Tales and novels of Jean de La Fontaine

The Picture

SOLICITED I’ve been to give a tale,

In which (though true, decorum must prevail),

The subject from a picture shall arise,

That by a curtain’s kept from vulgar eyes.

My brain must furnish various features new:

What’s delicate and smart produce to view;

By this expressed, and not by t’other said:

And all so clear, most easy to be read,

By ev’ry fool, without the aid of notes,

That idiot’s bad indeed who never quotes.

CATULLUS tells us, ev’ry matron sage

Will peep most willingly (whate’er her age),

At that gigantick gift, which Juno made,

To Venus’ fruit, in gardens oft displayed.

If any belle recede, and shun the sight,

Dissimulation she supposes right.

THIS principle allowed, why scruples make?

Why, less than eyes, should ears a license take?

But since ’tis so resolved I’ll do my best,

And naught in open terms shall be expressed:

A veil shall over ev’ry charm be cast,

Of gauze indeed, and this from first to last,

So nicely done, that howsoever tost,

To none I trust will any thing be lost.

Who nicely thinks, and speaks with graceful ease;

Can current make just whatsoe’er he please;

For all will pass, as I have often known:

The word well chosen, pardon soon is shown,

The sex o’erlook the thing no more the same,

The thought remains, but ’tis without a name;

No blush is raised; no difficulty found;

Yet ev’ry body understands around.

AT present, much I need this useful art:

Why? you will ask; because, when I impart

Such wondrous circumstances, ev’ry belle,

Without reserve, will con them over well.

To this I answer: female ears are chaste,

Though roguish are their eyes, as well as taste.

BE that as ’twill, I certainly should like,

With freedom to explain, by terms oblique,

To belles, how this was broken:— that was down:

Assist me pray, ye NINE of high renown;

But you are maids, and strangers, we agree,

To LOVE’S soft scenes, not knowing A from B.

Remain then, Muses, never stir an inch,

But beg the god of verse, when at a pinch,

To help me out and kind assistance lend,

To choose expressions which will not offend,

Lest I some silly things should chance to say,

That might displeasure raise, and spoil my lay.

Enough, howe’er, we’ve on the subject said:

’Tis time we t’wards the painting should be led,

Which an adventure you will find contains,

That happened once in Cupid’s famed domains.

IN former days, just by Cythera town

A monastery was, of some renown,

With nuns the queens of beauty filled the place,

And gay gallants you easily might trace.

The courtier, citizen, and parson too,

The doctor and the bachelor you’d view,

With eager steps:— all visits thither made;

And ‘mong the latter, one (a pleasing blade)

Had free access: was thought a prudent friend,

Who might to sisters many comforts lend;

Was always closely shaved and nicely dressed;

And ev’ry thing he said was well expressed;

The breath of scandal, howsoever pat,

Ne’er lighted on his neat cravat nor hat.

TWO nuns alternatively, from the youth;

Experienced many services, in truth;

The one had recently a novice been;

Few months had passed since she complete was seen;

The other still the dress of novice wore;

The youngest’s age was seventeen years, not more

Time doubtless very proper (to be plain)

Love’s wily thesis fully to sustain:

The bachelor so well the fair had taught,

And they so earnestly the science sought,

That by experience both the art had learned,

And ev’ry thing most perfectly discerned.

THESE sisters eagerly had made one day

An assignation with the lover gay;

To have the entertainment quite complete,

They’d Bacchus, Ceres too, who Venus greet:

With perfect neatness all the meats were served,

And naught from grace and elegancy swerved;

The wines, the custards, jellies, creams, and ice:

The decorations, ev’ry thing was nice;

What pleasing objects and delights were viewed!

The room with sweetest flow’rs fair Flora strewed;

A sort of garden o’er the linen traced

Here lakes of love:— there names entwined were placed;

Magnificence like this the nuns admired,

And such amusements ardently desired.

Their beauty too incited to be free;

A thousand matters filled their souls with glee;

In height the belles were pretty much the same

Like alabaster fair; of perfect frame;

In num’rous corners Cupid nestling lay:

Beneath a stomacher he’d slyly play,

A veil or scapulary, this or that,

Where least the eye of day perceived he sat,

Unless a lover called to mystick bow’rs,

Where he might hearts entwine with chains of flow’rs;

A thousand times a day the urchin flew,

With open arms the sisters to pursue;

Their charms were such in ev’ry air and look,

Both (one by one) he for his mother took.

WITH anxious looks, the ladies thus prepared,

Expected him who all their kindness shared;

Now they bestowed abuse; next fondly praised:

Then of his conduct dark suspicions raised,

Conceived, a new amour him kept away:

What can it be, said one, that makes him stay?

Of honour an affair. — love — sickness — what?

Said t’other whether it be this or that,

If here again his face he ever show,

A pretty trick in turn we’ll let him know.

WHILE thus the couple sought their plot to frame,

A convent porter with a burden came,

For her who kept the stores of ev’ry kind,

Depositary of the whole designed.

’Twas merely a pretence, as I am told:

The things were not required for young or old;

But she much appetite had got in truth,

Which made her have recourse to such a youth,

Who was regarded, in repasts like these,

A first rate cook that all prepared at ease.

THIS awkward, heavy lout mistook the cell;

By chance upon our ladies’ room he fell,

And knocked with weighty hands: they ope’d the door.

And gave abuse, but soon their anger o’er,

The nuns conceived a treasure they had found,

And, laughing heartily, no longer frowned,

But both exclaimed at once: let’s take this fool;

Of him we easily can make a tool;

As well as t’other, don’t you think he’ll do?

The eldest added:— let’s our whim pursue;

’Tis well determined; — What were we to get,

That here we waited, and are waiting yet?

Fine words and phrases; nothing of the kind;

This wight ’s as good, for what we have a mind,

As any bachelor or doctor wise

At all events, for present, he’ll suffice.

SHE rightly judged; his height, form, simple air,

And ev’ry act, so clearly void of care,

Raised expectation; this was AEsop’s man,

He never thought: ’twas all without a plan;

Both ate and drank, and, had he been at will,

Would matters far have pushed, though void of skill.

FAMILIAR grown, the fellow ready seemed,

To execute whate’er was proper deemed;

To serve the convent he was porter made,

And in their wishes nuns of course obeyed.

’TIS here begins the subject we’ve in view,

The scene that faithfully our painter drew;

Apollo, give me aid, assistance lend,

Enable me, I pray, to comprehend,

Why this mean stupid rustick sat at ease,

And left the sisters (Claudia, formed to please,

And lovely fair Theresa) all the care?

Had he not better done to give a chair?

I THINK I hear the god of verse reply:

Not quite so fast my friend, you may rely,

These matters never can the probe endure;

I understand you; Cupid, to be sure,

Is doubtless found a very roguish boy,

Who, though he please at times, will oft annoy;

I’m wrong a wicked whelp like this to take,

And, master of the ceremonies make.

NO sooner in a house the urchin gets,

But rules and laws he at defiance sets;

The place of reason whim at once assumes,

Breaks ev’ry obstacle, frets, rages, fumes.

With scenes like these will Cupid oft surprise,

And frantick passion sparkle in his eyes.

SOON on the floor was seen this boorish wight;

For, whether that the chair was rather slight,

Or that the composition of the clown

Was not, like that of geese, of softest down,

Or that Theresa, by her gay discourse,

Had penetrated to the mystick source,

The am’rous pulpit suddenly gave way,

And on the ground the rustick quickly lay.

The first attempt had clearly bad success,

And fair Theresa suffered you may guess.

YE censors keep from hence your eyes prophane;

See, honest hearts, how Claudia tried amain,

To take advantage of the dire mishap,

And all she could, with eagerness entrap;

For in the fall Theresa lost her hold;

The other pushed her:— further off she rolled;

And then, what she had quitted Claudia seized;

Theresa, like a demon quite displeased,

Endeavoured to recover what she’d lost:—

Again to take her seat, but she was crossed.

The sister in possession ne’er inclined

To cede a post so pleasant to her mind;

Theresa raised her hand to give a stroke;

And what of that? — if any thing provoke

When thus engaged, unheeded it remains

Small ills are soon forgot where pleasure reigns.

IN spite of rage apparent in the face;

Of her who in the scuffle lost her place,

The other followed up the road she took;

His course the rustick also ne’er forsook.

Theresa scolded; anger marked her eyes;

In Venus’ games contentions oft arise;

Their violence no parallel has seen:—

In proof, remember Menelaus’ queen.

Though here to take a part Bellona ’s found,

Of cuirasses I see but few around;

When Venus closes with the god of Thrace,

Her armour then appears with ev’ry grace.

The FAIR will understand: enough is said;

When beauty’s goddess is to combat led,

Her body-cuirass shows superior charms;

The Cyclops rarely forge such pleasing arms.

Had Vulcan graven on Achilles’ shield

The picture we’ve described, more praise ‘twould yield.

THE nun’s adventure I in verse have told,

But not in colours, like the action, bold;

And as the story in the picture fails,

The latter seems to lose in my details.

The pen and brush express not quite the same;

Eyes are not ears, however we may aim.

ENTANGLED in the net, I long have left

The fair Theresa, of her throne bereft;

Howe’er, this sister had her turn we find,

So much to please, the porter was inclined,

That both were satisfied, and felt content;

Here ends our tale, and truly I lament,

That not a word about the feast is said,

Though I’ve no doubt, they freely drank and fed;

And this for reasons easily conceived:

The interlude gave rest that much relieved.

In fine, ’twas well throughout, except, in truth,

The hour of meeting settled with the youth,

Which much embarrasses I will avow,

For if he never came and made his bow,

The sisters had the means, when they might please,

Completely to console themselves at ease;

And if the spark appeared, the belles could hide

Both clown and chair, or any thing beside

The lover what he wanted soon possessed,

And was as usual treated with the best.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/la_fontaine/jean_de/tales/chapter56.html

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