Tales and novels of Jean de La Fontaine

The Psalter

ONCE more permit me, nuns, and this the last;

I can’t resist, whatever may have passed,

But must relate, what often I’ve been told;

Your tales of convent pranks are seldom cold;

They have a grace that no where else we find,

And, somehow, better seem to please designed.

Another then we’ll have, which three will make:—

Three did I say?-’tis four, or I mistake;

Let’s count them well:-The GARD’NER first, we’ll name;

Then comes the ABBESS, whose declining frame

Required a youth, her malady to cure

A story thought, perhaps, not over pure;

And, as to SISTER JANE, who’d got a brat,

I cannot fancy we should alter that.

These are the whole, and four’s a number round;

You’ll probably remark, ’tis strange I’ve found

Such pleasure in detailing convent scenes:—

’Tis not my whim, but TASTE, that thither leans:

And, if you’d kept your breviary in view,

’Tis clear, you’d nothing had with this to do;

We know, howe’er, ’tis not your fondest care;

So, quickly to our hist’ry let’s repair.

A CHARMING youth would frequent visits pay,

To nuns, whose convent near his dwelling lay;

And, ‘mong the sisters, one his person saw,

Who, by her eyes, would fain attention draw;

Smiles she bestowed, and other complaisance,

But not a single step would he advance;

By old and young he greatly was admired;

Sighs burst around, but none his bosom fired.

Fair Isabella solely got his love,

A beauteous nun, and gentle as a dove,

Till then a novice in the flow’ry chain,

And envied doubly:— for her charms and swain.

Their soft amours were watched with eagle-eye:

No pleasure’s free from care you may rely;

In life each comfort coupled is with ill,

And this to alter baffles all our skill.

THE sister nuns so vigilant had been,

One night when darkness overspread the scene;

And all was proper mysteries to hide,

Some words escaped her cell that doubts supplied,

And other matters too were heard around,

That in her breviary could not be found.

’Tis her gallant! said they: he’s clearly caught;

Alarm pervaded; swarms were quickly brought;

Rage seemed to triumph; sentinels were placed;

The abbess too must know they were disgraced.

Away they hastened to convey surprise,

And, thund’ring at her door, cried, madam rise,

For sister Isabella, in her cell,

Has got a man, which surely can’t be well.

YOU will observe, the dame was not at prayer,

Nor yet absorbed in sleep, devoid of care,

But with her then, this abbess had in bed

Good parson John, by kindness thither led,

A neighb’ring rector, confessor, and friend;

She rose in haste the sisters to attend,

And, seeking for her veil, with sense confused,

The parson’s breeches took for what she used,

Which, in the dark, resembled what was worn

By nuns for veils, and called (perhaps in scorn),

Among themselves, their PSALTER, to express

Familiarly, a common, awkward dress.

WITH this new ornament, by way of veil,

She sallied forth and heard the woeful tale.

Then, irritated, she exclaimed with ire

To see this wretched creature I desire,

The devil’s daughter, from her bold career,

Who’ll bring our convent to disgrace, I fear;

But God forbid, I say, and with his leave,

We’ll all restore:— rebuke she shall receive.

A chapter we will call:— the sisters came,

And stood around to hear their pious dame.

FAIR Isabella now the abbess sent,

Who straight obeyed, and to her tears gave vent,

Which overspread those lily cheeks and eyes,

A roguish youth so lately held his prize.

What! said the abbess: pretty scandal here,

When in the house of God such things appear;

Ashamed to death you ought to be, no doubt,

Who brought you thither? — such we always scout.

NOW Isabella, (— sister you must lose,

Henceforth, that name to you we cannot use;

The honour is too great,) in such a case,

Pray are you sensible of your disgrace,

And what’s the punishment you’ll undergo?

Before to-morrow, this you’ll fully know;

Our institution chastisement decrees;

Come speak, I say, we’ll hear you if you please.

POOR Isabella, with her sight on ground,

Confused, till then had scarcely looked around,

Now raised her eyes, and luckily perceived

The breeches, which her fears in part relieved,

And that the sisters, by surprise unnerved,

As oft’s the case, had never once observed.

She courage took, and to the abbess said,

There’s something from the Psalter, on your head,

That awkwardly hangs down; pray, madam, try

To put it right, or ’twill be in your eye.

’TWAS knee-strings, worn, at times, by priests and beaux,

For, more or less, all follow fashion’s laws.

This veil, no doubt, had very much the air

Of those unmentionables parsons wear;

And this the nun, to frolicking inclined,

It seems had well impressed upon her mind.

What, cried the abbess, dares she still to sneer?

How great her insolence to laugh and jeer,

When sins so heavily upon her rest,

And ev’ry thing remains quite unconfessed.

Upon my word, she’d be a saint decreed;

My veil, young imp, your notice cannot need;

’Tis better think, you little hellish crow,

What pains your soul must undergo below.

THE mother abbess sermonized and fired,

And seemed as if her tongue would ne’er be tired.

Again the culprit said, your Psalter, pray,

Good madam, haste to set the proper way;

On which the sisters looked, both young and old

THOSE ‘gan to laugh, while THESE were heard to scold.

OUR preacher, quite ashamed of what she’d done,

Now lost her voice, and noticed not the nun;

The murmur buzzed around, too well expressed,

What thoughts the holy sisterhood possessed.

At length the abbess said:— we’ve now not time

To take the chapter’s votes upon her crime;

‘Twould make it late; let each to bed return,

And, till to-morrow, we’ll the case adjourn.

No chapter met, howe’er, when morrow came;

Another day arrived, and still the same;

The sages of the convent thought it best,

In fact, to let the mystick business rest.

Much noise, perhaps, would hurt religion’s cause,

And, that considered, prudent ’twere to pause.

Base envy made them Isabella hate,

And dark suspicions to the abbess state.

In short, unable by their schemes to get

The morsel she’d so fortunately met,

Each nun exerted all her art to find,

What equally might satisfy the mind.

Old friends were willingly received again;

Her gallant our belle was suffered to retain;

The rector and the abbess had their will;

And, such their union, precepts to fulfill,

That if a nun had none to give her bliss,

To lend a friend was nothing thought amiss.

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