The Fables of La Fontaine, by Jean de La Fontaine


to the Present Edition,

with some account of the Translator.

The first edition of this translation of La Fontaine’s Fables appeared in Boston, U.S., in 1841. It achieved a considerable success, and six editions were printed in three years. Since then it has been allowed to pass out of print, except in the shape of a small-type edition produced in London immediately after the first publication in Boston, and the present publishers have thought that a reprint in a readable yet popular form would be generally acceptable.

The translator has remarked, in the “Advertisement” to his original edition (which follows these pages), on the singular neglect of La Fontaine by English translators up to the time of his own work. Forty years have elapsed since those remarks were penned, yet translations into English of the complete Fables of the chief among modern fabulists are almost as few in number as they were then. Mr. George Ticknor (the author of the “History of Spanish Literature,” &c.), in praising Mr. Wright’s translation when it first appeared, said La Fontaine’s was “a book till now untranslated;” and since Mr. Wright so happily accomplished his self-imposed task, there has been but one other complete translation, viz., that of the late Mr. Walter Thornbury. This latter, however, seems to have been undertaken chiefly with a view to supplying the necessary accompaniment to the English issue of M. Doré’s well-known designs for the Fables (first published as illustrations to a Paris edition), and existing as it does only in the large quarto form given to those illustrations, it cannot make any claim to be a handy-volume edition. Mr. Wright’s translation, however, still holds its place as the best English version, and the present reprint, besides having undergone careful revision, embodies the corrections (but not the expurgations) of the sixth edition, which differed from those preceding it. The notes too, have, for the most part, been added by the reviser.

Some account of the translator, who is still one of the living notables of his nation, may not be out of place here. Elizur Wright, junior, is the son of Elizur Wright, who published some papers in mathematics, but was principally engaged in agricultural pursuits at Canaan, Litchfield Co., Connecticut, U.S. The younger Elizur Wright was born at Canaan in 1804. He graduated at Yale College in 1826, and afterwards taught in a school at Groton. In 1829, he became Professor of Mathematics in Hudson College, from which post he went to New York in 1833, on being appointed secretary to the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1838 he removed to the literary centre of the United States, Boston, where he edited several papers successively, and where he published his “La Fontaine;” which thus, whilst, it still remains his most considerable work, was also one of his earliest. How he was led to undertake it, he has himself narrated in the advertisement to his first edition. But previously to 1841, the date of the first publication of the complete “Fables,” he tried the effect of a partial publication. In 1839 he published, anonymously, a little 12mo volume, “La Fontaine; A Present for the Young.” This, as appears from the title, was a book for children, and though the substance of these few (and simpler) fables may be traced in the later and complete edition, the latter shows a considerable improvement upon the work of his “‘prentice hand.” The complete work was published, as we have said, in 1841. It appeared in an expensive and sumptuous form, and was adorned with the French artist Grandville’s illustrations — which had first appeared only two years previously in the Paris edition of La Fontaine’s Fables, published by Fournier Ainé. The book was well received both in America and England, and four other editions were speedily called for. The sixth edition, published in 1843, was a slightly expurgated one, designed for schools. The expurgation, however, almost wholly consisted of the omission bodily of five of the fables, whose places were, as Mr. Wright stated in his preface, filled by six original fables of his own. From his “Notice” affixed to this sixth edition, it seems evident that he by no means relished the task, usually a hateful one, of expurgating his author. Having, however, been urged to the task by “criticisms both friendly and unfriendly” (as he says) he did it; and did it wisely, because sparingly. But in his prefatory words he in a measure protests. He says:— “In this age, distinguished for almost everything more than sincerity, there are some people who would seem too delicate and refined to read their Bibles.” And he concludes with the appeal, — “But the unsophisticated lovers of nature, who have not had the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the French language, I have no doubt will thank me for interpreting to them these honest and truthful fictions of the frank old JEAN, and will beg me to proceed no farther in the work of expurgation.” The first of the substituted fables of the sixth edition — The Fly and the Game, given below — may also be viewed as a protest to the same purpose. As a specimen of Mr. Wright’s powers at once as an original poet and an original fabulist, we here print (for the first time in England, we believe) the substituted fables of his sixth edition. We may add, that they appeared in lieu of the following five fables as given in Mr. Wright’s complete edition — and in the present edition:— The Bitch and her Friend, The Mountain in Labour, The Young Widow, The Women and the Secret, and, The Husband, the Wife, and the Thief. It should also be borne in mind that these original fables were inserted in an edition professedly meant for schools rather than for the general public.

The Fly and the Game.

A knight of powder-horn and shot

Once fill’d his bag — as I would not,

Unless the feelings of my breast

By poverty were sorely press’d —

With birds and squirrels for the spits

Of certain gormandizing cits.

With merry heart the fellow went

Direct to Mr. Centpercent,

Who loved, as well was understood,

Whatever game was nice and good.

This gentleman, with knowing air,

Survey’d the dainty lot with care,

Pronounced it racy, rich, and rare,

And call’d his wife, to know her wishes

About its purchase for their dishes.

The lady thought the creatures prime,

And for their dinner just in time;

So sweet they were, and delicate,

For dinner she could hardly wait.

But now there came — could luck be worse? —

Just as the buyer drew his purse,

A bulky fly, with solemn buzz,

And smelt, as an inspector does,

This bird and that, and said the meat —

But here his words I won’t repeat —

Was anything but fit to eat.

‘Ah!’ cried the lady, ‘there’s a fly

I never knew to tell a lie;

His coat, you see, is bottle-green;

He knows a thing or two I ween;

My dear, I beg you, do not buy:

Such game as this may suit the dogs.’

So on our peddling sportsman jogs,

His soul possess’d of this surmise,

About some men, as well as flies:

A filthy taint they soonest find

Who are to relish filth inclined.

The Dog and Cat.

A dog and cat, messmates for life,

Were often falling into strife,

Which came to scratching, growls, and snaps,

And spitting in the face, perhaps.

A neighbour dog once chanced to call

Just at the outset of their brawl,

And, thinking Tray was cross and cruel,

To snarl so sharp at Mrs. Mew-well,

Growl’d rather roughly in his ear.

‘And who are you to interfere?’

Exclaim’d the cat, while in his face she flew;

And, as was wise, he suddenly withdrew.

It seems, in spite of all his snarling,

And hers, that Tray was still her darling.

The Golden Pitcher.

A father once, whose sons were two,

For each a gift had much ado.

At last upon this course he fell:

‘My sons,’ said he, ‘within our well

Two treasures lodge, as I am told;

The one a sunken piece of gold, —

A bowl it may be, or a pitcher, —

The other is a thing far richer.

These treasures if you can but find,

Each may be suited to his mind;

For both are precious in their kind.

To gain the one you’ll need a hook;

The other will but cost a look.

But O, of this, I pray, beware! —

You who may choose the tempting share, —

Too eager fishing for the pitcher

May ruin that which is far richer.’

Out ran the boys, their gifts to draw:

But eagerness was check’d with awe,

How could there be a richer prize

Than solid gold beneath the skies?

Or, if there could, how could it dwell

Within their own old, mossy well?

Were questions which excited wonder,

And kept their headlong av’rice under.

The golden cup each fear’d to choose,

Lest he the better gift should lose;

And so resolved our prudent pair,

The gifts in common they would share.

The well was open to the sky.

As o’er its curb they keenly pry,

It seems a tunnel piercing through,

From sky to sky, from blue to blue;

And, at its nether mouth, each sees

A brace of their antipodes,

With earnest faces peering up,

As if themselves might seek the cup.

‘Ha!’ said the elder, with a laugh,

‘We need not share it by the half.

The mystery is clear to me;

That richer gift to all is free.

Be only as that water true,

And then the whole belongs to you.’

That truth itself was worth so much,

It cannot be supposed that such.

A pair of lads were satisfied;

And yet they were before they died.

But whether they fish’d up the gold

I’m sure I never have been told.

Thus much they learn’d, I take for granted, —

And that was what their father wanted:—

If truth for wealth we sacrifice,

We throw away the richer prize.

Party Strife.

Among the beasts a feud arose.

The lion, as the story goes,

Once on a time laid down

His sceptre and his crown;

And in his stead the beasts elected,

As often as it suited them,

A sort of king pro tem., —

Some animal they much respected.

At first they all concurr’d.

The horse, the stag, the unicorn,

Were chosen each in turn;

And then the noble bird

That looks undazzled at the sun.

But party strife began to run

Through burrow, den, and herd.

Some beasts proposed the patient ox,

And others named the cunning fox.

The quarrel came to bites and knocks;

Nor was it duly settled

Till many a beast high-mettled

Had bought an aching head,

Or, possibly, had bled.

The fox, as one might well suppose,

At last above his rival rose,

But, truth to say, his reign was bootless,

Of honour being rather fruitless.

All prudent beasts began to see

The throne a certain charm had lost,

And, won by strife, as it must be,

Was hardly worth the pains it cost.

So when his majesty retired,

Few worthy beasts his seat desired.

Especially now stood aloof

The wise of head, the swift of hoof,

The beasts whose breasts were battle-proof.

It consequently came to pass,

Not first, but, as we say, in fine,

For king the creatures chose the ass —

He, for prime minister the swine.

’Tis thus that party spirit

Is prone to banish merit.

The Cat and the Thrush.

A thrush that sang one rustic ode

Once made a garden his abode,

And gave the owner such delight,

He grew a special favourite.

Indeed, his landlord did his best

To make him safe from every foe;

The ground about his lowly nest

Was undisturb’d by spade or hoe.

And yet his song was still the same;

It even grew somewhat more tame.

At length Grimalkin spied the pet,

Resolved that he should suffer yet,

And laid his plan of devastation

So as to save his reputation;

For, in the house, from looks demure,

He pass’d for honest, kind, and pure.

Professing search of mice and moles,

He through the garden daily strolls,

And never seeks our thrush to catch;

But when his consort comes to hatch,

Just eats the young ones in a batch.

The sadness of the pair bereaved

Their generous guardian sorely grieved.

But yet it could not be believed

His faithful cat was in the wrong,

Though so the thrush said in his song.

The cat was therefore favour’d still

To walk the garden at his will;

And hence the birds, to shun the pest,

Upon a pear-tree built their nest.

Though there it cost them vastly more,

’Twas vastly better than before.

And Gaffer Thrush directly found

His throat, when raised above the ground,

Gave forth a softer, sweeter sound.

New tunes, moreover, he had caught,

By perils and afflictions taught,

And found new things to sing about:

New scenes had brought new talents out.

So, while, improved beyond a doubt,

His own old song more clearly rang,

Far better than themselves he sang

The chants and trills of other birds;

He even mock’d Grimalkin’s words

With such delightful humour that

He gain’d the Christian name of Cat.

Let Genius tell in verse and prose.

How much to praise and friends it owes.

Good sense may be, as I suppose,

As much indebted to its foes.

In 1844 Mr. Wright wrote the Preface to the first collected edition of the works of the poet J. G. Whittier; and soon after he seems to have become completely absorbed in politics, and in the mighty anti-slavery struggle, which constituted the greater part of the politics of the United States in those and many succeeding years. He became a journalist in the anti-slavery cause; and, in 1850, he wrote a trenchant answer to Mr. Carlyle’s then just published “Latter Day Pamphlets.” Later on, slavery having been at length abolished, he appeared as a writer in yet another field, publishing several works, one as lately as 1877, on life-assurance.

London, 1881.

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