The Fables of La Fontaine, by Jean de La Fontaine

Book I.

I. — The Grasshopper and the Ant.1

A Grasshopper gay

Sang the summer away,

And found herself poor

By the winter’s first roar.

Of meat or of bread,

Not a morsel she had!

So a begging she went,

To her neighbour the ant,

For the loan of some wheat,

Which would serve her to eat,

Till the season came round.

‘I will pay you,’ she saith,

‘On an animal’s faith,

Double weight in the pound

Ere the harvest be bound.’

The ant is a friend

(And here she might mend)

Little given to lend.

‘How spent you the summer?’

Quoth she, looking shame

At the borrowing dame.

‘Night and day to each comer

I sang, if you please.’

‘You sang! I’m at ease;

For ’tis plain at a glance,

Now, ma’am, you must dance.’

1] For the story of this fable, as for the stories of so many of the fables which follow, especially in the first six books, La Fontaine is indebted to the Father of Fable, Aesop the Phrygian. See account of Aesop in the Translator’s Preface.

II. — The Raven and the Fox.2

Perch’d on a lofty oak,

Sir Raven held a lunch of cheese;

Sir Fox, who smelt it in the breeze,

Thus to the holder spoke:—

‘Ha! how do you do, Sir Raven?

Well, your coat, sir, is a brave one!

So black and glossy, on my word, sir,

With voice to match, you were a bird, sir,

Well fit to be the Phoenix of these days.’

Sir Raven, overset with praise,

Must show how musical his croak.

Down fell the luncheon from the oak;

Which snatching up, Sir Fox thus spoke:—

‘The flatterer, my good sir,

Aye liveth on his listener;

Which lesson, if you please,

Is doubtless worth the cheese.’

A bit too late, Sir Raven swore

The rogue should never cheat him more.

2] Both Aesop and Phaedrus have a version of this fable.

III. — The Frog that Wished to Be as Big as the Ox.3

The tenant of a bog,

An envious little frog,

Not bigger than an egg,

A stately bullock spies,

And, smitten with his size,

Attempts to be as big.

With earnestness and pains,

She stretches, swells, and strains,

And says, ‘Sis Frog, look here! see me!

Is this enough?’ ‘No, no.’

‘Well, then, is this?’ ‘Poh! poh!

Enough! you don’t begin to be.’

And thus the reptile sits,

Enlarging till she splits.

The world is full of folks

Of just such wisdom; —

The lordly dome provokes

The cit to build his dome;

And, really, there is no telling

How much great men set little ones a swelling.

3] The story of this fable is given in Horace, Satires, II. 3, Phaedrus and Corrozet have also versions of it. For an account of Phaedrus and his Fables see the Translator’s Preface. Gilles Corrozet was one of the French fabulists immediately preceding La Fontaine. He was a Parisian bookseller-author who lived between 1516 and 1568.

IV. — The Two Mules.

Two mules were bearing on their backs,

One, oats; the other, silver of the tax.4

The latter glorying in his load,

March’d proudly forward on the road;

And, from the jingle of his bell,

’Twas plain he liked his burden well.

But in a wild-wood glen

A band of robber men

Rush’d forth upon the twain.

Well with the silver pleased,

They by the bridle seized

The treasure-mule so vain.

Poor mule! in struggling to repel

His ruthless foes, he fell

Stabb’d through; and with a bitter sighing,

He cried, ‘Is this the lot they promised me?

My humble friend from danger free,

While, weltering in my gore, I’m dying?’

‘My friend,’ his fellow-mule replied,

‘It is not well to have one’s work too high.

If thou hadst been a miller’s drudge, as I,

Thou wouldst not thus have died.’

4] The silver of the tax. — An allusion to the French gabelle, or old salt tax, which, like all taxes levied upon the mass of the people, was a very productive one. Its collection caused several peasants’ insurrections.

V. — The Wolf and the Dog.5

A prowling wolf, whose shaggy skin

(So strict the watch of dogs had been)

Hid little but his bones,

Once met a mastiff dog astray.

A prouder, fatter, sleeker Tray,

No human mortal owns.

Sir Wolf in famish’d plight,

Would fain have made a ration

Upon his fat relation;

But then he first must fight;

And well the dog seem’d able

To save from wolfish table

His carcass snug and tight.

So, then, in civil conversation

The wolf express’d his admiration

Of Tray’s fine case. Said Tray, politely,

‘Yourself, good sir, may be as sightly;

Quit but the woods, advised by me.

For all your fellows here, I see,

Are shabby wretches, lean and gaunt,

Belike to die of haggard want.

With such a pack, of course it follows,

One fights for every bit he swallows.

Come, then, with me, and share

On equal terms our princely fare.’

‘But what with you

Has one to do?’

Inquires the wolf. ‘Light work indeed,’

Replies the dog; ‘you only need

To bark a little now and then,

To chase off duns and beggar men,

To fawn on friends that come or go forth,

Your master please, and so forth;

For which you have to eat

All sorts of well-cook’d meat —

Cold pullets, pigeons, savoury messes —

Besides unnumber’d fond caresses.’

The wolf, by force of appetite,

Accepts the terms outright,

Tears glistening in his eyes.

But faring on, he spies

A gall’d spot on the mastiff’s neck.

‘What’s that?’ he cries. ‘O, nothing but a speck.’

‘A speck?’ ‘Ay, ay; ’tis not enough to pain me;

Perhaps the collar’s mark by which they chain me.’

‘Chain! chain you! What! run you not, then,

Just where you please, and when?’

‘Not always, sir; but what of that?’

‘Enough for me, to spoil your fat!

It ought to be a precious price

Which could to servile chains entice;

For me, I’ll shun them while I’ve wit.’

So ran Sir Wolf, and runneth yet.

5] Phaedrus, III. 7. — The references to the Fables of Phaedrus are to Bohn’s edition, which is from the critical edition of Orellius, 1831.

VI. — The Heifer, the Goat, and the Sheep, in Company with the Lion.6

The heifer, the goat, and their sister the sheep,

Compacted their earnings in common to keep,

’Tis said, in time past, with a lion, who sway’d

Full lordship o’er neighbours, of whatever grade.

The goat, as it happen’d, a stag having snared,

Sent off to the rest, that the beast might be shared.

All gather’d; the lion first counts on his claws,

And says, ‘We’ll proceed to divide with our paws

The stag into pieces, as fix’d by our laws.’

This done, he announces part first as his own;

“Tis mine,’ he says, ‘truly, as lion alone.’

To such a decision there’s nought to be said,

As he who has made it is doubtless the head.

‘Well, also, the second to me should belong;

’Tis mine, be it known, by the right of the strong.

Again, as the bravest, the third must be mine.

To touch but the fourth whoso maketh a sign,

I’ll choke him to death

In the space of a breath!’

6] Phaedrus, I. 5. From this fable come the French proverbial expression, la part du lion, and its English equivalent, the “lion’s share.”

VII. — The Wallet.7

From heaven, one day, did Jupiter proclaim,

‘Let all that live before my throne appear,

And there if any one hath aught to blame,

In matter, form, or texture of his frame,

He may bring forth his grievance without fear.

Redress shall instantly be given to each.

Come, monkey, now, first let us have your speech.

You see these quadrupeds, your brothers;

Comparing, then, yourself with others,

Are you well satisfied?’ ‘And wherefore not?’

Says Jock. ‘Haven’t I four trotters with the rest?

Is not my visage comely as the best?

But this my brother Bruin, is a blot

On thy creation fair;

And sooner than be painted I’d be shot,

Were I, great sire, a bear.’

The bear approaching, doth he make complaint?

Not he; — himself he lauds without restraint.

The elephant he needs must criticize;

To crop his ears and stretch his tail were wise;

A creature he of huge, misshapen size.

The elephant, though famed as beast judicious,

While on his own account he had no wishes,

Pronounced dame whale too big to suit his taste;

Of flesh and fat she was a perfect waste.

The little ant, again, pronounced the gnat too wee;

To such a speck, a vast colossus she.

Each censured by the rest, himself content,

Back to their homes all living things were sent.

Such folly liveth yet with human fools.

For others lynxes, for ourselves but moles.

Great blemishes in other men we spy,

Which in ourselves we pass most kindly by.

As in this world we’re but way-farers,

Kind Heaven has made us wallet-bearers.

The pouch behind our own defects must store,

The faults of others lodge in that before.

7] One of Aesop’s: Phaedrus also gives it, Book IV. 10.

VIII. — The Swallow and the Little Birds.8

By voyages in air,

With constant thought and care,

Much knowledge had a swallow gain’d,

Which she for public use retain’d,

The slightest storms she well foreknew,

And told the sailors ere they blew.

A farmer sowing hemp, once having found,

She gather’d all the little birds around,

And said, ‘My friends, the freedom let me take

To prophesy a little, for your sake,

Against this dangerous seed.

Though such a bird as I

Knows how to hide or fly,

You birds a caution need.

See you that waving hand?

It scatters on the land

What well may cause alarm.

’Twill grow to nets and snares,

To catch you unawares,

And work you fatal harm!

Great multitudes I fear,

Of you, my birdies dear,

That falling seed, so little,

Will bring to cage or kettle!

But though so perilous the plot,

You now may easily defeat it:

All lighting on the seeded spot,

Just scratch up every seed and eat it.’

The little birds took little heed,

So fed were they with other seed.

Anon the field was seen

Bedeck’d in tender green.

The swallow’s warning voice was heard again:

‘My friends, the product of that deadly grain,

Seize now, and pull it root by root,

Or surely you’ll repent its fruit.’

‘False, babbling prophetess,’ says one,

‘You’d set us at some pretty fun!

To pull this field a thousand birds are needed,

While thousands more with hemp are seeded.’

The crop now quite mature,

The swallow adds, ‘Thus far I’ve fail’d of cure;

I’ve prophesied in vain

Against this fatal grain:

It’s grown. And now, my bonny birds,

Though you have disbelieved my words

Thus far, take heed at last, —

When you shall see the seed-time past,

And men, no crops to labour for,

On birds shall wage their cruel war,

With deadly net and noose;

Of flying then beware,

Unless you take the air,

Like woodcock, crane, or goose.

But stop; you’re not in plight

For such adventurous flight,

O’er desert waves and sands,

In search of other lands.

Hence, then, to save your precious souls,

Remaineth but to say,

’Twill be the safest way,

To chuck yourselves in holes.’

Before she had thus far gone,

The birdlings, tired of hearing,

And laughing more than fearing,

Set up a greater jargon

Than did, before the Trojan slaughter,

The Trojans round old Priam’s daughter.9

And many a bird, in prison grate,

Lamented soon a Trojan fate.

’Tis thus we heed no instincts but our own;

Believe no evil till the evil’s done.

8] Aesop.

9] Priam’s daughter. — Cassandra, who predicted the fall of Troy, and was not heeded.

IX. — The City Rat and the Country Rat.10

A city rat, one night,

Did, with a civil stoop,

A country rat invite

To end a turtle soup.

Upon a Turkey carpet

They found the table spread,

And sure I need not harp it

How well the fellows fed.

The entertainment was

A truly noble one;

But some unlucky cause

Disturb’d it when begun.

It was a slight rat-tat,

That put their joys to rout;

Out ran the city rat;

His guest, too, scamper’d out.

Our rats but fairly quit,

The fearful knocking ceased.

‘Return we,’ cried the cit,

To finish there our feast.

‘No,’ said the rustic rat;

‘To-morrow dine with me.

I’m not offended at

Your feast so grand and free, —

‘For I’ve no fare resembling;

But then I eat at leisure,

And would not swap, for pleasure

So mix’d with fear and trembling.’

10] Horace, Satires, II. 6: also in Aesop.

X. — The Wolf and the Lamb.11

That innocence is not a shield,

A story teaches, not the longest.

The strongest reasons always yield

To reasons of the strongest.

A lamb her thirst was slaking,

Once, at a mountain rill.

A hungry wolf was taking

His hunt for sheep to kill,

When, spying on the streamlet’s brink

This sheep of tender age,

He howl’d in tones of rage,

‘How dare you roil my drink?

Your impudence I shall chastise!’

‘Let not your majesty,’ the lamb replies,

‘Decide in haste or passion!

For sure ’tis difficult to think

In what respect or fashion

My drinking here could roil your drink,

Since on the stream your majesty now faces

I’m lower down, full twenty paces.’

‘You roil it,’ said the wolf; ‘and, more, I know

You cursed and slander’d me a year ago.’

‘O no! how could I such a thing have done!

A lamb that has not seen a year,

A suckling of its mother dear?’

‘Your brother then.’ ‘But brother I have none.’

‘Well, well, what’s all the same,

’Twas some one of your name.

Sheep, men, and dogs of every nation,

Are wont to stab my reputation,

As I have truly heard.’

Without another word,

He made his vengeance good —

Bore off the lambkin to the wood,

And there, without a jury,

Judged, slew, and ate her in his fury.

11] Phaedrus, I. 1: also in Aesop.

XI. — The Man and His Image.12

To M. The Duke De La Rochefoucauld.

A man, who had no rivals in the love

Which to himself he bore,

Esteem’d his own dear beauty far above

What earth had seen before.

More than contented in his error,

He lived the foe of every mirror.

Officious fate, resolved our lover

From such an illness should recover,

Presented always to his eyes

The mute advisers which the ladies prize; —

Mirrors in parlours, inns, and shops, —

Mirrors the pocket furniture of fops, —

Mirrors on every lady’s zone,13

From which his face reflected shone.

What could our dear Narcissus do?

From haunts of men he now withdrew,

On purpose that his precious shape

From every mirror might escape.

But in his forest glen alone,

Apart from human trace,

A watercourse,

Of purest source,

While with unconscious gaze

He pierced its waveless face,

Reflected back his own.

Incensed with mingled rage and fright,

He seeks to shun the odious sight;

But yet that mirror sheet, so clear and still,

He cannot leave, do what he will.

Ere this, my story’s drift you plainly see.

From such mistake there is no mortal free.

That obstinate self-lover

The human soul doth cover;

The mirrors follies are of others,

In which, as all are genuine brothers,

Each soul may see to life depicted

Itself with just such faults afflicted;

And by that charming placid brook,

Needless to say, I mean your Maxim Book.

12] This is one of La Fontaine’s most admired fables, and is one of the few for which he did not go for the groundwork to some older fabulist. The Duke de la Rochefoucauld, to whom it was dedicated, was the author of the famous “Reflexions et Maximes Morales,” which La Fontaine praises in the last lines of his fable. La Rochefoucauld was La Fontaine’s friend and patron. The “Maximes” had achieved a second edition just prior to La Fontaine’s publication of this first series of his Fables, in 1668. “The Rabbits” (Book X., Fable 15.), published in the second collection, in 1678-9, is also dedicated to the Duke, who died the following year, 1680. See Translator’s Preface.

13] Lady’s zone. — One of La Fontaine’s commentators remarks upon this passage that it is no exaggeration of the foppishness of the times in which the poet wrote, and cites the instance that the canons of St. Martin of Tours wore mirrors on their shoes, even while officiating in church.

XII. — The Dragon with Many Heads, and the Dragon with Many Tails.14

An envoy of the Porte Sublime,

As history says, once on a time,

Before th’ imperial German court15

Did rather boastfully report,

The troops commanded by his master’s firman,

As being a stronger army than the German:

To which replied a Dutch attendant,

‘Our prince has more than one dependant

Who keeps an army at his own expense.’

The Turk, a man of sense,

Rejoin’d, ‘I am aware

What power your emperor’s servants share.

It brings to mind a tale both strange and true,

A thing which once, myself, I chanced to view.

I saw come darting through a hedge,

Which fortified a rocky ledge,

A hydra’s hundred heads; and in a trice

My blood was turning into ice.

But less the harm than terror, —

The body came no nearer;

Nor could, unless it had been sunder’d,

To parts at least a hundred.

While musing deeply on this sight,

Another dragon came to light,

Whose single head avails

To lead a hundred tails:

And, seized with juster fright,

I saw him pass the hedge, —

Head, body, tails, — a wedge

Of living and resistless powers. —

The other was your emperor’s force; this ours.’

14] The original of this fable has been attributed to the chief who made himself Emperor of Tartary and called himself Ghengis Khan (b. 1164, d. 1227). He is said to have applied the fable to the Great Mogul and his innumerable dependent potentates.

15] German court. — The court of the “Holy Roman Empire” is here meant.

XIII. — The Thieves and the Ass.16

Two thieves, pursuing their profession,

Had of a donkey got possession,

Whereon a strife arose,

Which went from words to blows.

The question was, to sell, or not to sell;

But while our sturdy champions fought it well,

Another thief, who chanced to pass,

With ready wit rode off the ass.

This ass is, by interpretation,

Some province poor, or prostrate nation.

The thieves are princes this and that,

On spoils and plunder prone to fat, —

As those of Austria, Turkey, Hungary.

(Instead of two, I’ve quoted three —

Enough of such commodity.)

These powers engaged in war all,

Some fourth thief stops the quarrel,

According all to one key,

By riding off the donkey.

16] Aesop.

XIV. — Simonides Preserved by the Gods.17

Three sorts there are, as Malherbe18 says,

Which one can never overpraise —

The gods, the ladies, and the king;

And I, for one, endorse the thing.

The heart, praise tickles and entices;

Of fair one’s smile, it oft the price is.

See how the gods sometimes repay it.

Simonides — the ancients say it —

Once undertook, in poem lyric,

To write a wrestler’s panegyric;

Which, ere he had proceeded far in,

He found his subject somewhat barren.

No ancestors of great renown;

His sire of some unnoted town;

Himself as little known to fame,

The wrestler’s praise was rather tame.

The poet, having made the most of

Whate’er his hero had to boast of,

Digress’d, by choice that was not all luck’s,

To Castor and his brother Pollux;

Whose bright career was subject ample,

For wrestlers, sure, a good example.

Our poet fatten’d on their story,

Gave every fight its place and glory,

Till of his panegyric words

These deities had got two-thirds.

All done, the poet’s fee

A talent was to be.

But when he comes his bill to settle,

The wrestler, with a spice of mettle,

Pays down a third, and tells the poet,

‘The balance they may pay who owe it.

The gods than I are rather debtors

To such a pious man of letters.

But still I shall be greatly pleased

To have your presence at my feast,

Among a knot of guests select,

My kin, and friends I most respect.’

More fond of character than coffer,

Simonides accepts the offer.

While at the feast the party sit,

And wine provokes the flow of wit,

It is announced that at the gate

Two men, in haste that cannot wait,

Would see the bard. He leaves the table,

No loss at all to ‘ts noisy gabble.

The men were Leda’s twins, who knew

What to a poet’s praise was due,

And, thanking, paid him by foretelling

The downfall of the wrestler’s dwelling.

From which ill-fated pile, indeed,

No sooner was the poet freed,

Than, props and pillars failing,

Which held aloft the ceiling

So splendid o’er them,

It downward loudly crash’d,

The plates and flagons dash’d,

And men who bore them;

And, what was worse,

Full vengeance for the man of verse,

A timber broke the wrestler’s thighs,

And wounded many otherwise.

The gossip Fame, of course, took care

Abroad to publish this affair.

‘A miracle!’ the public cried, delighted.

No more could god-beloved bard be slighted.

His verse now brought him more than double,

With neither duns, nor care, nor trouble.

Whoe’er laid claim to noble birth

Must buy his ancestors a slice,

Resolved no nobleman on earth

Should overgo him in the price.

From which these serious lessons flow:—

Fail not your praises to bestow

On gods and godlike men. Again,

To sell the product of her pain

Is not degrading to the Muse.

Indeed, her art they do abuse,

Who think her wares to use,

And yet a liberal pay refuse.

Whate’er the great confer upon her,

They’re honour’d by it while they honour.

Of old, Olympus and Parnassus

In friendship heaved their sky-crown’d masses.

17] Phaedrus, IV. 24.

18] Malherbe. — See note to Fable I., Book III.

XV. — Death and the Unfortunate.19

A poor unfortunate, from day to day,

Call’d Death to take him from this world away.

‘O Death’ he said, ‘to me how fair thy form!

Come quick, and end for me life’s cruel storm.’

Death heard, and with a ghastly grin,

Knock’d at his door, and enter’d in

‘Take out this object from my sight!’

The poor man loudly cried.

‘Its dreadful looks I can’t abide;

O stay him, stay him’ let him come no nigher;

O Death! O Death! I pray thee to retire!’

A gentleman of note

In Rome, Maecenas,20 somewhere wrote:—

“Make me the poorest wretch that begs,

Sore, hungry, crippled, clothed in rags,

In hopeless impotence of arms and legs;

Provided, after all, you give

The one sweet liberty to live:

I’ll ask of Death no greater favour

Than just to stay away for ever.”

19] Aesop.

20] Maecenas. — Seneca’s Epistles, CI.

XVI. — Death and the Woodman.21

A poor wood-chopper, with his fagot load,

Whom weight of years, as well as load, oppress’d,

Sore groaning in his smoky hut to rest,

Trudged wearily along his homeward road.

At last his wood upon the ground he throws,

And sits him down to think o’er all his woes.

To joy a stranger, since his hapless birth,

What poorer wretch upon this rolling earth?

No bread sometimes, and ne’er a moment’s rest;

Wife, children, soldiers, landlords, public tax,

All wait the swinging of his old, worn axe,

And paint the veriest picture of a man unblest.

On Death he calls. Forthwith that monarch grim

Appears, and asks what he should do for him.

‘Not much, indeed; a little help I lack —

To put these fagots on my back.’

Death ready stands all ills to cure;

But let us not his cure invite.

Than die, ’tis better to endure, —

Is both a manly maxim and a right.

21] Aesop: it is also in Corrozet’s fables.

XVII. — The Man Between Two Ages, and His Two Mistresses.22

A man of middle age, whose hair

Was bordering on the grey,

Began to turn his thoughts and care

The matrimonial way.

By virtue of his ready,

A store of choices had he

Of ladies bent to suit his taste;

On which account he made no haste.

To court well was no trifling art.

Two widows chiefly gain’d his heart;

The one yet green, the other more mature,

Who found for nature’s wane in art a cure.

These dames, amidst their joking and caressing

The man they long’d to wed,

Would sometimes set themselves to dressing

His party-colour’d head.

Each aiming to assimilate

Her lover to her own estate,

The older piecemeal stole

The black hair from his poll,

While eke, with fingers light,

The young one stole the white.

Between them both, as if by scald,

His head was changed from grey to bald.

‘For these,’ he said, ‘your gentle pranks,

I owe you, ladies, many thanks.

By being thus well shaved,

I less have lost than saved.

Of Hymen, yet, no news at hand,

I do assure ye.

By what I’ve lost, I understand

It is in your way,

Not mine, that I must pass on.

Thanks, ladies, for the lesson.’

22] Phaedrus, II.2: Aesop.

XVIII. — The Fox and the Stork.23

Old Mister Fox was at expense, one day,

To dine old Mistress Stork.

The fare was light, was nothing, sooth to say,

Requiring knife and fork.

That sly old gentleman, the dinner-giver,

Was, you must understand, a frugal liver.

This once, at least, the total matter

Was thinnish soup served on a platter,

For madam’s slender beak a fruitless puzzle,

Till all had pass’d the fox’s lapping muzzle.

But, little relishing his laughter,

Old gossip Stork, some few days after,

Return’d his Foxship’s invitation.

Without a moment’s hesitation,

He said he’d go, for he must own he

Ne’er stood with friends for ceremony.

And so, precisely at the hour,

He hied him to the lady’s bower;

Where, praising her politeness,

He finds her dinner right nice.

Its punctuality and plenty,

Its viands, cut in mouthfuls dainty,

Its fragrant smell, were powerful to excite,

Had there been need, his foxish appetite.

But now the dame, to torture him,

Such wit was in her,

Served up her dinner

In vases made so tall and slim,

They let their owner’s beak pass in and out,

But not, by any means, the fox’s snout!

All arts without avail,

With drooping head and tail,

As ought a fox a fowl had cheated,

The hungry guest at last retreated.

Ye knaves, for you is this recital,

You’ll often meet Dame Stork’s requital.

23] Phaedrus, I. 26; also in Aesop.

XIX. — The Boy and the Schoolmaster.24

Wise counsel is not always wise,

As this my tale exemplifies.

A boy, that frolick’d on the banks of Seine,

Fell in, and would have found a watery grave,

Had not that hand that planteth ne’er in vain

A willow planted there, his life to save.

While hanging by its branches as he might,

A certain sage preceptor came in sight;

To whom the urchin cried, ‘Save, or I’m drown’d!’

The master, turning gravely at the sound,

Thought proper for a while to stand aloof,

And give the boy some seasonable reproof.

‘You little wretch! this comes of foolish playing,

Commands and precepts disobeying.

A naughty rogue, no doubt, you are,

Who thus requite your parents’ care.

Alas! their lot I pity much,

Whom fate condemns to watch o’er such.’

This having coolly said, and more,

He pull’d the drowning lad ashore.

This story hits more marks than you suppose.

All critics, pedants, men of endless prose, —

Three sorts, so richly bless’d with progeny,

The house is bless’d that doth not lodge any, —

May in it see themselves from head to toes.

No matter what the task,

Their precious tongues must teach;

Their help in need you ask,

You first must hear them preach.

24] A fable telling this story is in the collection of Arabic fables which bear the name of Locman, or Lokman, a personage some identify with Aesop himself. Lokman is said to have flourished about 1050 B.C.; and even as the “Phrygian slave” — Aesop was said to have been very ugly, so Lokman is described as “an ugly black slave.” See Translator’s Preface. Rabelais also has a version of the story of this fable, vide Gargantua, Book I. ch. xlii.

XX. — The Cock and the Pearl.25

A cock scratch’d up, one day,

A pearl of purest ray,

Which to a jeweller he bore.

‘I think it fine,’ he said,

‘But yet a crumb of bread

To me were worth a great deal more.’

So did a dunce inherit

A manuscript of merit,

Which to a publisher he bore.

“Tis good,’ said he, ‘I’m told,

Yet any coin of gold

To me were worth a great deal more.’

25] Phaedrus, III. 11.

XXI. — The Hornets and the Bees.26

“The artist by his work is known." —

A piece of honey-comb, one day,

Discover’d as a waif and stray,

The hornets treated as their own.

Their title did the bees dispute,

And brought before a wasp the suit.

The judge was puzzled to decide,

For nothing could be testified

Save that around this honey-comb

There had been seen, as if at home,

Some longish, brownish, buzzing creatures,

Much like the bees in wings and features.

But what of that? for marks the same,

The hornets, too, could truly claim.

Between assertion, and denial,

The wasp, in doubt, proclaim’d new trial;

And, hearing what an ant-hill swore,

Could see no clearer than before.

‘What use, I pray, of this expense?’

At last exclaim’d a bee of sense.

‘We’ve labour’d months in this affair,

And now are only where we were.

Meanwhile the honey runs to waste:

’Tis time the judge should show some haste.

The parties, sure, have had sufficient bleeding,

Without more fuss of scrawls and pleading.

Let’s set ourselves at work, these drones and we,

And then all eyes the truth may plainly see,

Whose art it is that can produce

The magic cells, the nectar juice.’

The hornets, flinching on their part,

Show that the work transcends their art.

The wasp at length their title sees,

And gives the honey to the bees.

Would God that suits at laws with us

Might all be managed thus!

That we might, in the Turkish mode,

Have simple common sense for code!

They then were short and cheap affairs,

Instead of stretching on like ditches,

Ingulfing in their course all riches, —

The parties leaving for their shares,

The shells (and shells there might be moister)

From which the court has suck’d the oyster.27

26] Phaedrus, III. 12.

27] The court has suck’d the oyster. — The humorous idea of the lawyers, the litigants, and the oyster, is more fully treated in Fable IX., Book IX.

XXII. — The Oak and the Reed.28

The oak one day address’d the reed:—

‘To you ungenerous indeed

Has nature been, my humble friend,

With weakness aye obliged to bend.

The smallest bird that flits in air

Is quite too much for you to bear;

The slightest wind that wreathes the lake

Your ever-trembling head doth shake.

The while, my towering form

Dares with the mountain top

The solar blaze to stop,

And wrestle with the storm.

What seems to you the blast of death,

To me is but a zephyr’s breath.

Beneath my branches had you grown,

That spread far round their friendly bower,

Less suffering would your life have known,

Defended from the tempest’s power.

Unhappily you oftenest show

In open air your slender form,

Along the marshes wet and low,

That fringe the kingdom of the storm.

To you, declare I must,

Dame Nature seems unjust.’

Then modestly replied the reed:

‘Your pity, sir, is kind indeed,

But wholly needless for my sake.

The wildest wind that ever blew

Is safe to me compared with you.

I bend, indeed, but never break.

Thus far, I own, the hurricane

Has beat your sturdy back in vain;

But wait the end.’ Just at the word,

The tempest’s hollow voice was heard.

The North sent forth her fiercest child,

Dark, jagged, pitiless, and wild.

The oak, erect, endured the blow;

The reed bow’d gracefully and low.

But, gathering up its strength once more,

In greater fury than before,

The savage blast

O’erthrew, at last,

That proud, old, sky-encircled head,

Whose feet entwined the empire of the dead!29

28] The groundwork of this fable is in Aesop, and also in the Fables of Avianus. Flavius Avianus lived in the fifth century. His Aesopian Fables were written in Latin verse. Caxton printed “The Fables of Avian, translated into Englyshe” at the end of his edition of Aesop.

29] This fable and “The Animals Sick of the Plague” (Fable I., Book VII.), are generally deemed La Fontaine’s two best fables. “The Oak and the Reed” is held to be the perfection of classical fable, while “The Animals Sick of the Plague” is esteemed for its fine poetic feeling conjoined with its excellent moral teaching. See Translator’s Preface.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57