fool and gormandiser.

For proof, I cite two mastiffs, that espied

A dead ass floating on a water wide.

The distance growing more and more,

Because the wind the carcass bore, —

‘My friend,’ said one, ‘your eyes are best;

Pray let them on the water rest:

What thing is that I seem to see?

An ox, or horse? what can it be?’

‘Hey!’ cried his mate; ‘what matter which,

Provided we could get a flitch?

It doubtless is our lawful prey:

The puzzle is to find some way

To get the prize; for wide the space

To swim, with wind against your face.36

Let’s drink the flood; our thirsty throats

Will gain the end as well as boats.

The water swallow’d, by and bye

We’ll have the carcass, high and dry —

Enough to last a week, at least.’

Both drank as some do at a feast;

Their breath was quench’d before their thirst,

And presently the creatures burst!

And such is man. Whatever he

May set his soul to do or be,

To him is possibility?

How many vows he makes!

How many steps he takes!

How does he strive, and pant, and strain,

Fortune’s or Glory’s prize to gain!

If round my farm off well I must,

Or fill my coffers with the dust,

Or master Hebrew, science, history, —

I make my task to drink the sea.

One spirit’s projects to fulfil,

Four bodies would require; and still

The work would stop half done;

The lives of four Methuselahs,

Placed end to end for use, alas!

Would not suffice the wants of one.

35] Aesop; also Lokman.

36] With the wind against your face. — Did La Fontaine, to enhance the folly of these dogs, make them bad judges of the course of the wind, or did he forget what he had said a few lines above? — Translator.

XXVI. — Democritus and the People of Abdera.

How do I hate the tide of vulgar thought!

Profane, unjust, with childish folly fraught;

It breaks and bends the rays of truth divine,

And by its own conceptions measures mine.

Famed Epicurus’ master37 tried

The power of this unstable tide.

His country said the sage was mad —

The simpletons! But why?

No prophet ever honour had

Beneath his native sky.

Democritus, in truth, was wise;

The mass were mad, with faith in lies.

So far this error went,

That all Abdera sent

To old Hippocrates

To cure the sad disease.

‘Our townsman,’ said the messengers,

Appropriately shedding tears,

‘Hath lost his wits! Democritus,

By study spoil’d, is lost to us.

Were he but fill’d with ignorance,

We should esteem him less a dunce.

He saith that worlds like this exist,

An absolutely endless list, —

And peopled, even, it may be,

With countless hosts as wise as we!

But, not contented with such dreams,

His brain with viewless “atoms” teems,

Instinct with deathless life, it seems.

And, never stirring from the sod below,

He weighs and measures all the stars;

And, while he knows the universe,

Himself he doth not know.

Though now his lips he strictly bars,

He once delighted to converse.

Come, godlike mortal, try thy art divine

Where traits of worst insanity combine!’

Small faith the great physician lent,

But still, perhaps more readily, he went.

And mark what meetings strange

Chance causes in this world of change!

Hippocrates arrived in season,

Just as his patient (void of reason!)

Was searching whether reason’s home,

In talking animals and dumb,

Be in the head, or in the heart,

Or in some other local part.

All calmly seated in the shade,

Where brooks their softest music made,

He traced, with study most insane,

The convolutions of a brain;

And at his feet lay many a scroll —

The works of sages on the soul.

Indeed, so much absorb’d was he,

His friend, at first, he did not see.

A pair so admirably match’d,

Their compliments erelong despatch’d.

In time and talk, as well as dress,

The wise are frugal, I confess.

Dismissing trifles, they began

At once with eagerness to scan

The life, and soul, and laws of man;

Nor stopp’d till they had travell’d o’er all

The ground, from, physical to moral.

My time and space would fail

To give the full detail.

But I have said enough to show

How little ’tis the people know.

How true, then, goes the saw abroad —

Their voice is but the voice of God?

37] Epicurus’ master. — Democritus and Epicurus lived about a century apart. The latter was disciple to the former only because in early life he adopted some of Democritus’s philosophy. Later Epicurus rejected more than he accepted of what his “master” taught.

XXVII. — The Wolf and the Hunter.38

Thou lust of gain, — foul fiend, whose evil eyes

Regard as nought the blessings of the skies,

Must I for ever battle thee in vain?

How long demandest thou to gain

The meaning of my lessons plain?

Will constant getting never cloy?

Will man ne’er slacken to enjoy?

Haste, friend; thou hast not long to live:

Let me the precious word repeat,

And listen to it, I entreat;

A richer lesson none can give —

The sovereign antidote for sorrow —

ENJOY! — ‘I will.’ — But when? — ‘To-morrow. — ’

Ah! death may take you on the way,

Why not enjoy, I ask, to-day?

Lest envious fate your hopes ingulf,

As once it served the hunter and the wolf.

The former, with his fatal bow,

A noble deer had laid full low:

A fawn approach’d, and quickly lay

Companion of the dead,

For side by side they bled.

Could one have wished a richer prey?

Such luck had been enough to sate

A hunter wise and moderate.

Meantime a boar, as big as e’er was taken,

Our archer tempted, proud, and fond of bacon.

Another candidate for Styx,

Struck by his arrow, foams and kicks.

But strangely do the shears of Fate

To cut his cable hesitate.

Alive, yet dying, there he lies,

A glorious and a dangerous prize.

And was not this enough? Not quite,

To fill a conqueror’s appetite;

For, ere the boar was dead, he spied

A partridge by a furrow’s side —

A trifle to his other game.

Once more his bow he drew;

The desperate boar upon him came,

And in his dying vengeance slew:

The partridge thank’d him as she flew.

Thus much is to the covetous address’d;

The miserly shall have the rest.

A wolf, in passing, saw that woeful sight.

‘O Fortune,’ cried the savage, with delight,

‘A fane to thee I’ll build outright!

‘Four carcasses! how rich! But spare —

‘I’ll make them last — such luck is rare,’

(The miser’s everlasting plea.)

‘They’ll last a month for — let me see —

One, two, three, four — the weeks are four

If I can count — and some days more.

Well, two days hence

And I’ll commence.

Meantime, the string upon this bow

I’ll stint myself to eat;

For by its mutton-smell I know

’Tis made of entrails sweet.’

His entrails rued the fatal weapon,

Which, while he heedlessly did step on,

The arrow pierced his bowels deep,

And laid him lifeless on the heap.

Hark, stingy souls! insatiate leeches!

Our text this solemn duty teaches, —

Enjoy the present; do not wait

To share the wolf’s or hunter’s fate.

38] Bidpaii; and the Hitopadesa. See extract from Sir William Jones’s translation of the latter in Translator’s Preface.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/la_fontaine/jean_de/fables/book8.html

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