The Fables of La Fontaine, by Jean de La Fontaine

Book X.

I. — The Two Rats, the Fox, and the Egg.

Address to Madame de la Sablière.1

You, Iris, ’twere an easy task to praise;

But you refuse the incense of my lays.

In this you are unlike all other mortals,

Who welcome all the praise that seeks their portals;

Not one who is not soothed by sound so sweet.

For me to blame this humour were not meet,

By gods and mortals shared in common,

And, in the main, by lovely woman.

That drink, so vaunted by the rhyming trade,

That cheers the god who deals the thunder-blow,

And oft intoxicates the gods below, —

The nectar, Iris, is of praises made.

You taste it not. But, in its place,

Wit, science, even trifles grace

Your bill of fare; but, for that matter,

The world will not believe the latter.

Well, leave the world in unbelief.

Still science, trifles, fancies light as air,

I hold, should mingle in a bill of fare,

Each giving each its due relief;

As, where the gifts of Flora fall,

On different flowers we see

Alight the busy bee,

Educing sweet from all.

Thus much premised, don’t think it strange,

Or aught beyond my muse’s range,

If e’en my fables should infold,

Among their nameless trumpery,

The traits of a philosophy

Far-famed as subtle, charming, bold.

They call it new — the men of wit;

Perhaps you have not heard of it?2

My verse will tell you what it means:—

They say that beasts are mere machines;3

That, in their doings, everything

Is done by virtue of a spring —

No sense, no soul, nor notion;

But matter merely, — set in motion,

Just such the watch in kind,

Which joggeth on, to purpose blind.

Now ope, and read within its breast —

The place of soul is by its wheels possess’d.

One moves a second, that a third,

Till finally its sound is heard.

And now the beast, our sages say,

Is moved precisely in this way

An object strikes it in a certain place:

The spot thus struck, without a moment’s space,

To neighbouring parts the news conveys;

Thus sense receives it through the chain,

And takes impression. — How? Explain. —

Not I. They say, by sheer necessity,

From will as well as passion free,

The animal is found the thrall

Of movements which the vulgar call

Joy, sadness, pleasure, pain, and love —

The cause extrinsic and above. —

Believe it not. What’s this I hold?

Why, sooth, it is a watch of gold —

Its life, the mere unbending of a spring.

And we? — are quite a different thing.

Hear how Descartes — Descartes, whom all applaud,

Whom pagans would have made a god,

Who holds, in fact, the middle place

‘Twixt ours and the celestial race,

About as does the plodding ass

From man to oyster as you pass —

Hear how this author states the case

‘Of all the tribes to being brought

By our Creator out of nought,

I only have the gift of thought.’

Now, Iris, you will recollect

We were by older science taught

That when brutes think, they don’t reflect.

Descartes proceeds beyond the wall,

And says they do not think at all.

This you believe with ease;

And so could I, if I should please.

Still, in the forest, when, from morn

Till midday, sounds of dog and horn

Have terrified the stag forlorn;

When he has doubled forth and back,

And labour’d to confound his track,

Till tired and spent with efforts vain —

An ancient stag, of antlers ten; —

He puts a younger in his place,

All fresh, to weary out the chase. —

What thoughts for one that merely grazes!

The doublings, turnings, windings, mazes,

The substituting fresher bait,

Were worthy of a man of state —

And worthy of a better fate!

To yield to rascal dogs his breath

Is all the honour of his death.

And when the partridge danger spies,

Before her brood have strength to rise,

She wisely counterfeits a wound,

And drags her wing upon the ground —

Thus, from her home, beside some ancient log,

Safe drawing off the sportsman and his dog;

And while the latter seems to seize her,

The victim of an easy chase —

‘Your teeth are not for such as me, sir,’

She cries,

And flies,

And laughs the former in his face.

Far north, ’tis said, the people live

In customs nearly primitive;

That is to say, are bound

In ignorance profound:—

I mean the people human;

For animals are dwelling there

With skill such buildings to prepare

As could on earth but few men.

Firm laid across the torrent’s course,

Their work withstands its mighty force,

So damming it from shore to shore,

That, gliding smoothly o’er,

In even sheets the waters pour.

Their work, as it proceeds, they grade and bevel,

Or bring it up to plumb or level;

First lay their logs, and then with mortar smear,

As if directed by an engineer.

Each labours for the public good;

The old command, the youthful brood

Cut down, and shape, and place the wood.

Compared with theirs, e’en Plato’s model state

Were but the work of some apprentice pate.

Such are the beaver folks, who know

Enough to house themselves from snow,

And bridge, though they can swim, the pools.

Meanwhile, our kinsmen are such fools,

In spite of their example,

They dwell in huts less ample,

And cross the streams by swimming,

However cold and brimming!

Now that the skilful beaver,

Is but a body void of spirit,

From whomsoever I might hear it,

I would believe it never.

But I go farther in the case.

Pray listen while I tell

A thing which lately fell

From one of truly royal race.4

A prince beloved by Victory,

The North’s defender here shall be

My voucher and your guaranty;

Whose mighty name alone

Commands the sultan’s throne,

The king whom Poland calls her own.

This king declares (kings cannot lie, we hear)

That, on his own frontier,

Some animals there are;

Engaged in ceaseless war;

From age to age the quarrel runs,

Transmitted down from sires to sons;

(These beasts, he says, are to the fox akin;)

And with more skill no war hath been,

By highest military powers,

Conducted in this age of ours

Guards, piquets, scouts, and spies,

And ambuscade that hidden lies,

The foe to capture by surprise,

And many a shrewd appliance

Of that pernicious, cursed science,

The daughter of the Stygian wave,

And mother harsh of heroes brave,

Those military creatures have.

To chant their feats a bard we lack,

Till Death shall give us Homer back.

And should he such a wonder do,

And, while his hand was in, release

Old Epicurus’ rival5 too,

What would the latter say to facts like these?

Why, as I’ve said, that nature does such things

In animals by means of springs;

That Memory is but corporeal;

And that to do the things array’d

So proudly in my story all,

The animal but needs her aid.

At each return, the object, so to speak,

Proceeds directly to her store

With keenest optics — there to seek

The image it had traced before,

Which found, proceeds forthwith to act

Just as at first it did, in fact,

By neither thought nor reason back’d.

Not so with us, beasts perpendicular;

With us kind Heaven is more particular.

Self-ruled by independent mind,

We’re not the sport of objects blind,

Nor e’en to instinct are consign’d.

I walk; I talk; I feel the sway

Of power within

This nice machine,

It cannot but obey.

This power, although with matter link’d,

Is comprehended as distinct.

Indeed ’tis comprehended better

In truth and essence than is matter.

O’er all our arts it is supreme.

But how doth matter understand

Or hear its sovereign lord’s command?

Here doth a difficulty seem:

I see the tool obey the hand;

But then the hand who guideth it;

Who guides the stars in order fit?

Perhaps each mighty world,

Since from its Maker hurl’d,

Some angel may have kept in custody.

However that may be,

A spirit dwells in such as we;

It moves our limbs; we feel its mandates now;

We see and know it rules, but know not how:

Nor shall we know, indeed,

Till in the breast of God we read.

And, speaking in all verity,

Descartes is just as ignorant as we;

In things beyond a mortal’s ken,

He knows no more than other men.

But, Iris, I confess to this,

That in the beasts of which I speak

Such spirit it were vain to seek,

For man its only temple is.

Yet beasts must have a place

Beneath our godlike race,

Which no mere plant requires

Although the plant respires.

But what shall one reply

To what I next shall certify?

Two rats in foraging fell on an egg, —

For gentry such as they

A genteel dinner every way;

They needed not to find an ox’s leg.

Brimful of joy and appetite,

They were about to sack the box,

So tight without the aid of locks,

When suddenly there came in sight

A personage — Sir Pullet Fox.

Sure, luck was never more untoward

Since Fortune was a vixen froward!

How should they save their egg — and bacon?

Their plunder couldn’t then be bagg’d;

Should it in forward paws be taken,

Or roll’d along, or dragg’d?

Each method seem’d impossible,

And each was then of danger full.

Necessity, ingenious mother,

Brought forth what help’d them from their pother.

As still there was a chance to save their prey, —

The spunger yet some hundred yards away, —

One seized the egg, and turn’d upon his back,

And then, in spite of many a thump and thwack,

That would have torn, perhaps, a coat of mail,

The other dragg’d him by the tail.

Who dares the inference to blink,

That beasts possess wherewith to think?

Were I commission’d to bestow

This power on creatures here below,

The beasts should have as much of mind

As infants of the human kind.

Think not the latter, from their birth?

It hence appears there are on earth

That have the simple power of thought

Where reason hath no knowledge wrought.

And on this wise an equal power I’d yield

To all the various tenants of the field;

Not reason such as in ourselves we find,

But something more than any mainspring blind.

A speck of matter I would subtilise

Almost beyond the reach of mental eyes; —

An atom’s essence, one might say,

An extract of a solar ray,

More quick and pungent than a flame of fire, —

For if of flame the wood is sire,

Cannot the flame, itself refined,

Give some idea of the mind?

Comes not the purest gold

From lead, as we are told?

To feel and choose, my work should soar —

Unthinking judgment — nothing more.

No monkey of my manufacture

Should argue from his sense or fact, sure:

But my allotment to mankind

Should be of very different mind.

We men should share in double measure,

Or rather have a twofold treasure;

The one the soul, the same in all

That bear the name of animal —

The sages, dunces, great and small,

That tenant this our teeming ball; —

The other still another soul,

Which should to mortals here belong

In common with the angel throng;

Which, made an independent whole,

Could pierce the skies to worlds of light,

Within a point have room to be, —

Its life a morn, sans noon or night.

Exempt from all destructive change —

A thing as real as it is strange.

In infancy this child of day

Should glimmer but a feeble ray.

Its earthly organs stronger grown,

The beam of reason, brightly thrown,

Should pierce the darkness, thick and gross,

That holds the other prison’d close.

1] Madame de la Sablière. — See the following note; also the Translator’s Preface.

2] Perhaps you have not heard of it? — Madame de la Sablière was one of the most learned women of the age in which she lived, and knew more of the philosophy of Descartes, in which she was a believer, than our poet; but she dreaded the reputation of a “blue-stocking,” and for this reason La Fontaine addresses her as if she might be ignorant of the Cartesian theory. — Translator. Molière’s Femme Savante, the object of which was to ridicule the French “blue-stockings,” had been only recently produced upon the stage (1672), hence Madame de la Sablière’s fears, and La Fontaine’s delicate forbearance.

3] Beasts are mere machines. — At this time the discussion as to the mind in animals was very rife in the salons of Paris. Madame de Sévigné often alludes to it in her Letters. La Fontaine further contends against the “mere machine” theory in Fable IX., Book XI.

4] One of truly royal race. — John Sobieski. — Translator. At the time this was written, Sobieski’s great victory over the Turks at Choczim (1673) was resounding throughout Europe, and had made him King of Poland (1674). Sobieski had previously been a frequent visitor at the house of Madame de la Sablière, where La Fontaine had often met him. Sobieski is again alluded to as a guest of Madame de la Sablière, in Fable XV., Book XII.

5] Old Epicurus’ rival. — Descartes. — Translator.

II. — The Man and the Adder.6

‘You villain!’ cried a man who found

An adder coil’d upon the ground,

‘To do a very grateful deed

For all the world, I shall proceed.’

On this the animal perverse

(I mean the snake;

Pray don’t mistake

The human for the worse)

Was caught and bagg’d, and, worst of all,

His blood was by his captor to be spilt

Without regard to innocence or guilt.

Howe’er, to show the why, these words let fall

His judge and jailor, proud and tall:—

‘Thou type of all ingratitude!

All charity to hearts like thine

Is folly, certain to be rued.

Die, then,

Thou foe of men!

Thy temper and thy teeth malign

Shall never hurt a hair of mine.’

The muffled serpent, on his side,

The best a serpent could, replied, —

‘If all this world’s ingrates

Must meet with such a death,

Who from this worst of fates

Could save his breath?

Upon thyself thy law recoils;

I throw myself upon thy broils,

Thy graceless revelling on spoils;

If thou but homeward cast an eye,

Thy deeds all mine will justify.

But strike: my life is in thy hand;

Thy justice, all may understand,

Is but thy interest, pleasure, or caprice:—

Pronounce my sentence on such laws as these.

But give me leave to tell thee, while I can,

The type of all ingratitude is man.’

By such a lecture somewhat foil’d,

The other back a step recoil’d,

And finally replied, —

‘Thy reasons are abusive,

And wholly inconclusive.

I might the case decide

Because to me such right belongs;

But let’s refer the case of wrongs.’

The snake agreed; they to a cow referr’d it.

Who, being called, came graciously and heard it.

Then, summing up, ‘What need,’ said she,

‘In such a case, to call on me?

The adder’s right, plain truth to bellow;

For years I’ve nursed this haughty fellow,

Who, but for me, had long ago

Been lodging with the shades below.

For him my milk has had to flow,

My calves, at tender age, to die.

And for this best of wealth,

And often reëstablished health,

What pay, or even thanks, have I?

Here, feeble, old, and worn, alas!

I’m left without a bite of grass.

Were I but left, it might be weather’d,

But, shame to say it, I am tether’d.

And now my fate is surely sadder

Than if my master were an adder,

With brains within the latitude

Of such immense ingratitude.

This, gentles, is my honest view;

And so I bid you both adieu.’

The man, confounded and astonish’d

To be so faithfully admonish’d,

Replied, ‘What fools to listen, now,

To this old, silly, dotard cow!

Let’s trust the ox.’ ‘Let’s trust,’ replied

The crawling beast, well gratified.

So said, so done;

The ox, with tardy pace, came on

And, ruminating o’er the case,

Declared, with very serious face,

That years of his most painful toil

Had clothed with Ceres’ gifts our soil —

Her gifts to men — but always sold

To beasts for higher cost than gold;

And that for this, for his reward,

More blows than thanks return’d his lord;

And then, when age had chill’d his blood,

And men would quell the wrath of Heaven,

Out must be pour’d the vital flood,

For others’ sins, all thankless given.

So spake the ox; and then the man:—

‘Away with such a dull declaimer!

Instead of judge, it is his plan

To play accuser and defamer.’

A tree was next the arbitrator,

And made the wrong of man still greater.

It served as refuge from the heat,

The showers, and storms which madly beat;

It grew our gardens’ greatest pride,

Its shadow spreading far and wide,

And bow’d itself with fruit beside:

But yet a mercenary clown

With cruel iron chopp’d it down.

Behold the recompense for which,

Year after year, it did enrich,

With spring’s sweet flowers, and autumn’s fruits,

And summer’s shade, both men and brutes,

And warm’d the hearth with many a limb

Which winter from its top did trim!

Why could not man have pruned and spared,

And with itself for ages shared? —

Much scorning thus to be convinced,

The man resolved his cause to gain.

Quoth he, ‘My goodness is evinced

By hearing this, ’tis very plain;’

Then flung the serpent bag and all,

With fatal force, against a wall.

So ever is it with the great,

With whom the whim doth always run,

That Heaven all creatures doth create

For their behoof beneath the sun —

Count they four feet, or two, or none.

If one should dare the fact dispute,

He’s straight set down a stupid brute.

Now, grant it so, — such lords among,

What should be done, or said, or sung?

At distance speak, or hold your tongue.

6] Bidpaii.

III. — The Tortoise and the Two Ducks.7

A light-brain’d tortoise, anciently,

Tired of her hole, the world would see.

Prone are all such, self-banish’d, to roam —

Prone are all cripples to abhor their home.

Two ducks, to whom the gossip told

The secret of her purpose bold,

Profess’d to have the means whereby

They could her wishes gratify.

‘Our boundless road,’ said they, ‘behold!

It is the open air;

And through it we will bear

You safe o’er land and ocean.

Republics, kingdoms, you will view,

And famous cities, old and new;

And get of customs, laws, a notion, —

Of various wisdom various pieces,

As did, indeed, the sage Ulysses.’

The eager tortoise waited not

To question what Ulysses got,

But closed the bargain on the spot.

A nice machine the birds devise

To bear their pilgrim through the skies. —

Athwart her mouth a stick they throw:

‘Now bite it hard, and don’t let go,’

They say, and seize each duck an end,

And, swiftly flying, upward tend.

It made the people gape and stare

Beyond the expressive power of words,

To see a tortoise cut the air,

Exactly poised between two birds.

‘A miracle,’ they cried, ‘is seen!

There goes the flying tortoise queen!’

‘The queen!’ (’twas thus the tortoise spoke;)

‘I’m truly that, without a joke.’

Much better had she held her tongue

For, opening that whereby she clung,

Before the gazing crowd she fell,

And dash’d to bits her brittle shell.

Imprudence, vanity, and babble,

And idle curiosity,

An ever-undivided rabble,

Have all the same paternity.

7] Bidpaii.

IV. — The Fishes and the Cormorant.8

No pond nor pool within his haunt

But paid a certain cormorant

Its contribution from its fishes,

And stock’d his kitchen with good dishes.

Yet, when old age the bird had chill’d,

His kitchen was less amply fill’d.

All cormorants, however grey,

Must die, or for themselves purvey.

But ours had now become so blind,

His finny prey he could not find;

And, having neither hook nor net,

His appetite was poorly met.

What hope, with famine thus infested?

Necessity, whom history mentions,

A famous mother of inventions,

The following stratagem suggested:

He found upon the water’s brink

A crab, to which said he, ‘My friend,

A weighty errand let me send:

Go quicker than a wink —

Down to the fishes sink,

And tell them they are doom’d to die;

For, ere eight days have hasten’d by,

Its lord will fish this water dry.’

The crab, as fast as she could scrabble,

Went down, and told the scaly rabble.

What bustling, gathering, agitation!

Straight up they send a deputation

To wait upon the ancient bird.

‘Sir Cormorant, whence hast thou heard

This dreadful news? And what

Assurance of it hast thou got?

How such a danger can we shun?

Pray tell us, what is to be done?

‘Why, change your dwelling-place,’ said he,

‘What, change our dwelling! How can we?’

‘O, by your leave, I’ll take that care,

And, one by one, in safety bear

You all to my retreat:

The path’s unknown

To any feet,

Except my own.

A pool, scoop’d out by Nature’s hands,

Amidst the desert rocks and sands,

Where human traitors never come,

Shall save your people from their doom.’

The fish republic swallow’d all,

And, coming at the fellow’s call,

Were singly borne away to stock

A pond beneath a lonely rock;

And there good prophet cormorant,

Proprietor and bailiff sole,

From narrow water, clear and shoal,

With ease supplied his daily want,

And taught them, at their own expense,

That heads well stored with common sense

Give no devourers confidence. —

Still did the change not hurt their case,

Since, had they staid, the human race,

Successful by pernicious art,

Would have consumed as large a part.

What matters who your flesh devours,

Of human or of bestial powers?

In this respect, or wild or tame,

All stomachs seem to me the same:

The odds is small, in point of sorrow,

Of death to-day, or death to-morrow.

8] Bidpaii.

V. — The Burier and His Comrade.9

A close-fist had his money hoarded

Beyond the room his till afforded.

His avarice aye growing ranker,

(Whereby his mind of course grew blanker,)

He was perplex’d to choose a banker;

For banker he must have, he thought,

Or all his heap would come to nought.

‘I fear,’ said he, ‘if kept at home,

And other robbers should not come,

It might be equal cause of grief

That I had proved myself the thief.’

The thief! Is to enjoy one’s pelf

To rob or steal it from one’s self?

My friend, could but my pity reach you,

This lesson I would gladly teach you,

That wealth is weal no longer than

Diffuse and part with it you can:

Without that power, it is a woe.

Would you for age keep back its flow?

Age buried ‘neath its joyless snow?

With pains of getting, care of got

Consumes the value, every jot,

Of gold that one can never spare.

To take the load of such a care,

Assistants were not very rare.

The earth was that which pleased him best.

Dismissing thought of all the rest,

He with his friend, his trustiest, —

A sort of shovel-secretary, —

Went forth his hoard to bury.

Safe done, a few days afterward,

The man must look beneath the sward —

When, what a mystery! behold

The mine exhausted of its gold!

Suspecting, with the best of cause,

His friend was privy to his loss,

He bade him, in a cautious mood,

To come as soon as well he could,

For still some other coins he had,

Which to the rest he wish’d to add.

Expecting thus to get the whole,

The friend put back the sum he stole,

Then came with all despatch.

The other proved an overmatch:

Resolved at length to save by spending,

His practice thus most wisely mending,

The total treasure home he carried —

No longer hoarded it or buried.

Chapfallen was the thief, when gone

He saw his prospects and his pawn.

From this it may be stated,

That knaves with ease are cheated.

9] Abstemius.

VI. — The Wolf and the Shepherds.10

A Wolf, replete

With humanity sweet,

(A trait not much suspected,)

On his cruel deeds,

The fruit of his needs,

Profoundly thus reflected.

‘I’m hated,’ said he,

‘As joint enemy,

By hunters, dogs, and clowns.

They swear I shall die,

And their hue and cry

The very thunder drowns.

‘My brethren have fled,

With price on the head,

From England’s merry land.

King Edgar came out,

And put them to rout,11

With many a deadly band.

‘And there’s not a squire

But blows up the fire

By hostile proclamation;

Nor a human brat,

Dares cry, but that

Its mother mocks my nation.

‘And all for what?

For a sheep with the rot,

Or scabby, mangy ass,

Or some snarling cur,

With less meat than fur,

On which I’ve broken fast!

‘Well, henceforth I’ll strive

That nothing alive

Shall die to quench my thirst;

No lambkin shall fall,

Nor puppy, at all,

To glut my maw accurst.

With grass I’ll appease,

Or browse on the trees,

Or die of famine first.

‘What of carcass warm?

Is it worth the storm

Of universal hate?’

As he spoke these words,

The lords of the herds,

All seated at their bait,

He saw; and observed

The meat which was served

Was nought but roasted lamb!

‘O! O!’ said the beast,

‘Repent of my feast —

All butcher as I am —

On these vermin mean,

Whose guardians e’en

Eat at a rate quadruple! —

Themselves and their dogs,

As greedy as hogs,

And I, a wolf, to scruple!’

‘Look out for your wool

I’ll not be a fool,

The very pet I’ll eat;

The lamb the best-looking,

Without any cooking,

I’ll strangle from the teat;

And swallow the dam,

As well as the lamb,

And stop her foolish bleat.

Old Hornie, too, — rot him, —

The sire that begot him

Shall be among my meat!’

Well-reasoning beast!

Were we sent to feast

On creatures wild and tame?

And shall we reduce

The beasts to the use

Of vegetable game?

Shall animals not

Have flesh-hook or pot,

As in the age of gold?

And we claim the right,

In the pride of our might,

Themselves to have and hold?

O shepherds, that keep

Your folds full of sheep,

The wolf was only wrong,

Because, so to speak,

His jaws were too weak

To break your palings strong.

10] Founded upon one of Philibert Hegemon’s Fables.

11] King Edgar put them to rout. — The English king Edgar (reigned 959-75) took great pains in hunting and pursuing wolves; “and,” says Hume, “when he found that all that escaped him had taken shelter in the mountains and forests of Wales, he changed the tribute of money imposed on the Welsh princes by Athelstan, his predecessor, into an annual tribute of three hundred heads of wolves; which produced such diligence in hunting them, that the animal has been no more seen in this island." — Hume’s England, vol. i., p. 99, Bell’s edit., 1854.

VII. — The Spider and the Swallow.12

‘O Jupiter, whose fruitful brain,

By odd obstetrics freed from pain,

Bore Pallas,13 erst my mortal foe,14

Pray listen to my tale of woe.

This Progne15 takes my lawful prey.

As through the air she cuts her way,

And skims the waves in seeming play.

My flies she catches from my door, —

‘Yes, mine — I emphasize the word, —

And, but for this accursed bird,

My net would hold an ample store:

For I have woven it of stuff

To hold the strongest strong enough.’

’Twas thus, in terms of insolence,

Complain’d the fretful spider, once

Of palace-tapestry a weaver,

But then a spinster and deceiver,

That hoped within her toils to bring

Of insects all that ply the wing.

The sister swift of Philomel,

Intent on business, prosper’d well;

In spite of the complaining pest,

The insects carried to her nest —

Nest pitiless to suffering flies —

Mouths gaping aye, to gormandize,

Of young ones clamouring,

And stammering,

With unintelligible cries.

The spider, with but head and feet.

And powerless to compete

With wings so fleet,

Soon saw herself a prey.

The swallow, passing swiftly by,

Bore web and all away,

The spinster dangling in the sky!

Two tables hath our Maker set

For all that in this world are met.

To seats around the first

The skilful, vigilant, and strong are beckon’d:

Their hunger and their thirst

The rest must quell with leavings at the second.

12] Abstemius.

13] Pallas. — An allusion to the birth of Pallas, or Minerva — grown and armed — from the brain of Jove.

14] Mortal foe. — Arachne (whence the spider (aranea) has its name) was a woman of Colopho who challenged Pallas to a trial of skill in needlework, and, being defeated, hanged herself. She was changed into a spider: vide Ovid, Metam., Book VI., &c.

15] Progne. — The sister of Philomela, turned into a swallow, as mentioned in note to Fable XV., Book III.

VIII. — The Partridge and the Cocks.16

With a set of uncivil and turbulent cocks,

That deserved for their noise to be put in the stocks,

A partridge was placed to be rear’d.

Her sex, by politeness revered,

Made her hope, from a gentry devoted to love,

For the courtesy due to the tenderest dove;

Nay, protection chivalric from knights of the yard.

That gentry, however, with little regard

For the honours and knighthood wherewith they were deck’d,

And for the strange lady as little respect,

Her ladyship often most horribly peck’d.

At first, she was greatly afflicted therefor,

But when she had noticed these madcaps at war

With each other, and dealing far bloodier blows,

Consoling her own individual woes, —

‘Entail’d by their customs,’ said she, ‘is the shame;

Let us pity the simpletons rather than blame.

Our Maker creates not all spirits the same;

The cocks and the partridges certainly differ,

By a nature than laws of civility stiffer.

Were the choice to be mine, I would finish my life

In society freer from riot and strife.

But the lord of this soil has a different plan;

His tunnel our race to captivity brings,

He throws us with cocks, after clipping our wings.

’Tis little we have to complain of but man.’

16] Aesop.

IX. — The Dog Whose Ears Were Cropped.

‘What have I done, I’d like to know,

To make my master maim me so?

A pretty figure I shall cut!

From other dogs I’ll keep, in kennel shut.

Ye kings of beasts, or rather tyrants, ho!

Would any beast have served you so?’

Thus Growler cried, a mastiff young; —

The man, whom pity never stung,

Went on to prune him of his ears.

Though Growler whined about his losses,

He found, before the lapse of years,

Himself a gainer by the process;

For, being by his nature prone

To fight his brethren for a bone,

He’d oft come back from sad reverse

With those appendages the worse.

All snarling dogs have ragged ears.

The less of hold for teeth of foe,

The better will the battle go.

When, in a certain place, one fears

The chance of being hurt or beat,

He fortifies it from defeat.

Besides the shortness of his ears,

See Growler arm’d against his likes

With gorget full of ugly spikes.

A wolf would find it quite a puzzle

To get a hold about his muzzle.

X. — The Shepherd and the King.17

Two demons at their pleasure share our being —

The cause of Reason from her homestead fleeing;

No heart but on their altars kindleth flames.

If you demand their purposes and names,

The one is Love, the other is Ambition.

Of far the greater share this takes possession,

For even into love it enters,

Which I might prove; but now my story centres

Upon a shepherd clothed with lofty powers:

The tale belongs to older times than ours.

A king observed a flock, wide spread

Upon the plains, most admirably fed,

O’erpaying largely, as return’d the years,

Their shepherd’s care, by harvests for his shears.

Such pleasure in this man the monarch took, —

‘Thou meritest,’ said he, ‘to wield a crook

O’er higher flock than this; and my esteem

O’er men now makes thee judge supreme.’

Behold our shepherd, scales in hand,

Although a hermit and a wolf or two,

Besides his flock and dogs, were all he knew!

Well stock’d with sense, all else upon demand

Would come of course, and did, we understand.

His neighbour hermit came to him to say,

‘Am I awake? Is this no dream, I pray?

You favourite! you great! Beware of kings,

Their favours are but slippery things,

Dear-bought; to mount the heights to which they call

Is but to court a more illustrious fall.

You little know to what this lure beguiles.

My friend, I say, Beware!’ The other smiles.

The hermit adds, ‘See how

The court has marr’d your wisdom even now!

That purblind traveller I seem to see,

Who, having lost his whip, by strange mistake,

Took for a better one a snake;

But, while he thank’d his stars, brimful of glee,

Outcried a passenger, “God shield your breast!

Why, man, for life, throw down that treacherous pest,

That snake!" — “It is my whip." — “A snake, I say:

What selfish end could prompt my warning, pray?

Think you to keep your prize?" — “And wherefore not?

My whip was worn; I’ve found another new:

This counsel grave from envy springs in you." —

The stubborn wight would not believe a jot,

Till warm and lithe the serpent grew,

And, striking with his venom, slew

The man almost upon the spot.

And as to you, I dare predict

That something worse will soon afflict.’

‘Indeed? What worse than death, prophetic hermit?’

‘Perhaps, the compound heartache I may term it.’

And never was there truer prophecy.

Full many a courtier pest, by many a lie

Contrived, and many a cruel slander,

To make the king suspect the judge awry

In both ability and candour.

Cabals were raised, and dark conspiracies,

Of men that felt aggrieved by his decrees.

‘With wealth of ours he hath a palace built,’

Said they. The king, astonish’d at his guilt,

His ill-got riches ask’d to see.

He found but mediocrity,

Bespeaking strictest honesty.

So much for his magnificence.

Anon, his plunder was a hoard immense

Of precious stones that fill’d an iron box

All fast secur’d by half a score of locks.

Himself the coffer oped, and sad surprise

Befell those manufacturers of lies.

The open’d lid disclosed no other matters

Than, first, a shepherd’s suit in tatters,

And then a cap and jacket, pipe and crook,

And scrip, mayhap with pebbles from the brook.

‘O treasure sweet,’ said he, ‘that never drew

The viper brood of envy’s lies on you!

I take you back, and leave this palace splendid,

As some roused sleeper doth a dream that’s ended.

Forgive me, sire, this exclamation.

In mounting up, my fall I had foreseen,

Yet loved the height too well; for who hath been,

Of mortal race, devoid of all ambition?’

17] Bidpaii (The Hermit). Also in Lokman.

XI. — The Fishes and the Shepherd who Played the Flute.18

Thrysis — who for his Annette dear

Made music with his flute and voice,

Which might have roused the dead to hear,

And in their silent graves rejoice —

Sang once the livelong day,

In the flowery month of May,

Up and down a meadow brook,

While Annette fish’d with line and hook.

But ne’er a fish would bite;

So the shepherdess’s bait

Drew not a fish to its fate,

From morning dawn till night.

The shepherd, who, by his charming songs,

Had drawn savage beasts to him in throngs,

And done with them as he pleased to,

Thought that he could serve the fish so.

‘O citizens,’ he sang, ‘of this water,

Leave your Naiad in her grot profound;

Come and see the blue sky’s lovely daughter,

Who a thousand times more will charm you;

Fear not that her prison will harm you,

Though there you should chance to get bound.

’Tis only to us men she is cruel:

You she will treat kindly;

A snug little pond she’ll find ye,

Clearer than a crystal jewel,

Where you may all live and do well;

Or, if by chance some few

Should find their fate

Conceal’d in the bait,

The happier still are you;

For envied is the death that’s met

At the hands of sweet Annette.’

This eloquence not effecting

The object of his wishes,

Since it failed in collecting

The deaf and dumb fishes, —

His sweet preaching wasted,

His honey’d talk untasted,

A net the shepherd seized, and, pouncing

With a fell scoop at the scaly fry,

He caught them; and now, madly flouncing,

At the feet of his Annette they lie!

O ye shepherds, whose sheep men are,

To trust in reason never dare.

The arts of eloquence sublime

Are not within your calling;

Your fish were caught, from oldest time,

By dint of nets and hauling.

18] Aesop.

XII. — The Two Parrots, the King, and His Son.19

Two parrots lived, a sire and son,

On roastings from a royal fire.

Two demigods, a son and sire,

These parrots pension’d for their fun.

Time tied the knot of love sincere:

The sires grew to each other dear;

The sons, in spite of their frivolity,

Grew comrades boon, in joke and jollity;

At mess they mated, hot or cool;

Were fellow-scholars at a school.

Which did the bird no little honour, since

The boy, by king begotten, was a prince.

By nature fond of birds, the prince, too, petted

A sparrow, which delightfully coquetted.

These rivals, both of unripe feather,

One day were frolicking together:

As oft befalls such little folks,

A quarrel follow’d from their jokes.

The sparrow, quite uncircumspect,

Was by the parrot sadly peck’d;

With drooping wing and bloody head,

His master pick’d him up for dead,

And, being quite too wroth to bear it,

In heat of passion kill’d his parrot.

When this sad piece of news he heard,

Distracted was the parent bird.

His piercing cries bespoke his pain;

But cries and tears were all in vain.

The talking bird had left the shore;20

In short, he, talking now no more,

Caused such a rage to seize his sire,

That, lighting on the prince in ire,

He put out both his eyes,

And fled for safety as was wise.

The bird a pine for refuge chose,

And to its lofty summit rose;

There, in the bosom of the skies,

Enjoy’d his vengeance sweet,

And scorn’d the wrath beneath his feet.

Out ran the king, and cried, in soothing tone,

‘Return, dear friend; what serves it to bemoan?

Hate, vengeance, mourning, let us both omit.

For me, it is no more than fit

To own, though with an aching heart,

The wrong is wholly on our part.

Th’ aggressor truly was my son —

My son? no; but by Fate the deed was done.

Ere birth of Time, stern Destiny

Had written down the sad decree,

That by this sad calamity

Your child should cease to live, and mine to see.

‘Let both, then, cease to mourn;

And you, back to your cage return.’

‘Sire king,’ replied the bird,

‘Think you that, after such a deed,

I ought to trust your word?

You speak of Fate; by such a heathen creed

Hope you that I shall be enticed to bleed?

But whether Fate or Providence divine

Gives law to things below,

’Tis writ on high, that on this waving pine,

Or where wild forests grow,

My days I finish, safely, far

From that which ought your love to mar,

And turn it all to hate.

Revenge, I know, ’s a kingly morsel,

And ever hath been part and parcel

Of this your godlike state.

You would forget the cause of grief;

Suppose I grant you my belief, —

’Tis better still to make it true,

By keeping out of sight of you.

Sire king, my friend, no longer wait

For friendship to be heal’d;. . . .

But absence is the cure of hate,

As ’tis from love the shield.’

19] Bidpaii. In Knatchbull’s English edition the fable is titled “The King and the Bird, or the emblem of revengeful persons who are unworthy of trust.” It is also in the Lokman collection.

20] The talking bird, &c. — “Stygia natabat jam frigida cymba." — VIRG. — Translator.

XIII. — The Lioness and the Bear.

The lioness had lost her young;

A hunter stole it from the vale;

The forests and the mountains rung

Responsive to her hideous wail.

Nor night, nor charms of sweet repose,

Could still the loud lament that rose

From that grim forest queen.

No animal, as you might think,

With such a noise could sleep a wink.

A bear presumed to intervene.

‘One word, sweet friend,’ quoth she,

‘And that is all, from me.

The young that through your teeth have pass’d,

In file unbroken by a fast,

Had they nor dam nor sire?’

‘They had them both.’ ‘Then I desire,

Since all their deaths caused no such grievous riot,

While mothers died of grief beneath your fiat,

To know why you yourself cannot be quiet?’

‘I quiet! — I! — a wretch bereaved!

My only son! — such anguish be relieved!

No, never! All for me below

Is but a life of tears and woe!’ —

‘But say, why doom yourself to sorrow so?’ —

‘Alas! ’tis Destiny that is my foe.’

Such language, since the mortal fall,

Has fallen from the lips of all.

Ye human wretches, give your heed;

For your complaints there’s little need.

Let him who thinks his own the hardest case,

Some widowed, childless Hecuba behold,

Herself to toil and shame of slavery sold,

And he will own the wealth of heavenly grace.

XIV. — The Two Adventurers and the Talisman.21

No flowery path to glory leads.

This truth no better voucher needs

Than Hercules, of mighty deeds.

Few demigods, the tomes of fable

Reveal to us as being able

Such weight of task-work to endure:

In history, I find still fewer.

One such, however, here behold —

A knight by talisman made bold,

Within the regions of romance,

To seek adventures with the lance.

There rode a comrade at his ride,

And as they rode they both espied

This writing on a post:—

“Wouldst see, sir valiant knight,

A thing whereof the sight

No errant yet can boast?

Thou hast this torrent but to ford,

And, lifting up, alone,

The elephant of stone

Upon its margin shored,

Upbear it to the mountain’s brow,

Round which, aloft before thee now,

The misty chaplets wreathe —

Not stopping once to breathe.”

One knight, whose nostrils bled,

Betokening courage fled,

Cried out, ‘What if that current’s sweep

Not only rapid be, but deep!

And grant it cross’d, — pray, why encumber

One’s arms with that unwieldy lumber,

An elephant of stone?

Perhaps the artist may have done

His work in such a way, that one

Might lug it twice its length;

But then to reach yon mountain top,

And that without a breathing stop,

Were surely past a mortal’s strength —

Unless, indeed, it be no bigger

Than some wee, pigmy, dwarfish figure,

Which one would head a cane withal; —

And if to this the case should fall,

The adventurer’s honour would be small!

This posting seems to me a trap,

Or riddle for some greenish chap;

I therefore leave the whole to you.’

The doubtful reasoner onward hies.

With heart resolved, in spite of eyes,

The other boldly dashes through;

Nor depth of flood nor force

Can stop his onward course.

He finds the elephant of stone;

He lifts it all alone;

Without a breathing stop,

He bears it to the top

Of that steep mount, and seeth there

A high-wall’d city, great and fair.

Out-cried the elephant — and hush’d;

But forth in arms the people rush’d.

A knight less bold had surely fled;

But he, so far from turning back,

His course right onward sped,

Resolved himself to make attack,

And die but with the bravest dead.

Amazed was he to hear that band

Proclaim him monarch of their land,

And welcome him, in place of one

Whose death had left a vacant throne!

In sooth, he lent a gracious ear,

Meanwhile expressing modest fear,

Lest such a load of royal care

Should be too great for him to bear.

And so, exactly, Sixtus22 said,

When first the pope’s tiara press’d his head;

(Though, is it such a grievous thing

To be a pope, or be a king?)

But days were few before they read it,

That with but little truth he said it.

Blind Fortune follows daring blind.

Oft executes the wisest man,

Ere yet the wisdom of his mind

Is task’d his means or end to scan.

21] Bidpaii; also in Lokman.

22] Sixtus. — Pope Sixtus V., who simulated decrepitude to get elected to the Papal chair, and when elected threw off all disguise and ruled despotically.

XV. — The Rabbits.23

An Address To The Duke De La Rochefoucauld.24

While watching man in all his phases,

And seeing that, in many cases,

He acts just like the brute creation, —

I’ve thought the lord of all these races

Of no less failings show’d the traces

Than do his lieges in relation;

And that, in making it, Dame Nature

Hath put a spice in every creature

From off the self-same spirit-stuff —

Not from the immaterial,

But what we call ethereal,

Refined from matter rough.

An illustration please to hear.

Just on the still frontier

Of either day or night, —

Or when the lord of light

Reclines his radiant head

Upon his watery bed,

Or when he dons the gear,

To drive a new career, —

While yet with doubtful sway

The hour is ruled ‘twixt night and day, —

Some border forest-tree I climb;

And, acting Jove, from height sublime

My fatal bolt at will directing,

I kill some rabbit unsuspecting.

The rest that frolick’d on the heath,

Or browsed the thyme with dainty teeth,

With open eye and watchful ear,

Behold, all scampering from beneath,

Instinct with mortal fear.

All, frighten’d simply by the sound,

Hie to their city underground.

But soon the danger is forgot,

And just as soon the fear lives not:

The rabbits, gayer than before,

I see beneath my hand once more!

Are not mankind well pictured here?

By storms asunder driven,

They scarcely reach their haven,

And cast their anchor, ere

They tempt the same dread shocks

Of tempests, waves, and rocks.

True rabbits, back they frisk

To meet the self-same risk!

I add another common case.

When dogs pass through a place

Beyond their customary bounds,

And meet with others, curs or hounds,

Imagine what a holiday!

The native dogs, whose interests centre

In one great organ, term’d the venter,

The strangers rush at, bite, and bay;

With cynic pertness tease and worry,

And chase them off their territory.

So, too, do men. Wealth, grandeur, glory,

To men of office or profession,

Of every sort, in every nation,

As tempting are, and sweet,

As is to dogs the refuse meat.

With us, it is a general fact,

One sees the latest-come attack’d,

And plunder’d to the skin.

Coquettes and authors we may view,

As samples of the sin;

For woe to belle or writer new!

The fewer eaters round the cake,

The fewer players for the stake,

The surer each one’s self to take.

A hundred facts my truth might test;

But shortest works are always best.

In this I but pursue the chart

Laid down by masters of the art;

And, on the best of themes, I hold,

The truth should never all be told.

Hence, here my sermon ought to close.

O thou, to whom my fable owes

Whate’er it has of solid worth, —

Who, great by modesty as well as birth,

Hast ever counted praise a pain, —

Whose leave I could so ill obtain

That here your name, receiving homage,

Should save from every sort of damage

My slender works — which name, well known

To nations, and to ancient Time,

All France delights to own;

Herself more rich in names sublime

Than any other earthly clime; —

Permit me here the world to teach

That you have given my simple rhyme

The text from which it dares to preach.

23] This fable in the original editions has no other title save — “An Address,” &c. Later editors titled it “Les Lapins.”

24] Rochefoucauld. — See Fable XI., Book I., also dedicated to the duke, and the note thereto.

XVI. — The Merchant, the Noble, the Shepherd, and the King’s Son.25

Four voyagers to parts unknown,

On shore, not far from naked, thrown

By furious waves, — a merchant, now undone,

A noble, shepherd, and a monarch’s son, —

Brought to the lot of Belisarius,26

Their wants supplied on alms precarious.

To tell what fates, and winds, and weather,

Had brought these mortals all together,

Though from far distant points abscinded,

Would make my tale long-winded.

Suffice to say, that, by a fountain met,

In council grave these outcasts held debate.

The prince enlarged, in an oration set,

Upon the mis’ries that befall the great.

The shepherd deem’d it best to cast

Off thought of all misfortune past,

And each to do the best he could,

In efforts for the common weal.

‘Did ever a repining mood,’

He added, ‘a misfortune heal?

Toil, friends, will take us back to Rome,

Or make us here as good a home.’

A shepherd so to speak! a shepherd? What!

As though crown’d heads were not,

By Heaven’s appointment fit,

The sole receptacles of wit!

As though a shepherd could be deeper,

In thought or knowledge, than his sheep are!

The three, howe’er, at once approved his plan,

Wreck’d as they were on shores American.

‘I’ll teach arithmetic,’ the merchant said, —

Its rules, of course, well seated in his head, —

‘For monthly pay.’ The prince replied, ‘And I

Will teach political economy.’

‘And I,’ the noble said, ‘in heraldry

Well versed, will open for that branch a school — ’

As if, beyond a thousand leagues of sea,

That senseless jargon could befool!

‘My friends, you talk like men,’

The shepherd cried, ‘but then

The month has thirty days; till they are spent,

Are we upon your faith to keep full Lent?

The hope you give is truly good;

But, ere it comes, we starve for food!

Pray tell me, if you can divine,

On what, to-morrow, we shall dine;

Or tell me, rather, whence we may

Obtain a supper for to-day.

This point, if truth should be confess’d,

Is first, and vital to the rest.

Your science short in this respect,

My hands shall cover the defect. — ’

This said, the nearest woods he sought,

And thence for market fagots brought,

Whose price that day, and eke the next,

Relieved the company perplex’d —

Forbidding that, by fasting, they should go

To use their talents in the world below.

We learn from this adventure’s course,

There needs but little skill to get a living.

Thanks to the gifts of Nature’s giving,

Our hands are much the readiest resource.

25] Bidpaii, and Lokman.

26] Belisarius. — Belisarius was a great general, who, having commanded the armies of the emperor, and lost the favour of his master, fell to such a point of destitution that he asked alms upon the highways. — La Fontaine. The touching story of the fall of Belisarius, of which painters and poets have made so much, is entirely false, as may be seen by consulting Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” chap. xliii. — Translator.

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