Four years ago, I dropped into Charles de Behr’s repository of foreign books, in Broadway, New York, and there, for the first time, saw La Fontaine’s Fables. It was a cheap copy, adorned with some two hundred woodcuts, which, by their worn appearance, betokened an extensive manufacture. I became a purchaser, and gave the book to my little boy, then just beginning to feel the intellectual magnetism of pictures. In the course of the next year, he frequently tasked my imperfect knowledge of French for the story which belonged to some favourite vignette. This led me to inquire whether any English version existed; and, not finding any, I resolved, though quite unused to literary exercises of the sort, to cheat sleep of an hour every morning till there should be one. The result is before you. If in this I have wronged La Fontaine, I hope the best-natured of poets, as well as yourselves, will forgive me, and lay the blame on the better qualified, who have so long neglected the task. Cowper should have done it. The author of “John Gilpin,” and the “Retired Cat,” would have put La Fontaine into every chimney-corner which resounds with the Anglo-Saxon tongue. . . . To you who have so generously enabled me to publish this work with so great advantages, and without selling the copyright for the promise of a song, I return my heartfelt thanks. A hatchet-faced, spectacled, threadbare stranger knocked at your doors, with a prospectus, unbacked by “the trade,” soliciting your subscription to a costly edition of a mere translation. It is a most inglorious, unsatisfactory species of literature. The slightest preponderance of that worldly wisdom which never buys a pig-in-a-poke would have sent him and his translation packing. But a kind faith in your species got the better in your case. You not only gave the hungry-looking stranger your good wishes, but your good names. A list of those names it would delight me to insert; and I should certainly do it if I felt authorized. As it is, I hope to be pardoned for mentioning some of the individuals, who have not only given their names, but expressed an interest in my enterprise which has assisted me in its accomplishment. Rev. John Pierpont, Prof. George Ticknor, Prof. Henry W. Longfellow, William H. Prescott, Esq., Hon. Theodore Lyman, Prof. Silliman, Prof. Denison Olmsted, Chancellor Kent, William C. Bryant, Esq., Dr. J. W. Francis, Hon. Peter A. Jay, Hon. Luther Bradish, and Prof. J. Molinard, have special claims to my gratitude. . . .
The work — as it is, not as it ought to be — I commit to your kindness. I do not claim to have succeeded in translating “the inimitable La Fontaine," — perhaps I have not even a right to say in his own language —
“J’ai du moins ouvert le chemin.”
However this may be, I am, gratefully,
Your obedient servant,
Elizur Wright, Jr.
Dorchester, September, 1841.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52