Tales and novels of Jean de La Fontaine

The Ephesian Matron

[NOTE: See Chapters 111 and 112 from The Satyricon by Petronius Arbiter.]

IF there’s a tale more common than the rest,

The one I mean to give is such confessed.

Why choose it then? you ask; at whose desire?

Hast not enough already tuned thy lyre?

What favour can thy MATRON now expect,

Since novelty thou clearly dost neglect?

Besides, thou’lt doubtless raise the critick’s rage.

See if it looks more modern in my page.

AT Ephesus, in former times, once shone,

A fair, whose charms would dignify a throne;

And, if to publick rumour credit ’s due,

Celestial bliss her husband with her knew.

Naught else was talked of but her beauteous face,

And chastity that adds the highest grace;

From ev’ry quarter numbers flocked to see

This belle, regarded as from errors free.

The honour of her sex, and country too;

As such, old mothers held her up to view,

And wished their offspring’s wives like her to act:

The sons desired the very same in fact;

From her, beyond a doubt, our PRUDES descend,

An ancient, celebrated house, depend.

THE spouse adored his beauteous charming wife:

But soon, alas! he lost his precious life;

’Twere useless on particulars to dwell:

His testament, indeed, provided well

For her he loved on earth to fond excess,

Which, ‘yond a doubt, would have relieved distress;

Could gold a cherished husband’s loss repair,

That filled her soul with black corroding care.

A WIDOW, howsoever, oft appears

Distracted ‘mid incessant floods of tears,

Who thoroughly her int’rest recollects,

And, spite of sobs, her property inspects.

OUR Matron’s cries were loudly heard around,

And feeling bosoms shuddered at the sound;

Though, we, on these occasions, truly know,

The plaint is always greater than the woe.

Some ostentation ever is with grief

Those who weep most the soonest gain relief.

EACH friend endeavoured to console the fair;

Of sorrow, she’d already had her share:

’Twas wrong herself so fully to resign; —

Such pious preachings only more incline

The soul to anguish ‘mid distractions dire:

Extremes in ev’ry thing will soonest tire.

AT length, resolved to shun the glorious light,

Since her dear spouse no longer had the sight,

O’erwhelmed with grief she sought Death’s dreary cell,

Her love to follow, and with him to dwell.

A SLAVE, through pity, with the widow went;

To live or die with her she was content;

To die, howe’er, she never could intend:

No doubt she only thought about her friend,

The mistress whom she never wished to quit,

Since from her birth with her she used to sit.

They loved each other with a friendship true:

From early years it daily stronger grew;

Look through the universe you’ll scarcely find,

So great a likeness, both in heart and mind.

The slave, more clever than the lady fair,

At first her mistress left to wild despair;

She then essayed to soothe each torment dire;

But reason ’s fruitless, with a soul on fire.

No consolation would the belle receive,

For one no more, she constantly would grieve,

And sought to follow him to regions blessed:—

The sword had shortest proved, if not the best.

BUT still the lady anxious was to view,

Again those precious relicks, and pursue,

E’en in the tomb what yet her soul held dear

No aliment she took her mind to cheer;

The gate of famine was the one she chose,

By which to leave this nether world of woes.

A DAY she passed; another day the same;

Her only sustenance, sobs, sighs, and flame

Still unappeased; she murmur’d ‘gainst her fate;

But nothing could her direful woes abate.

ANOTHER corpse a residence had got,

A trifling distance from the gloomy spot;

But very diff’rent, since, by way of tomb,

Enchained on gibbet was the latter’s doom;

To frighten robbers was the form designed,

And show the punishment that rogues should find.

A SOLDIER, as a sentinel was set,

To guard the gallows, who good payment met;

’Twas ruled, howe’er, if robbers, parents, friends,

The body carried off, to make amends,

The sentinel at once should take its place

Severity too great for such a case;

But publick safety fully to maintain,

’Twas right the sentry pardon should not gain.

WHILE moving round his post, he saw at night

Shine, cross the tomb, a strange, unusual light,

Which thither drew him, curious to unfold

What, through the chinks, his eyesight could behold.

OUR wight soon heard the lady’s cries distressed,

On which he entered, and with ardour pressed,

The cause of such excessive grief to know,

And if ’twas in his pow’r to ease her woe.

DISSOLVED in tears, and quite o’ercome with care;

She scarcely noticed that a man was there.

The corpse, howe’er, too plainly told her pain,

And fully seemed the myst’ry to explain.

We’ve sworn, exclaimed the slave, what’s ‘yond belief,

That here we’ll die of famine and of grief.

THOUGH eloquence was not the soldier’s art,

He both convinced ’twas wrong with life to part:

The dame was great attention led to pay,

To what the son of Mars inclined to say,

Which seemed to soften her severe distress:

With time each poignant smart is rendered less.

IF, said the soldier, you have made a vow,

That you, some food to take will not allow;

Yet, looking on while I my supper eat,

Will not prolong your lives, nor oaths defeat.

HIS open manner much was formed to please;

The lady and her maid grew more at ease,

Which made the gen’rous sentinel conclude,

To bring his meat they would not fancy rude.

THIS done, the slave no longer was inclined

To follow Death, as soon she changed her mind.

Said she, good madam, pleasing thoughts I’ve got;

Don’t you believe that, if you live or not,

’Tis to your husband ev’ry whit the same?

Had you gone first, would he have had the name

Of following to the grave as you design?

No, no, he’d to another course incline.

Long years of comfort we may clearly crave;

At twenty years it’s surely wrong to brave

Both death and famine in a gloomy tomb

There’s time enough to think of such a doom.

At best, too soon we die; do let us wait;

Here’s nothing now at least to haste our fate.

In truth, I wish to see a good old age:

To bury charms like your’s, would that be sage?

Of what advantage, I should wish to know,

To carry beauty to the shades below?

Those heavenly features make my bosom sigh,

To think from earthly praise they mean to fly.

THIS flatt’ry roused the beauteous widowed fair;

The god of soft persuasion soon was there,

And from his quiver in a moment drew

Two arrows keen, which from his bow-string flew;

With one he pierced the soldier to the heart,

The lady slightly felt the other dart.

Her youth and beauty, spite of tears, appeared,

And men of taste such charms had long revered;

A mind of tender feeling might, through life.

Have loved her — even though she were a wife.

THE sentinel was smitten with her charms;

Grief, pity, sighs, belong to Cupid’s arms;

When bosoms heave and eyes are drowned in tears,

Then beauty oft with conq’ring grace appears.

BEHOLD our widow list’ning to his praise,

Incipient fuel Cupid’s flame to raise;

Behold her, even glad to view the wight,

Whose well tim’d flatt’ry filled her with delight

AT length, to eat he on the fair prevailed,

And pleased her better than the dead bewailed.

So well he managed, that she changed her plan,

And, by degrees, to love him fondly ‘gan.

The son of Mars a darling husband grew,

While yet her former dear was full in view.

MEANTIME the corpse, that long in chains had swung,

By thieves was carried off from where it hung.

The noise was heard, and thither ran our wight;

But vain his efforts:— they were out of sight;

Confused, distressed, he sought again the tomb,

To tell his grief and settle, ‘mid the gloom,

How best to act, and where his head to hide,

Since hang he must, the laws would now decide.

THE slave replied, your gibbet-thief, you say,

Some lurking rogues this night have borne away:

The law, it seems, will ne’er accord you grace

The corpse that’s here, let’s set in t’other’s place:

The passers-by the change will never tell

The lady gave consent, and all was well.

O FICKLE females, ever you’re the same;

A woman’s a woman, both in mind and name

Some fair we find, and some unlike the dove,

But CONSTANCY’S the highest charm of love.

YE prudes, for ever doubt of full success;

Don’t boast at all: too much you may profess,

How good soever your design may be,

Not less is ours, you easily may see;

The MATRON’S tale is not beyond belief:

To entertain, our object is in chief.

THE widow’s only errors were her cries;

And mad design her life to sacrifice;

For, merely setting husband-dead in place

of one of this patibulary race,

Was surely not a fault so very grave:

Her lover’s life was what she sought to save.

A LIVING drum-boy, truly be it said,

Is better far, than any monarch dead.

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