The Fables of La Fontaine, by Jean de La Fontaine

Book XII.

I. — The Companions of Ulysses.

To Monseigneur The Duke De Bourgogne.1

Dear prince, a special favourite of the skies,

Pray let my incense from your altars rise.

With these her gifts, if rather late my muse,

My age and labours must her fault excuse.

My spirit wanes, while yours beams on the sight

At every moment with augmented light:

It does not go — it runs, — it seems to fly;

And he from whom it draws its traits so high,

In war a hero,2 burns to do the same.

No lack of his that, with victorious force,

His giant strides mark not his glory’s course:

Some god retains: our sovereign I might name;

Himself no less than conqueror divine,

Whom one short month made master of the Rhine.

It needed then upon the foe to dash;

Perhaps, to-day, such generalship were rash.

But hush, — they say the Loves and Smiles

Abhor a speech spun out in miles;

And of such deities your court

Is constantly composed, in short.

Not but that other gods, as meet,

There hold the highest seat:

For, free and lawless as the rest may seem,

Good Sense and Reason bear a sway supreme.

Consult these last about the case

Of certain men of Grecian race,

Who, most unwise and indiscreet,

Imbibed such draughts of poison sweet,

As changed their form, and brutified.

Ten years the heroes at Ulysses’ side

Had been the sport of wind and tide.

At last those powers of water

The sea-worn wanderers bore

To that enchanted shore

Where Circe reign’d, Apollo’s daughter.

She press’d upon their thirsty lips

Delicious drink, but full of bane:

Their reason, at the first light sips,

Laid down the sceptre of its reign.

Then took their forms and features

The lineaments of various creatures.

To bears and lions some did pass,

Or elephants of ponderous mass;

While not a few, I ween,

In smaller forms were seen, —

In such, for instance, as the mole.

Of all, the sage Ulysses sole

Had wit to shun that treacherous bowl.

With wisdom and heroic mien,

And fine address, he caused the queen

To swallow, on her wizard throne,

A poison somewhat like her own.

A goddess, she to speak her wishes dared,

And hence, at once, her love declared.

Ulysses, truly too judicious

To lose a moment so propitious,

Besought that Circe would restore

His Greeks the shapes that first they wore.

Replied the nymph, ‘But will they take them back?

Go make the proffer to the motley pack.’

Ulysses ran, both glad and sure:

‘That poisonous cup,’ cried he ‘hath yet its cure;

And here I bring what ends your shame and pain.

Will you, dear friends, be men again?

Pray speak, for speech is now restored.’

‘No,’ said the lion, — and he roar’d, —

‘My head is not so void of brains!

Renounce shall I my royal gains?

I’ve claws and teeth to tear my foes to bits,

And, more than that, I’m king.

Am I such gifts away to fling,

To be but one of Ithaca’s mere cits?

In rank and file perhaps I might bear arms.

In such a change I see no charms.’ —

Ulysses passes to the bear:—

‘How changed, my friend, from what you were!

How sightly once! how ugly now!’

‘Humph! truly how?’

Growl’d Bruin in his way —

‘How else than as a bear should be, I pray?

Who taught your stilted highness to prefer

One form to every other, sir?

Doth yours possess peculiar powers

The merits to decide, of ours?

With all respect, I shall appeal my case

To some sweet beauty of the bearish race.

Please pass it by, if you dislike my face.

I live content, and free from care;

And, well remembering what we were,

I say it, plain and flat,

I’ll change to no such state as that.’

Next to the wolf the princely Greek

With flattering hope began to speak:—

‘Comrade, I blush, I must confess,

To hear a gentle shepherdess

Complaining to the echoing rocks

Of that outrageous appetite

Which drives you, night by night,

To prey upon her flocks.

You had been proud to guard her fold

In your more honest life of old.

Pray quit this wolfship, now you can,

And leave the woods an honest man.’

‘But is there one?’ the wolf replied:

‘Such man, I own, I never spied.

You treat me as a ravenous beast,

But what are you? To say the least,

You would yourself have eat the sheep,

Which, eat by me, the village weep.

Now, truly, on your faith confess,

Should I, as man, love flesh the less?

Why, man, not seldom, kills his very brother;

What, then, are you but wolves to one another?

Now, everything with care to scan,

And rogue with rogue to rate,

I’d better be a wolf than man,

And need not change my state.’

Thus all did wise Ulysses try,

And got from all the same reply,

As well from great as small.

Wild liberty was dear to all;

To follow lawless appetite

They counted their supreme delight.

All banish’d from their thought and care

The glorious praise of actions fair.

Where passion led, they thought their course was free;

Self-bound, their chains they could not see.

Prince, I had wish’d for you a theme to choose,

Where I might mingle pleasantry with use;

And I should meet with your approving voice,

No doubt, if I could make such choice.

At last, Ulysses’ crew

Were offer’d to my view.

And there are like them not a few,

Who may for penalty await

Your censure and your hate.3

1] Duke de Bourgogne. — Louis Duke de Bourgogne (Burgundy), grandson of Louis XIV. He was the son of Louis de Bourbon, the Dauphin, to whom La Fontaine had dedicated the first collection of his Fables. (See note, Dedication of Book I.) He was born in 1682, and at the time of this dedication was about twelve years of age, and the pupil of Fénélon. See Translator’s Preface.

2] In war a hero. — Louis, the Dauphin, father of the prince addressed. The Dauphin was then in command of the army in Germany.

3] This fable was first printed in the Mercure Galant, December, 1690, where it had a few additional lines, which the author cut out on republication in his XIIth Book.

II. — The Cat and the Two Sparrows.4

To Monseigneur The Duke De Bourgogne.

Contemporary with a sparrow tame

There lived a cat; from tenderest age,

Of both, the basket and the cage

Had household gods the same.

The bird’s sharp beak full oft provoked the cat,

Who play’d in turn, but with a gentle pat,

His wee friend sparing with a merry laugh,

Not punishing his faults by half.

In short, he scrupled much the harm,

Should he with points his ferule arm.

The sparrow, less discreet than he,

With dagger beak made very free.

Sir Cat, a person wise and staid,

Excused the warmth with which he play’d:

For ’tis full half of friendship’s art

To take no joke in serious part.

Familiar since they saw the light,

Mere habit kept their friendship good;

Fair play had never turn’d to fight,

Till, of their neighbourhood,

Another sparrow came to greet

Old Ratto grave and saucy Pete.

Between the birds a quarrel rose,

And Ratto took his side.

‘A pretty stranger, with such blows

To beat our friend!’ he cried.

‘A neighbour’s sparrow eating ours!

Not so, by all the feline powers.’

And quick the stranger he devours.

‘Now, truly,’ saith Sir Cat,

I know how sparrows taste by that.

Exquisite, tender, delicate!’

This thought soon seal’d the other’s fate. —

But hence what moral can I bring?

For, lacking that important thing,

A fable lacks its finishing:

I seem to see of one some trace,

But still its shadow mocks my chase.

Yours, prince, it will not thus abuse:

For you such sports, and not my muse.

In wit, she and her sisters eight

Would fail to match you with a mate.

4] The story of this fable seems to come from a fable by Furetière, titled “The Dog and the Cat.” Antony Furetière was more famous as a lexicographer, and through his angry contention with the French Academy on the subject of his Dictionary, than as a poet. He lived between 1620 and 1688.

III. — The Miser and the Monkey.5

A man amass’d. The thing, we know,

Doth often to a frenzy grow.

No thought had he but of his minted gold —

Stuff void of worth when unemploy’d, I hold.

Now, that this treasure might the safer be,

Our miser’s dwelling had the sea

As guard on every side from every thief.

With pleasure, very small in my belief,

But very great in his, he there

Upon his hoard bestow’d his care.

No respite came of everlasting

Recounting, calculating, casting;

For some mistake would always come

To mar and spoil the total sum.

A monkey there, of goodly size, —

And than his lord, I think, more wise, —

Some doubloons from the window threw,

And render’d thus the count untrue.

The padlock’d room permitted

Its owner, when he quitted,

To leave his money on the table.

One day, bethought this monkey wise

To make the whole a sacrifice

To Neptune on his throne unstable.

I could not well award the prize

Between the monkey’s and the miser’s pleasure

Derived from that devoted treasure.

With some, Don Bertrand, would the honour gain,

For reasons it were tedious to explain.

One day, then, left alone,

That animal, to mischief prone,

Coin after coin detach’d,

A gold jacobus snatch’d,

Or Portuguese doubloon,

Or silver ducatoon,

Or noble, of the English rose,

And flung with all his might

Those discs, which oft excite

The strongest wishes mortal ever knows.

Had he not heard, at last,

The turning of his master’s key,

The money all had pass’d

The same short road to sea;

And not a single coin but had been pitch’d

Into the gulf by many a wreck enrich’d.

Now, God preserve full many a financier

Whose use of wealth may find its likeness here!

5] The story is traced to the episode in Tristan L’Hermite’s romance titled “Le Page disgracie,” treating of “The Monkey and Master Robert.” L’Hermite lived 1601-1655.

IV. — The Two Goats.6

Since goats have browsed, by freedom fired,

To follow fortune they’ve aspired.

To pasturage they’re wont to roam

Where men are least disposed to come.

If any pathless place there be,

Or cliff, or pendent precipice,

’Tis there they cut their capers free:

There’s nought can stop these dames, I wis.

Two goats, thus self-emancipated, —

The white that on their feet they wore

Look’d back to noble blood of yore, —

Once quit the lowly meadows, sated,

And sought the hills, as it would seem:

In search of luck, by luck they met

Each other at a mountain stream.

As bridge a narrow plank was set,

On which, if truth must be confest,

Two weasels scarce could go abreast.

And then the torrent, foaming white,

As down it tumbled from the height,

Might well those Amazons affright.

But maugre such a fearful rapid,

Both took the bridge, the goats intrepid!

I seem to see our Louis Grand7

And Philip IV. advance

To the Isle of Conference,8

That lies ‘twixt Spain and France,

Each sturdy for his glorious land.

Thus each of our adventurers goes,

Till foot to foot, and nose to nose,

Somewhere about the midst they meet,

And neither will an inch retreat.

For why? they both enjoy’d the glory

Of ancestors in ancient story.

The one, a goat of peerless rank,

Which, browsing on Sicilian bank,

The Cyclop gave to Galataea;9

The other famous Amalthaea,10

The goat that suckled Jupiter,

As some historians aver.

For want of giving back, in troth,

A common fall involved them both. —

A common accident, no doubt,

On Fortune’s changeful route.11

6] This and several others of the fables in the XIIth Book are taken from the “Thèmes” of the Duke de Bourgogne, afterwards published in Robert’s “Fables Inédites.” These “Thèmes,” were the joint composition of Fénélon, his pupil the infant Duke de Bourgogne, and La Fontaine, and were first used in the education of the Duke. Fénélon suggested the story, the pupil put it into prose, and La Fontaine versified it. La Fontaine is eulogistic of the young Duke’s “wit” in putting these “Thèmes” into prose in Fable IX., Book XII.

7] Louis Grand. — Louis XIV. See note to Epilogue of Book XI.

8] The Isle of Conference. — The Pheasants’ Isle in the river Bidassoa, which separates France and Spain. It is called the Isle of Conference on account of several of the Conferences, leading to Treaties, &c., between the two countries, having been held there.

9] The Cyclop gave to Galataea. — Polyphemus and Galataea: vide Theocritus, Idyl XI.

10] Amalthaea. — Another story is that Amalthaea was not a goat, but a nymph of Crete, who fed the infant Jupiter with goat’s milk.

11] In the original the last lines differ from those in the version of La Fontaine’s “Oeuvres Posthumes,” published in 1696, the year after the poet’s death. Indeed, variations of text are common to most of the fables of the XIIth Book, on making the same comparison, viz., of the first edition, 1694, and the edition in the “Oeuvres Posthumes.”

V. — The Old Cat and the Young Mouse.

To Monseigneur, The Duke De Bourgogne; Who Had Requested Of M. De La Fontaine A Fable Which Should Be Called “The Cat And The Mouse.”

To please a youthful prince, whom Fame

A temple in my writings vows,

What fable answers to the name,

“The Cat and Mouse?”

Shall I in verse the fair present,

With softest look but hard intent,

Who serves the hearts her charms entice

As does the cat its captive mice?

Or make my subject Fortune’s sport?

She treats the friends that make her court,

And follow closest her advice,

As treats the cat the silly mice.

Shall I for theme a king select

Who sole, of all her favourites,

Commands the goddess’s respect?

For whom she from her wheel alights.

Who, never stay’d by foes a trice,

Whene’er they block his way,

Can with the strongest play

As doth the cat with mice!

Insensibly, while casting thus about,

Quite anxious for my subject’s sake,

A theme I meet, and, if I don’t mistake,

Shall spoil it, too, by spinning out.

The prince will treat my muse, for that,

As mice are treated by the cat.

A young and inexperienced mouse

Had faith to try a veteran cat,12 —

Raminagrobis, death to rat,

And scourge of vermin through the house, —

Appealing to his clemency

With reasons sound and fair.

‘Pray let me live; a mouse like me

It were not much to spare.

Am I, in such a family,

A burden? Would my largest wish

Our wealthy host impoverish?

A grain of wheat will make my meal;

A nut will fat me like a seal.

I’m lean at present; please to wait,

And for your heirs reserve my fate.’

The captive mouse thus spake.

Replied the captor, ‘You mistake;

To me shall such a thing be said?

Address the deaf! address the dead!

A cat to pardon! — old one too!

Why, such a thing I never knew.

Thou victim of my paw,

By well-establish’d law,

Die as a mousling should,

And beg the sisterhood

Who ply the thread and shears,

To lend thy speech their ears.

Some other like repast

My heirs may find, or fast.’

He ceased. The moral’s plain.

Youth always hopes its ends to gain,

Believes all spirits like its own:

Old age is not to mercy prone.

12] The story is from Abstemius.

VI. — The Sick Stag.13

A stag, where stags abounded,

Fell sick, and was surrounded

Forthwith by comrades kind,

All pressing to assist,

Or see, their friend, at least,

And ease his anxious mind —

An irksome multitude.

‘Ah, sirs!’ the sick was fain to cry,

‘Pray leave me here to die,

As others do, in solitude.

Pray, let your kind attentions cease,

Till death my spirit shall release.’

But comforters are not so sent:

On duty sad full long intent,

When Heaven pleased, they went:

But not without a friendly glass;

That is to say, they cropp’d the grass

And leaves which in that quarter grew,

From which the sick his pittance drew.

By kindness thus compell’d to fast,

He died for want of food at last.

The men take off no trifling dole

Who heal the body, or the soul.

Alas the times! do what we will,

They have their payment, cure or kill.

13] “The Gazelle” in Lokman’s Fables.

VII. — The Bat, the Bush, and the Duck.14

A bush, duck, and bat, having found that in trade,

Confined to their country, small profits were made,

Into partnership enter’d to traffic abroad,

Their purse, held in common, well guarded from fraud.

Their factors and agents, these trading allies

Employ’d where they needed, as cautious as wise:

Their journals and ledgers, exact and discreet,

Recorded by items expense and receipt.

All throve, till an argosy, on its way home,

With a cargo worth more than their capital sum,

In attempting to pass through a dangerous strait,

Went down with its passengers, sailors, and freight,

To enrich those enormous and miserly stores,

From Tartarus distant but very few doors.

Regret was a thing which the firm could but feel;

Regret was the thing they were slow to reveal;

For the least of a merchant well knows that the weal

Of his credit requires him his loss to conceal.

But that which our trio unluckily suffer’d

Allow’d no repair, and of course was discover’d.

No money nor credit, ’twas plain to be seen

Their heads were now threaten’d with bonnets of green;15

And, the facts of the case being everywhere known,

No mortal would open his purse with a loan.

Debts, bailiffs, and lawsuits, and creditors gruff,

At the crack of day knocking,

(Importunity shocking!)

Our trio kept busy enough.

The bush, ever ready and on the alert,

Now caught all the people it could by the skirt:—

‘Pray, sir, be so good as to tell, if you please,

If you know whereabout the old villanous seas

Have hid all our goods which they stole t’ other night.

The diver, to seek them, went down out of sight.

The bat didn’t venture abroad in the day,

And thus of the bailiffs kept out of the way.

Full many insolvents, not bats, to hide so,

Nor bushes, nor divers, I happen to know,

But even grand seigniors, quite free from all cares,

By virtue of brass, and of private backstairs.

14] Aesop.

15] With bonnets of green. — Such as insolvent debtors were anciently required to wear, in France, after making cession of their effects, in order to escape imprisonment. — Translator. The custom also prevailed in Italy.

VIII. — The Quarrel of the Dogs and Cats, and that of the Cats and Mice.

Enthroned by an eternal law,

Hath Discord reign’d throughout the universe.

In proof, I might from this our planet draw

A thousand instances diverse.

Within the circle of our view,

This queen hath subjects not a few.

Beginning with the elements,

It is astonishing to see

How they have stood, to all intents,

As wrestlers from eternity.

Besides these four great potentates,

Old stubborn earth, fire, flood, and air,

How many other smaller states

Are waging everlasting war!

In mansion deck’d with frieze and column,

Dwelt dogs and cats in multitudes;

Decrees, promulged in manner solemn,

Had pacified their ancient feuds.

Their lord had so arranged their meals and labours,

And threaten’d quarrels with the whip,

That, living in sweet cousinship,

They edified their wondering neighbours.

At last, some dainty plate to lick,

Or profitable bone to pick,

Bestow’d by some partiality,

Broke up the smooth equality.

The side neglected were indignant

At such a slight malignant.

Some writers make the whole dispute begin

With favours to a bitch while lying in.

Whate’er the cause, the altercation

Soon grew a perfect conflagration.

In hall and kitchen, dog and cat

Took sides with zeal for this or that.

New rules upon the cat side falling

Produced tremendous caterwauling.

Their advocate, against such rules as these,

Advised recurrence to the old decrees.

They search’d in vain, for, hidden in a nook,

The thievish mice had eaten up the book.

Another quarrel, in a trice,

Made many sufferers with the mice;

For many a veteran whisker’d-face,

With craft and cunning richly stored,

And grudges old against the race,

Now watch’d to put them to the sword;

Nor mourn’d for this that mansion’s lord.

Resuming our discourse, we see

No creature from opponents free.

’Tis nature’s law for earth and sky;

’Twere vain to ask the reason why;

God’s works are good, — I cannot doubt it, —

And that is all I know about it.

I know, however, that the cause

Which hath our human quarrels brought,

Three quarters of the time, is nought

That will be, is, or ever was.

Ye veterans, in state and church,

At threescore years, indeed,

It seems there still is need

To give you lessons with the birch!

IX. — The Wolf and the Fox.

Whence comes it that there liveth not

A man contented with his lot?

Here’s one who would a soldier be,

Whom soldiers all with envy see.

A fox to be a wolf once sigh’d.

With disappointments mortified,

Who knows but that, his wolfship cheap,

The wolf himself would be a sheep?

I marvel that a prince16 is able,

At eight, to put the thing in fable;

While I, beneath my seventy snows,

Forge out, with toil and time,

The same in labour’d rhyme,

Less striking than his prose.

The traits which in his work we meet,

A poet, it must be confess’d,

Could not have half so well express’d:

He bears the palm as more complete.

’Tis mine to sing it to the pipe;

But I expect that when the sands

Of Time have made my hero ripe,

He’ll put a trumpet in my hands.

My mind but little doth aspire

To prophecy; but yet it reads

On high, that soon his glorious deeds

Full many Homers will require —

Of which this age produces few.

But, bidding mysteries adieu,

I try my powers upon this fable new.

‘Dear wolf,’ complain’d a hungry fox,

‘A lean chick’s meat, or veteran cock’s,

Is all I get by toil or trick:

Of such a living I am sick.

With far less risk, you’ve better cheer;

A house you need not venture near,

But I must do it, spite of fear.

Pray, make me master of your trade.

And let me by that means be made

The first of all my race that took

Fat mutton to his larder’s hook:

Your kindness shall not be repented.’

The wolf quite readily consented.

‘I have a brother, lately dead:

Go fit his skin to yours,’ he said.

’Twas done; and then the wolf proceeded:

‘Now mark you well what must be done,

The dogs that guard the flock to shun.’

The fox the lessons strictly heeded.

At first he boggled in his dress;

But awkwardness grew less and less,

Till perseverance gave success.

His education scarce complete,

A flock, his scholarship to greet,

Came rambling out that way.

The new-made wolf his work began,

Amidst the heedless nibblers ran,

And spread a sore dismay.

Such terror did Patroclus17 spread,

When on the Trojan camp and town,

Clad in Achilles’ armour dread,

He valiantly came down.

The matrons, maids, and aged men

All hurried to the temples then. —

The bleating host now surely thought

That fifty wolves were on the spot:

Dog, shepherd, sheep, all homeward fled,

And left a single sheep in pawn,

Which Renard seized when they were gone.

But, ere upon his prize he fed,

There crow’d a cock near by, and down

The scholar threw his prey and gown,

That he might run that way the faster —

Forgetting lessons, prize and master.

How useless is the art of seeming!

Reality, in every station,

Is through its cloak at all times gleaming,

And bursting out on fit occasion.

Young prince, to your unrivall’d wit

My muse gives credit, as is fit,

For what she here hath labour’d with —

The subject, characters, and pith.

16] A prince. — The infant Duke de Bourgogne. See Note to Table IV., Book XII. The context shows that La Fontaine was over seventy when this fable was written.

17] Patroclus. — In the Trojan war, when Achilles, on his difference with Agamemnon, remained inactive in his tent, Patroclus, his friend, put on Achilles’ “armour dread,” and so caused dire alarm to the Trojans, who thought that Achilles had at last taken the field.

X. — The Lobster and Her Daughter.18

The wise, sometimes, as lobsters do,

To gain their ends back foremost go.

It is the rower’s art; and those

Commanders who mislead their foes,

Do often seem to aim their sight

Just where they don’t intend to smite.

My theme, so low, may yet apply

To one whose fame is very high,

Who finds it not the hardest matter

A hundred-headed league to scatter.

What he will do, what leave undone,

Are secrets with unbroken seals,

Till victory the truth reveals.

Whatever he would have unknown

Is sought in vain. Decrees of Fate

Forbid to check, at first, the course

Which sweeps at last with torrent force.

One Jove, as ancient fables state,

Exceeds a hundred gods in weight.

So Fate and Louis19 would seem able

The universe to draw,

Bound captive to their law. —

But come we to our fable.

A mother lobster did her daughter chide:

‘For shame, my daughter! can’t you go ahead?’

‘And how go you yourself?’ the child replied;

‘Can I be but by your example led?

Head foremost should I, singularly, wend,

While all my race pursue the other end.’

She spoke with sense: for better or for worse,

Example has a universal force.

To some it opens wisdom’s door,

But leads to folly many more.

Yet, as for backing to one’s aim,

When properly pursued

The art is doubtless good,

At least in grim Bellona’s game.

18] Aesop; also in Avianus.

19] Louis. — Louis XIV.

XI. — The Eagle and the Magpie.20

The eagle, through the air a queen,

And one far different, I ween,

In temper, language, thought, and mien, —

The magpie, — once a prairie cross’d.

The by-path where they met was drear,

And Madge gave up herself for lost;

But having dined on ample cheer,

The eagle bade her, ‘Never fear;

You’re welcome to my company;

For if the king of gods can be

Full oft in need of recreation, —

Who rules the world, — right well may I,

Who serve him in that high relation:

Amuse me, then, before you fly.’

Our cackler, pleased, at quickest rate

Of this and that began to prate.

Not he of whom old Flaccus writes,

The most impertinent of wights,

Or any babbler, for that matter,

Could more incontinently chatter.

At last she offer’d to make known —

A better spy had never flown —

All things, whatever she might see,

In travelling from tree to tree.

But, with her offer little pleased —

Nay, gathering wrath at being teased, —

For such a purpose, never rove, —

Replied th’ impatient bird of Jove.

‘Adieu, my cackling friend, adieu;

My court is not the place for you:

Heaven keep it free from such a bore!’

Madge flapp’d her wings, and said no more.

’Tis far less easy than it seems

An entrance to the great to gain.

The honour oft hath cost extremes

Of mortal pain.

The craft of spies, the tattling art,

And looks more gracious than the heart,

Are odious there;

But still, if one would meet success,

Of different parishes the dress

He, like the pie, must wear.

20] Abstemius.

XII. — The King, the Kite, and the Falconer.21

To His August Highness, Monseigneur The Prince De Conti.22

The gods, for that themselves are good,

The like in mortal monarchs would.

The prime of royal rights is grace;

To this e’en sweet revenge gives place.

So thinks your highness, — while your wrath

Its cradle for its coffin hath.

Achilles no such conquest knew —

In this a hero less than you.

That name indeed belongs to none,

Save those who have, beneath the sun,

Their hundred generous actions done.

The golden age produced such powers,

But truly few this age of ours.

The men who now the topmost sit,

Are thank’d for crimes which they omit.

For you, unharm’d by such examples,

A thousand noble deeds are winning temples,

Wherein Apollo, by the altar-fire,

Shall strike your name upon his golden lyre.

The gods await you in their azure dome;

One age must serve for this your lower home.

One age entire with you would Hymen dwell:23

O that his sweetest spell

For you a destiny may bind

By such a period scarce confined!

The princess and yourself no less deserve.

Her charms as witnesses shall serve;

As witnesses, those talents high

Pour’d on you by the lavish sky,

Outshining all pretence of peers

Throughout your youthful years.

A Bourbon seasons grace with wit:

To that which gains esteem, in mixture fit,

He adds a portion from, above,

Wherewith to waken love.

To paint your joy — my task is less sublime:

I therefore turn aside to rhyme

What did a certain bird of prey.

A kite, possessor of a nest antique,

Was caught alive one day.

It was the captor’s freak

That this so rare a bird

Should on his sovereign be conferr’d.

The kite, presented by the man of chase,

With due respect, before the monarch’s face,

If our account is true,

Immediately flew

And perch’d upon the royal nose.

What! on the nose of majesty?

Ay, on the consecrated nose did he!

Had not the king his sceptre and his crown?

Why, if he had, or had not, ’twere all one:

The royal nose, as if it graced a clown,

Was seized. The things by courtiers done,

And said, and shriek’d, ’twere hopeless to relate.

The king in silence sate:

An outcry, from a sovereign king,

Were quite an unbecoming thing.

The bird retain’d the post where he had fasten’d;

No cries nor efforts his departure hasten’d.

His master call’d, as in an agony of pain,

Presented lure and fist, but all in vain.

It seem’d as if the cursed bird,

With instinct most absurd,

In spite of all the noise and blows,

Would roost upon that sacred nose!

The urging off of courtiers, pages, master,

But roused his will to cling the faster.

At last he quit, as thus the monarch spoke:

‘Give egress hence, imprimis, to this kite,

And, next, to him who aim’d at our delight.

From each his office we revoke.

The one as kite we now discharge;

The other, as a forester at large.

As in our station it is fit,

We do all punishment remit.’

The court admired. The courtiers praised the deed,

In which themselves did but so ill succeed. —

Few kings had taken such a course.

The fowler might have fared far worse;

His only crime, as of his kite,

Consisted in his want of light,

About the danger there might be

In coming near to royalty.

Forsooth, their scope had wholly been

Within the woods. Was that a sin? —

By Pilpay this remarkable affair

Is placed beside the Ganges’ flood.

No human creature ventures, there,

To shed of animals the blood:

The deed not even royalty would dare.

‘Know we,’ they say, — both lord and liege, —

‘This bird saw not the Trojan siege?

Perhaps a hero’s part he bore,

And there the highest helmet wore.

What once he was, he yet may be.

Taught by Pythagoras are we,

That we our forms with animals exchange;

We’re kites or pigeons for a while,

Then biped plodders on the soil;

And then

As volatile, again

The liquid air we range. — ’

Now since two versions of this tale exist,

I’ll give the other if you list.

A certain falconer had caught

A kite, and for his sovereign thought

The bird a present rich and rare.

It may be once a century

Such game is taken from the air;

For ’tis the pink of falconry.

The captor pierced the courtier crowd,

With zeal and sweat, as if for life;

Of such a princely present proud,

His hopes of fortune sprang full rife;

When, slap, the savage made him feel

His talons, newly arm’d with steel,

By perching on his nasal member,

As if it had been senseless timber.

Outshriek’d the wight; but peals of laughter,

Which threaten’d ceiling, roof, and rafter,

From courtier, page, and monarch broke:

Who had not laugh’d at such a joke?

From me, so prone am I to such a sin,

An empire had not held me in.

I dare not say, that, had the pope been there,

He would have join’d the laugh sonorous;

But sad the king, I hold, who should not dare

To lead, for such a cause, in such a chorus.

The gods are laughers. Spite of ebon brows,

Jove joints the laugh which he allows.

As history saith, the thunderer’s laugh went up

When limping Vulcan served the nectar cup.

Whether or not immortals here are wise,

Good sense, I think, in my digression lies.

For, since the moral’s what we have in view,

What could the falconer’s fate have taught us new?

Who does not notice, in the course of things,

More foolish falconers than indulgent kings?

21] Bidpaii.

22] Prince de Conti. — This was Francis-Louis, Prince de la Roche-sur-Yon and de Conti, another of La Fontaine’s great friends at court. He was born in Paris, 1664, and died in 1709.

23] Would Hymen dwell. — An allusion to the marriage of the Prince with Marie-Thérèsa de Bourbon (Mdlle. de Blois, the daughter of the King and La Vallière), which took place in 1688.

XIII. — The Fox, the Flies, and the Hedgehog.24

A fox, old, subtle, vigilant, and sly, —

By hunters wounded, fallen in the mud, —

Attracted, by the traces of his blood,

That buzzing parasite, the fly.

He blamed the gods, and wonder’d why

The Fates so cruelly should wish

To feast the fly on such a costly dish.

‘What! light on me! make me its food!

Me, me, the nimblest of the wood!

How long has fox-meat been so good?

What serves my tail? Is it a useless weight?

Go, — Heaven confound thee, greedy reprobate! —

And suck thy fill from some more vulgar veins!’

A hedgehog, witnessing his pains,

(This fretful personage

Here graces first my page,)

Desired to set him free

From such cupidity.

‘My neighbour fox,’ said he,

My quills these rascals shall empale,

And ease thy torments without fail.’

‘Not for the world, my friend!’ the fox replied.

‘Pray let them finish their repast.

These flies are full. Should they be set aside,

New hungrier swarms would finish me at last.’

Consumers are too common here below,

In court and camp, in church and state, we know.

Old Aristotle’s penetration

Remark’d our fable’s application;

It might more clearly in our nation.

The fuller certain men are fed,

The less the public will be bled.

24] Aesop; also Philibert Hegemon, and others.

XIV. — Love and Folly.25

Love bears a world of mystery —

His arrows, quiver, torch, and infancy:

’Tis not a trifling work to sound

A sea of science so profound:

And, hence, t’ explain it all to-day

Is not my aim; but, in my simple way,

To show how that blind archer lad

(And he a god!) came by the loss of sight,

And eke what consequence the evil had,

Or good, perhaps, if named aright —

A point I leave the lover to decide,

As fittest judge, who hath the matter tried.

Together on a certain day,

Said Love and Folly were at play:

The former yet enjoy’d his eyes.

Dispute arose. Love thought it wise

Before the council of the gods to go,

Where both of them by birth held stations;

But Folly, in her lack of patience,

Dealt on his forehead such a blow

As seal’d his orbs to all the light of heaven.

Now Venus claim’d that vengeance should be given.

And by what force of tears yourselves may guess

The woman and the mother sought redress.

The gods were deafen’d with her cries —

Jove, Nemesis, the stern assize

Of Orcus, — all the gods, in short,

From whom she might the boon extort.

The enormous wrong she well portray’d —

Her son a wretched groper made,

An ugly staff his steps to aid!

For such a crime, it would appear,

No punishment could be severe:

The damage, too, must be repair’d.

The case maturely weigh’d and cast,

The public weal with private squared:

Poor Folly was condemn’d at last,

By judgment of the court above,

To serve for aye as guide to Love.26

25] It is thought that La Fontaine owed somewhat of his idea of this fable to one of the poems of Louise Labbé, “the beautiful ropemaker,” as she was called, who lived between 1526 and 1566.

26] This fable was first published in the collection of the “Works in Prose, and Verse of the Sieurs Maucroix and La Fontaine,” issued by the joint authors in 1685. See, for M. de Maucroix, note to Fable I., Book III.

XV. — The Raven, the Gazelle, the Tortoise, and the Rat.27

To Madame De La Sablière.28

A temple I reserved you in my rhyme:

It might not be completed but with time.

Already its endurance I had grounded

Upon this charming art, divinely founded;

And on the name of that divinity

For whom its adoration was to be.

These words I should have written o’er its gate —


Not her who served the queen divine;

For Juno’s self, and he who crown’d her bliss,

Had thought it for their dignity, I wis,

To bear the messages of mine.

Within the dome the apotheosis

Should greet th’ enraptured sight —

All heaven, in pomp and order meet,

Conducting Iris to her seat

Beneath a canopy of light!

The walls would amply serve to paint her life, —

A matter sweet, indeed, but little rife

In those events, which, order’d by the Fates,

Cause birth, or change, or overthrow of states.

The innermost should hold her image, —

Her features, smiles, attractions there, —

Her art of pleasing without care, —

Her loveliness, that’s sure of homage.

Some mortals, kneeling at her feet,29 —

Earth’s noblest heroes, — should be seen;

Ay, demigods, and even gods, I ween:

(The worshipp’d of the world thinks meet,

Sometimes her altar to perfume.)

Her eyes, so far as that might be,

Her soul’s rich jewel should illume;

Alas! but how imperfectly!

For could a heart that throbb’d to bless

Its friends with boundless tenderness, —

Or could that heaven-descended mind

Which, in its matchless beauty, join’d

The strength of man with woman’s grace, —

Be given to sculptor to express?

O Iris, who canst charm the soul —

Nay, bind it with supreme control, —

Whom as myself I can but love, —

(Nay, not that word: as I’m a man,

Your court has placed it under ban,

And we’ll dismiss it,) pray approve

My filling up this hasty plan!

This sketch has here received a place,

A simple anecdote to grace,

Where friendship shows so sweet a face,

That in its features you may find

Somewhat accordant to your mind.

Not that the tale may kings beseem;

But he who winneth your esteem

Is not a monarch placed above

The need and influence of love,

But simple mortal, void of crown,

That would for friends his life lay down —

Than which I know no friendlier act.

Four animals, in league compact,

Are now to give our noble race

A useful lesson in the case.

Rat, raven, tortoise, and gazelle,

Once into firmest friendship fell.

’Twas in a home unknown to man

That they their happiness began.

But safe from man there’s no retreat:

Pierce you the loneliest wood,

Or dive beneath the deepest flood,

Or mount you where the eagles brood, —

His secret ambuscade you meet.

The light gazelle, in harmless play,

Amused herself abroad one day,

When, by mischance, her track was found

And follow’d by the baying hound —

That barbarous tool of barbarous man —

From which far, far away she ran.

At meal-time to the others

The rat observed, — ‘My brothers,

How happens it that we

Are met to-day but three?

Is Miss Gazelle so little steady?

Hath she forgotten us already?’

Out cried the tortoise at the word, —

‘Were I, as Raven is, a bird,

I’d fly this instant from my seat,

And learn what accident, and where,

Hath kept away our sister fair, —

Our sister of the flying feet;

For of her heart, dear rat,

It were a shame to doubt of that.’

The raven flew;

He spied afar, — the face he knew, —

The poor gazelle entangled in a snare,

In anguish vainly floundering there.

Straight back he turn’d, and gave the alarm;

For to have ask’d the sufferer now,

The why and wherefore, when and how,

She had incurr’d so great a harm, —

And lose in vain debate

The turning-point of fate,

As would the master of a school, —

He was by no means such a fool.30

On tidings of so sad a pith,

The three their council held forthwith.

By two it was the vote

To hasten to the spot

Where lay the poor gazelle.

‘Our friend here in his shell,

I think, will do as well

To guard the house,’ the raven said;

‘For, with his creeping pace,

When would he reach the place?

Not till the deer were dead.’

Eschewing more debate,

They flew to aid their mate,

That luckless mountain roe.

The tortoise, too, resolved to go.

Behold him plodding on behind,

And plainly cursing in his mind,

The fate that left his legs to lack,

And glued his dwelling to his back.

The snare was cut by Rongemail,

(For so the rat they rightly hail).

Conceive their joy yourself you may.

Just then the hunter came that way,

And, ‘Who hath filch’d my prey?’

Cried he, upon the spot

Where now his prey was not. —

A hole hid Rongemail;

A tree the bird as well;

The woods, the free gazelle.

The hunter, well nigh mad,

To find no inkling could be had,

Espied the tortoise in his path,

And straightway check’d his wrath.

‘Why let my courage flag,

Because my snare has chanced to miss?

I’ll have a supper out of this.’

He said, and put it in his bag.

And it had paid the forfeit so,

Had not the raven told the roe,

Who from her covert came,

Pretending to be lame.

The man, right eager to pursue,

Aside his wallet threw,

Which Rongemail took care

To serve as he had done the snare;

Thus putting to an end

The hunter’s supper on his friend.

’Tis thus sage Pilpay’s tale I follow.

Were I the ward of golden-hair’d Apollo,

It were, by favour of that god, easy —

And surely for your sake —

As long a tale to make

As is the Iliad or Odyssey.

Grey Rongemail the hero’s part should play,

Though each would be as needful in his way.

He of the mansion portable awoke

Sir Raven by the words he spoke,

To act the spy, and then the swift express.

The light gazelle alone had had th’ address

The hunter to engage, and furnish time

For Rongemail to do his deed sublime.

Thus each his part perform’d. Which wins the prize?

The heart, so far as in my judgment lies.31

27] Bidpaii.

28] Madame de la Sablière. — See note to Fable I., Book X.: also Translator’s Preface.

29] Some mortals kneeling at her feet. — In allusion to the distinguished company which assembled at the house of Madame de la Sablière. See notes on John Sobieski (King John III., of Poland), &c., Fable I., Book X.

30] Such a fool. — In allusion to Fable XIX., Book I.

31] This fable was also first published in the “Works” of De Maucroix and La Fontaine, 1685. The text of the later issue is slightly abridged.

XVI. — The Woods and the Woodman.32

A certain wood-chopper lost or broke

From his axe’s eye a bit of oak.

The forest must needs be somewhat spared

While such a loss was being repair’d.

Came the man at last, and humbly pray’d

That the woods would kindly lend to him —

A moderate loan — a single limb,

Whereof might another helve be made,

And his axe should elsewhere drive its trade.

O, the oaks and firs that then might stand,

A pride and a joy throughout the land,

For their ancientness and glorious charms!

The innocent Forest lent him arms;

But bitter indeed was her regret;

For the wretch, his axe new-helved and whet,

Did nought but his benefactress spoil

Of the finest trees that graced her soil;

And ceaselessly was she made to groan,

Doing penance for that fatal loan.

Behold the world-stage and its actors,

Where benefits hurt benefactors! —

A weary theme, and full of pain;

For where’s the shade so cool and sweet,

Protecting strangers from the heat,

But might of such a wrong complain?

Alas! I vex myself in vain;

Ingratitude, do what I will,

Is sure to be the fashion still.

32] First published in 1685, in the “Works” of De Maucroix and La Fontaine; a statement applying also to several of the remaining fables.

XVII. — The Fox, the Wolf, and the Horse.33

A fox, though young, by no means raw,

Had seen a horse, the first he ever saw:

‘Ho! neighbour wolf,’ said he to one quite green,

‘A creature in our meadow I have seen, —

Sleek, grand! I seem to see him yet, —

The finest beast I ever met.’

‘Is he a stouter one than we?’

The wolf demanded, eagerly;

‘Some picture of him let me see.’

‘If I could paint,’ said fox, ‘I should delight

T’ anticipate your pleasure at the sight;

But come; who knows? perhaps it is a prey

By fortune offer’d in our way.’

They went. The horse, turn’d loose to graze,

Not liking much their looks or ways,

Was just about to gallop off.

‘Sir,’ said the fox, ‘your humble servants, we

Make bold to ask you what your name may be.’

The horse, an animal with brains enough,

Replied, ‘Sirs, you yourselves may read my name;

My shoer round my heel hath writ the same.’

The fox excus’d himself for want of knowledge:

‘Me, sir, my parents did not educate, —

So poor, a hole was their entire estate.

My friend, the wolf, however, taught at college,

Could read it were it even Greek.’

The wolf, to flattery weak,

Approach’d to verify the boast;

For which four teeth he lost.

The high raised hoof came down with such a blow,

As laid him bleeding on the ground full low.

‘My brother,’ said the fox, ‘this shows how just

What once was taught me by a fox of wit, —

Which on thy jaws this animal hath writ, —

“All unknown things the wise mistrust."’

33] Aesop.

XVIII. — The Fox and the Turkeys.

Against a robber fox, a tree

Some turkeys served as citadel.

That villain, much provoked to see

Each standing there as sentinel,

Cried out, ‘Such witless birds

At me stretch out their necks, and gobble!

No, by the powers! I’ll give them trouble.’

He verified his words.

The moon, that shined full on the oak,

Seem’d then to help the turkey folk.

But fox, in arts of siege well versed,

Ransack’d his bag of tricks accursed.

He feign’d himself about to climb;

Walk’d on his hinder legs sublime;

Then death most aptly counterfeited,

And seem’d anon resuscitated.

A practiser of wizard arts

Could not have fill’d so many parts.

In moonlight he contrived to raise

His tail, and make it seem a blaze:

And countless other tricks like that.

Meanwhile, no turkey slept or sat.

Their constant vigilance at length,

As hoped the fox, wore out their strength.

Bewilder’d by the rigs he run,

They lost their balance one by one.

As Renard slew, he laid aside,

Till nearly half of them had died;

Then proudly to his larder bore,

And laid them up, an ample store.

A foe, by being over-heeded,

Has often in his plan succeeded.

XIX. — The Ape.

There is an ape in Paris,

To which was given a wife:

Like many a one that marries,

This ape, in brutal strife,

Soon beat her out of life.

Their infant cries, — perhaps not fed, —

But cries, I ween, in vain;

The father laughs: his wife is dead,

And he has other loves again,

Which he will also beat, I think, —

Return’d from tavern drown’d in drink.

For aught that’s good, you need not look

Among the imitative tribe;

A monkey be it, or what makes a book —

The worse, I deem — the aping scribe.

XX. — The Scythian Philosopher.

A Scythian philosopher austere,

Resolved his rigid life somewhat to cheer,

Perform’d the tour of Greece, saw many things,

But, best, a sage, — one such as Virgil sings, —

A simple, rustic man, that equal’d kings;

From whom, the gods would hardly bear the palm;

Like them unawed, content, and calm.

His fortune was a little nook of land;

And there the Scythian found him, hook in hand,

His fruit-trees pruning. Here he cropp’d

A barren branch, there slash’d and lopp’d,

Correcting Nature everywhere,

Who paid with usury his care.

‘Pray, why this wasteful havoc, sir?’ —

So spoke the wondering traveller;

‘Can it, I ask, in reason’s name,

Be wise these harmless trees to maim?

Fling down that instrument of crime,

And leave them to the scythe of Time.

Full soon, unhasten’d, they will go

To deck the banks of streams below.’

Replied the tranquil gardener,

‘I humbly crave your pardon, sir;

Excess is all my hook removes,

By which the rest more fruitful proves.’

The philosophic traveller, —

Once more within his country cold, —

Himself of pruning-hook laid hold,

And made a use most free and bold;

Prescribed to friends, and counsel’d neighbours

To imitate his pruning labours.

The finest limbs he did not spare,

But pruned his orchard past all reason,

Regarding neither time nor season,

Nor taking of the moon a care.

All wither’d, droop’d, and died.

This Scythian I set beside

The indiscriminating Stoic.

The latter, with a blade heroic,

Retrenches, from his spirit sad,

Desires and passions, good and bad,

Not sparing e’en a harmless wish.

Against a tribe so Vandalish

With earnestness I here protest.

They maim our hearts, they stupefy

Their strongest springs, if not their best;

They make us cease to live before we die.

XXI. — The Elephant and the Ape of Jupiter.

‘Twixt elephant and beast of horned nose

About precedence a dispute arose,

Which they determined to decide by blows.

The day was fix’d, when came a messenger

To say the ape of Jupiter

Was swiftly earthward seen to bear

His bright caduceus through the air.

This monkey, named in history Gill,

The elephant at once believed

A high commission had received

To witness, by his sovereign’s will,

The aforesaid battle fought.

Uplifted by the glorious thought,

The beast was prompt on Monsieur Gill to wait,

But found him slow, in usual forms of state,

His high credentials to present.

The ape, however, ere he went,

Bestow’d a passing salutation.

His excellency would have heard

The subject matter of legation:

But not a word!

His fight, so far from stirring heaven, —

The news was not received there, even!

What difference sees the impartial sky

Between an elephant and fly?

Our monarch, doting on his object,

Was forced himself to break the subject.

‘My cousin Jupiter,’ said he,

‘Will shortly, from his throne supreme,

A most important combat see,

For all his court a thrilling theme.’

‘What combat?’ said the ape, with serious face.

‘Is’t possible you should not know the case? — ’

The elephant exclaim’d — ‘not know, dear sir,

That Lord Rhinoceros disputes

With me precedence of the brutes?

That Elephantis is at war

With savage hosts of Rhinocer?

You know these realms, not void of fame?’

‘I joy to learn them now by name,’

Return’d Sir Gill, ‘for, first or last,

No lisp of them has ever pass’d

Throughout our dome so blue and vast.’

Abash’d, the elephant replied,

‘What came you, then, to do? — ’

‘Between two emmets to divide

A spire of grass in two.

We take of all a care;

And, as to your affair,

Before the gods, who view with equal eyes

The small and great, it hath not chanced to rise.’

XXII. — The Fool and the Sage.34

A fool pursued, with club and stone,

A sage, who said, ‘My friend, well done!

Receive this guinea for your pains;

They well deserve far higher gains.

The workman’s worthy of his hire,

’Tis said. There comes a wealthy squire,

Who hath wherewith thy works to pay;

To him direct thy gifts, and they

Shall gain their proper recompense.’

Urged by the hope of gain,

Upon the wealthy citizen

The fool repeated the offence.

His pay this time was not in gold.

Upon the witless man

A score of ready footmen ran,

And on his back, in full, his wages told.

In courts, such fools afflict the wise;

They raise the laugh at your expense.

To check their babble, were it sense

Their folly meetly to chastise?

Perhaps ’twill take a stronger man.

Then make them worry one who can.

34] Phaedrus, III., 4; also Aesop.

XXIII. — The English Fox.35

To Madame Harvey.36

Sound reason and a tender heart

With thee are friends that never part.

A hundred traits might swell the roll; —

Suffice to name thy nobleness of soul;

Thy power to guide both men and things;

Thy temper open, bland and free,

A gift that draweth friends to thee,

To which thy firm affection clings,

Unmarr’d by age or change of clime,

Or tempests of this stormy time; —

All which deserve, in highest lyric,

A rich and lofty panegyric;

But no such thing wouldst thou desire,

Whom pomp displeases, praises tire.

Hence mine is simple, short, and plain;

Yet, madam, I would fain

Tack on a word or two

Of homage to your country due, —

A country well beloved by you.

With mind to match the outward case,

The English are a thinking race.

They pierce all subjects through and through;

Well arm’d with facts, they hew their way,

And give to science boundless sway.

Quite free from flattery, I say,

Your countrymen, for penetration,

Must bear the palm from every nation;

For e’en the dogs they breed excel

Our own in nicety of smell.

Your foxes, too, are cunninger,

As readily we may infer

From one that practised, ’tis believed,

A stratagem the best conceived.

The wretch, once, in the utmost strait

By dogs of nose so delicate,

Approach’d a gallows, where,

A lesson to like passengers,

Or clothed in feathers or in furs,

Some badgers, owls, and foxes, pendent were.

Their comrade, in his pressing need,

Arranged himself among the dead.

I seem to see old Hannibal

Outwit some Roman general,

And sit securely in his tent,

The legions on some other scent.

But certain dogs, kept back

To tell the errors of the pack,

Arriving where the traitor hung,

A fault in fullest chorus sung.

Though by their bark the welkin rung,

Their master made them hold the tongue.

Suspecting not a trick so odd,

Said he, ‘The rogue’s beneath the sod.

My dogs, that never saw such jokes,

Won’t bark beyond these honest folks.’

The rogue would try the trick again.

He did so to his cost and pain.

Again with dogs the welkin rings;

Again our fox from gallows swings;

But though he hangs with greater faith,

This time, he does it to his death.

So uniformly is it true,

A stratagem is best when new.

The hunter, had himself been hunted,

So apt a trick had not invented;

Not that his wit had been deficient; —

With that, it cannot be denied,

Your English folks are well-provision’d; —

But wanting love of life sufficient,

Full many an Englishman has died.

One word to you, and I must quit

My much-inviting subject:

A long eulogium is a project

For which my lyre is all unfit.

The song or verse is truly rare,

Which can its meed of incense bear,

And yet amuse the general ear,

Or wing its way to lands afar.

Your prince37 once told you, I have heard,

(An able judge, as rumour says,)

That he one dash of love preferr’d

To all a sheet could hold of praise.

Accept — ’tis all I crave — the offering

Which here my muse has dared to bring —

Her last, perhaps, of earthly acts;

She blushes at its sad defects.

Still, by your favour of my rhyme,

Might not the self-same homage please, the while,

The dame who fills your northern clime

With wingèd emigrants sublime

From Cytherea’s isle?38

By this, you understand, I mean

Love’s guardian goddess, Mazarin.39

35] Abstemius.

36] Madame Harvey. — An English lady (née Montagu), the widow of an officer of Charles II. (of England) who is said to have died at Constantinople. She was a visitor at the English embassy in Paris, and moved in the highest circles generally of that city; a circumstance which enabled La Fontaine to make her acquaintance and secure her as one of his best friends and patrons. She died in 1702.

37] Your Prince. — Charles II. of England.

38] Cytherea’s isle. — Where Venus was worshipped.

39] Goddess Mazarin. — The Duchess de Mazarin, niece to the Cardinal. She was at this time in England, where she died (at Chelsea) in 1699. She married the Duke de la Meilleraie, but it was stipulated that she should adopt the name and arms of Mazarin.

XXIV. — The Sun and the Frogs.40

Long from the monarch of the stars

The daughters of the mud received

Support and aid; nor dearth nor wars,

Meanwhile, their teeming nation grieved.

They spread their empire far and wide

Through every marsh, by every tide.

The queens of swamps — I mean no more

Than simply frogs (great names are cheap) —

Caball’d together on the shore,

And cursed their patron from the deep,

And came to be a perfect bore.

Pride, rashness, and ingratitude,

The progeny of fortune good,

Soon brought them to a bitter cry, —

The end of sleep for earth and sky.

Their clamours, if they did not craze,

Would truly seem enough to raise

All living things to mutiny

Against the power of Nature’s eye.

The sun,41 according to their croak,

Was turning all the world to smoke.

It now behoved to take alarm,

And promptly powerful troops to arm.

Forthwith in haste they sent

Their croaking embassies;

To all their states they went,

And all their colonies.

To hear them talk, the all

That rides upon this whirling ball,

Of men and things, was left at stake

Upon the mud that skirts a lake!

The same complaint, in fens and bogs,

Still ever strains their lungs;

And yet these much-complaining frogs

Had better hold their tongues;

For, should the sun in anger rise,

And hurl his vengeance from the skies,

That kingless, half-aquatic crew

Their impudence would sorely rue.

40] Phaedrus, I., 6. Fable XII., Book VI., gives another version of the same story.

41] The sun. — This fable has reference to the current troubles between France and the Dutch. Louis XIV. is the sun. He had adopted the sun as his emblem.

XXV. — The League of the Rats.

A mouse was once in mortal fear

Of a cat that watch’d her portal near.

What could be done in such a case?

With prudent care she left the catship,

And courted, with a humble grace,

A neighbour of a higher race,

Whose lordship — I should say his ratship —

Lay in a great hotel;

And who had boasted oft, ’tis said,

Of living wholly without dread.

‘Well,’ said this braggart, ‘well,

Dame Mouse, what should I do?

Alone I cannot rout

The foe that threatens you.

I’ll rally all the rats about,

And then I’ll play him such a trick!’

The mouse her court’sy dropp’d,

And off the hero scamper’d quick,

Nor till he reach’d the buttery stopp’d,

Where scores of rats were clustered,

In riotous extravagance,

All feasting at the host’s expense.

To him, arriving there much flustered,

Indeed, quite out of breath,

A rat among the feasters saith,

‘What news? what news? I pray you, speak.’

The rat, recovering breath to squeak,

Replied, ‘To tell the matter in a trice,

It is, that we must promptly aid the mice;

For old Raminagrab is making

Among their ranks a dreadful quaking.

This cat, of cats the very devil,

When mice are gone, will do us evil.’

‘True, true,’ said each and all;

‘To arms! to arms!’ they cry and call.

Some ratties by their fears

Were melted e’en to tears.

It matter’d not a whisk,

Nor check’d the valour brisk.

Each took upon his back

Some cheese in haversack,

And roundly swore to risk

His carcass in the cause.

They march’d as to a feast,

Not flinching in the least. —

But quite too late, for in his jaws

The cat already held the mouse.

They rapidly approach’d the house —

To save their friend, beyond a doubt.

Just then the cat came growling out,

The mouse beneath his whisker’d nose.

And march’d along before his foes.

At such a voice, our rats discreet,

Foreboding a defeat,

Effected, in a style most fleet,

A fortunate retreat.

Back hurried to his hole each rat,

And afterwards took care to shun the cat.

XXVI. — Daphnis and Alcimadure.

An Imitation Of Theocritus.42
To Madame De La Mésangère.43

Offspring of her to whom, to-day,

While from thy lovely self away,

A thousand hearts their homage pay,

Besides the throngs whom friendship binds to please,

And some whom love presents thee on their knees!

A mandate which I cannot thrust aside

Between you both impels me to divide

Some of the incense which the dews distil

Upon the roses of a sacred hill,

And which, by secret of my trade,

Is sweet and most delicious made.

To you, I say, . . . but all to say

Would task me far beyond my day;

I need judiciously to choose;

Thus husbanding my voice and muse,

Whose strength and leisure soon would fail.

I’ll only praise your tender heart, and hale,

Exalted feelings, wit, and grace,

In which there’s none can claim a higher place,

Excepting her whose praise is your entail.

Let not too many thorns forbid to touch

These roses — I may call them such —

If Love should ever say as much.

By him it will be better said, indeed;

And they who his advices will not heed,

Scourge fearfully will he,

As you shall shortly see.

A blooming miracle of yore

Despised his godship’s sovereign power;

They call’d her name Alcimadure.

A haughty creature, fierce and wild,

She sported, Nature’s tameless child.

Rough paths her wayward feet would lead

To darkest glens of mossy trees;

Or she would dance on daisied mead,

With nought of law but her caprice.

A fairer could not be,

Nor crueller, than she.

Still charming in her sternest mien, —

E’en when her haughty look debarr’d, —

What had she been to lover in

The fortress of her kind regard!

Daphnis, a high-born shepherd swain,

Had loved this maiden to his bane.

Not one regardful look or smile,

Nor e’en a gracious word, the while,

Relieved the fierceness of his pain.

O’erwearied with a suit so vain,

His hope was but to die;

No power had he to fly.

He sought, impell’d by dark despair,

The portals of the cruel fair.

Alas! the winds his only listeners were!

The mistress gave no entrance there —

No entrance to the palace where,

Ingrate, against her natal day,

She join’d the treasures sweet and gay

In garden or in wild-wood grown,

To blooming beauty all her own.

‘I hoped,’ he cried,

‘Before your eyes I should have died;

But, ah! too deeply I have won your hate;

Nor should it be surprising news

To me, that you should now refuse

To lighten thus my cruel fate.

My sire, when I shall be no more,

Is charged to lay your feet before

The heritage your heart neglected.

With this my pasturage shall be connected,

My trusty dog, and all that he protected;

And, of my goods which then remain,

My mourning friends shall rear a fane.

There shall your image stand, midst rosy bowers,

Reviving through the ceaseless hours

An altar built of living flowers.

Near by, my simple monument

Shall this short epitaph present:

“Here Daphnis died of love. Stop, passenger,

And say thou, with a falling tear,

This youth here fell, unable to endure

The ban of proud Alcimadure."’

He would have added, but his heart

Now felt the last, the fatal dart.

Forth march’d the maid, in triumph deck’d,

And of his murder little reck’d.

In vain her steps her own attendants check’d,

And plead

That she, at least, should shed,

Upon her lover dead,

Some tears of due respect.

The rosy god, of Cytherea born,

She ever treated with the deepest scorn:

Contemning him, his laws, and means of damage,

She drew her train to dance around his image,

When, woful to relate,

The statue fell, and crush’d her with its weight!

A voice forth issued from a cloud, —

And echo bore the words aloud

Throughout the air wide spread, —

“Let all now love — the insensible is dead.”

Meanwhile, down to the Stygian tide

The shade of Daphnis hied,

And quaked and wonder’d there to meet

The maid, a ghostess, at his feet.

All Erebus awaken’d wide,

To hear that beauteous homicide

Beg pardon of the swain who died —

For being deaf to love confess’d,

As was Ulysses to the prayer

Of Ajax, begging him to spare,

Or as was Dido’s faithless guest.44

42] Theocritus, Idyl xxiii.

43] Madame de la Mésangère. — This lady was the daughter of Madame de la Sablière. — Translator. She was the lady termed La Marquise with whom Fontenelle sustained his imaginary “conversation” in the “Plurality of Worlds,” a book which became very popular both in France and England.

44] Dido’s faithless guest. — Aeneas, with whom Dido, according to Virgil and Ovid, was in love, but who loved not, and sailed away.

XXVII. — The Arbiter, the Almoner, and the Hermit.

Three saints, for their salvation jealous,

Pursued, with hearts alike most zealous,

By routes diverse, their common aim.

All highways lead to Rome: the same

Of heaven our rivals deeming true,

Each chose alone his pathway to pursue.

Moved by the cares, delays, and crosses

Attach’d to suits by legal process,

One gave himself as judge, without reward,

For earthly fortune having small regard.

Since there are laws, to legal strife

Man damns himself for half his life.

For half? — Three-fourths! — perhaps the whole!

The hope possess’d our umpire’s soul,

That on his plan he should be able

To cure this vice detestable. —

The second chose the hospitals.

I give him praise: to solace pain

Is charity not spent in vain,

While men in part are animals.

The sick — for things went then as now they go —

Gave trouble to the almoner, I trow.

Impatient, sour, complaining ever,

As rack’d by rheum, or parch’d with fever, —

‘His favourites are such and such;

With them he watches over-much,

And lets us die,’ they say, —

Such sore complaints from day to day

Were nought to those that did await

The reconciler of debate.

His judgments suited neither side;

Forsooth, in either party’s view,

He never held the balance true,

But swerved in every cause he tried.

Discouraged by such speech, the arbiter

Betook himself to see the almoner.

As both received but murmurs for their fees,

They both retired, in not the best of moods,

To break their troubles to the silent woods,

And hold communion with the ancient trees.

There, underneath a rugged mountain,

Beside a clear and silent fountain,

A place revered by winds, to sun unknown,

They found the other saint, who lived alone.

Forthwith they ask’d his sage advice.

‘Your own,’ he answer’d, ‘must suffice;

Who but yourselves your wants should know?

To know one’s self, is, here below,

The first command of the Supreme.

Have you obey’d among the bustling throngs?

Such knowledge to tranquillity belongs;

Elsewhere to seek were fallacy extreme.

Disturb the water — do you see your face?

See we ourselves within a troubled breast?

A murky cloud in such a case,

Though once it were a crystal vase!

But, brothers, let it simply rest,

And each shall see his features there impress’d.

For inward thought a desert home is best.’

Such was the hermit’s answer brief;

And, happily, it gain’d belief.

But business, still, from life must not be stricken

Since men will doubtless sue at law, and sicken,

Physicians there must be, and advocates, —

Whereof, thank God, no lack the world awaits,

While wealth and honours are the well-known baits.

Yet, in the stream of common wants when thrown,

What busy mortal but forgets his own?

O, you who give the public all your care,

Be it as judge, or prince, or minister,

Disturb’d by countless accidents most sinister,

By adverse gales abased, debased by fair, —

Yourself you never see, nor see you aught.

Comes there a moment’s rest for serious thought,

There comes a flatterer too, and brings it all to nought.

This lesson seals our varied page:

O, may it teach from age to age!

To kings I give it, to the wise propose;

Where could my labours better close?45

45] This fable was first printed in the “Recueil de vers choisis du P. Bouhours,” published in 1693, and afterwards given as the last of La Fontaine’s Book XII.


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