Part 1 out of 9
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THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE
_Translated From The French_
By Elizur Wright.
_A New Edition, With Notes_
By J. W. M. Gibbs.
* * * * *
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. Dore'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 Aine. 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.
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
* * * * *
To The First Edition Of This Translation.
[Boston, U.S.A., 1841.]
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
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.
* * * * *
Fable, The Fabulists, And La Fontaine.
By The Translator.
Human nature, when fresh from the hand of God, was full of poetry. Its
sociality could not be pent within the bounds of the actual. To the lower
inhabitants of air, earth, and water,--and even to those elements
themselves, in all their parts and forms,--it gave speech and reason. The
skies it peopled with beings, on the noblest model of which it could have
any conception--to wit, its own. The intercourse of these beings, thus
created and endowed,--from the deity kindled into immortality by the
imagination, to the clod personified for the moment,--gratified one of
its strongest propensities; for man may well enough be defined as the
historical animal. The faculty which, in after ages, was to chronicle the
realities developed by time, had at first no employment but to place on
record the productions of the imagination. Hence, fable blossomed and
ripened in the remotest antiquity. We see it mingling itself with the
primeval history of all nations. It is not improbable that many of the
narratives which have been preserved for us, by the bark or parchment of
the first rude histories, as serious matters of fact, were originally
apologues, or parables, invented to give power and wings to moral
lessons, and afterwards modified, in their passage from mouth to mouth,
by the well-known magic of credulity. The most ancient poets graced their
productions with apologues. Hesiod's fable of the Hawk and the
Nightingale is an instance. The fable or parable was anciently, as it is
even now, a favourite weapon of the most successful orators. When Jotham
would show the Shechemites the folly of their ingratitude, he uttered the
fable of the Fig-Tree, the Olive, the Vine, and the Bramble. When the
prophet Nathan would oblige David to pass a sentence of condemnation upon
himself in the matter of Uriah, he brought before him the apologue of the
rich man who, having many sheep, took away that of the poor man who had
but one. When Joash, the king of Israel, would rebuke the vanity of
Amaziah, the king of Judah, he referred him to the fable of the Thistle
and the Cedar. Our blessed Saviour, the best of all teachers, was
remarkable for his constant use of parables, which are but fables--we
speak it with reverence--adapted to the gravity of the subjects on which
he discoursed. And, in profane history, we read that Stesichorus put the
Himerians on their guard against the tyranny of Phalaris by the fable of
the Horse and the Stag. Cyrus, for the instruction of kings, told the
story of the fisher obliged to use his nets to take the fish that turned
a deaf ear to the sound of his flute. Menenius Agrippa, wishing to bring
back the mutinous Roman people from Mount Sacer, ended his harangue with
the fable of the Belly and the Members. A Ligurian, in order to dissuade
King Comanus from yielding to the Phocians a portion of his territory as
the site of Marseilles, introduced into his discourse the story of the
bitch that borrowed a kennel in which to bring forth her young, but, when
they were sufficiently grown, refused to give it up.
In all these instances, we see that fable was a mere auxiliary of
discourse--an implement of the orator. Such, probably, was the origin of
the apologues which now form the bulk of the most popular collections.
Aesop, who lived about six hundred years before Christ, so far as we can
reach the reality of his life, was an orator who wielded the apologue
with remarkable skill. From a servile condition, he rose, by the force of
his genius, to be the counsellor of kings and states. His wisdom was in
demand far and wide, and on the most important occasions. The pithy
apologues which fell from his lips, which, like the rules of arithmetic,
solved the difficult problems of human conduct constantly presented to
him, were remembered when the speeches that contained them were
forgotten. He seems to have written nothing himself; but it was not long
before the gems which he scattered began to be gathered up in
collections, as a distinct species of literature. The great and good
Socrates employed himself, while in prison, in turning the fables of
Aesop into verse. Though but a few fragments of his composition have come
down to us, he may, perhaps, be regarded as the father of fable,
considered as a distinct art. Induced by his example, many Greek poets
and philosophers tried their hands in it. Archilocus, Alcaeus, Aristotle,
Plato, Diodorus, Plutarch, and Lucian, have left us specimens.
Collections of fables bearing the name of Aesop became current in the
Greek language. It was not, however, till the year 1447 that the large
collection which now bears his name was put forth in Greek prose by
Planudes, a monk of Constantinople. This man turned the life of Aesop
itself into a fable; and La Fontaine did it the honour to translate it as
a preface to his own collection. Though burdened with insufferable
puerilities, it is not without the moral that a rude and deformed
exterior may conceal both wit and worth.
The collection of fables in Greek verse by Babrias was exceedingly
popular among the Romans. It was the favourite book of the Emperor
Julian. Only six of these fables, and a few fragments, remain; but they
are sufficient to show that their author possessed all the graces of
style which befit the apologue. Some critics place him in the Augustan
age; others make him contemporary with Moschus. His work was versified in
Latin, at the instance of Seneca; and Quinctilian refers to it as a
reading-book for boys. Thus, at all times, these playful fictions have
been considered fit lessons for children, as well as for men, who are
often but grown-up children. So popular were the fables of Babrias and
their Latin translation, during the Roman empire, that the work of
Phaedrus was hardly noticed. The latter was a freedman of Augustus, and
wrote in the reign of Tiberius. His verse stands almost unrivalled for
its exquisite elegance and compactness; and posterity has abundantly
avenged him for the neglect of contemporaries. La Fontaine is perhaps
more indebted to Phaedrus than to any other of his predecessors; and,
especially in the first six books, his style has much of the same curious
condensation. When the seat of the empire was transferred to Byzantium,
the Greek language took precedence of the Latin; and the rhetorician
Aphthonius wrote forty fables in Greek prose, which became popular.
Besides these collections among the Romans, we find apologues scattered
through the writings of their best poets and historians, and embalmed in
those specimens of their oratory which have come down to us.
The apologues of the Greeks and Romans were brief, pithy, and
epigrammatic, and their collections were without any principle of
connection. But, at the same time, though probably unknown to them, the
same species of literature was flourishing elsewhere under a somewhat
different form. It is made a question, whether Aesop, through the
Assyrians, with whom the Phrygians had commercial relations, did not
either borrow his art from the Orientals, or lend it to them. This
disputed subject must be left to those who have a taste for such
inquiries. Certain it is, however, that fable flourished very anciently
with the people whose faith embraces the doctrine of metempsychosis.
Among the Hindoos, there are two very ancient collections of fables,
which differ from those which we have already mentioned, in having a
principle of connection throughout. They are, in fact, extended romances,
or dramas, in which all sorts of creatures are introduced as actors, and
in which there is a development of sentiment and passion as well as of
moral truth, the whole being wrought into a system of morals particularly
adapted to the use of those called to govern. One of these works is
called the _Pantcha Tantra_, which signifies "Five Books," or
Pentateuch. It is written in prose. The other is called the _Hitopadesa_,
or "Friendly Instruction," and is written in verse. Both are in the
ancient Sanscrit language, and bear the name of a Brahmin, Vishnoo
Sarmah, as the author. Sir William Jones, who is inclined to make this
author the true Aesop of the world, and to doubt the existence of the
Phrygian, gives him the preference to all other fabulists, both in
regard to matter and manner. He has left a prose translation of the
_Hitopadesa_, which, though it may not fully sustain his enthusiastic
preference, shows it not to be entirely groundless. We give a sample
of it, and select a fable which La Fontaine has served up as the
twenty-seventh of his eighth book. It should be understood that the
fable, with the moral reflections which accompany it, is taken from the
speech of one animal to another.
 _Vishnoo Sarmah_.--Sir William Jones has the name
_Vishnu-sarman_. He says, further, that the word
_Hitopadesa_ comes from _hita_, signifying fortune,
prosperity, utility, and _upadesa_, signifying advice,
the entire word meaning "salutary or amicable
"Frugality should ever be practised, but not excessive parsimony; for see
how a miser was killed by a bow drawn by himself!"
"How was that?" said Hiranyaca.
"In the country of Calyanacataca," said Menthara, "lived a mighty hunter,
named Bhairaza, or Terrible. One day he went, in search of game, into a
forest on the mountains Vindhya; when, having slain a fawn, and taken it
up, he perceived a boar of tremendous size; he therefore threw the fawn
on the ground, and wounded the boar with an arrow; the beast, horribly
roaring, rushed upon him, and wounded him desperately, so that he fell,
like a tree stricken with an axe.
* * * * *
"In the meanwhile, a jackal, named Lougery, was roving in search of food;
and, having perceived the fawn, the hunter, and the boar, all three dead,
he said to himself, 'What a noble provision is here made for me!'
"As the pains of men assail them unexpectedly, so their pleasures come in
the same manner; a divine power strongly operates in both.
"'Be it so; the flesh of these three animals will sustain me a whole
month, or longer.
"'A man suffices for one month; a fawn and a boar, for two; a snake, for
a whole day; and then I will devour the bowstring.' When the first
impulse of his hunger was allayed, he said, 'This flesh is not yet
tender; let me taste the twisted string with which the horns of this bow
are joined.' So saying, he began to gnaw it; but, in the instant when he
had cut the string, the severed bow leaped forcibly up, and wounded him
in the breast, so that he departed in the agonies of death. This I meant,
when I cited the verse, Frugality should ever be practised, &c.
* * * * *
"What thou givest to distinguished men, and what thou eatest every
day--that, in my opinion, is thine own wealth: whose is the remainder
which thou hoardest?"
_Works of Sir William Jones_, vol. vi. pp. 35-37.
 Edition 1799, 6 vols., 4to.--Ed.
It was one of these books which Chosroes, the king of Persia, caused to
be translated from the Sanscrit into the ancient language of his country,
in the sixth century of the Christian era, sending an embassy into
Hindostan expressly for that purpose. Of the Persian book a translation
was made in the time of the Calif Mansour, in the eighth century, into
Arabic. This Arabic translation it is which became famous under the title
of "The Book of Calila and Dimna, or the Fables of Bidpai."
 An English translation from the Arabic appeared in 1819, done by the
Rev. Wyndham Knatchbull. Sir William Jones says that the word
_Bidpaii_ signifies beloved, or favourite, physician. And he
adds that the word _Pilpay_, which has taken the place of
_Bidpaii_ in some editions of these fables, is the result
simply of a blunder in copying the word _Bidpaii_ from the
original. La Fontaine himself uses the word _Pilpay_ twice in
his Fables, viz., in Fables XII. and XV., Book XII.--Ed.
Calila and Dimna are the names of two jackals that figure in the history,
and Bidpai is one of the principal human interlocutors, who came to be
mistaken for the author. This remarkable book was turned into verse by
several of the Arabic poets, was translated into Greek, Hebrew, Latin,
modern Persian, and, in the course of a few centuries, either directly or
indirectly, into most of the languages of modern Europe.
Forty-one of the unadorned and disconnected fables of Aesop were also
translated into Arabic at a period somewhat more recent than the Hegira,
and passed by the name of the "Fables of Lokman." Their want of poetical
ornament prevented them from acquiring much popularity with the Arabians;
but they became well known in Europe, as furnishing a convenient
text-book in the study of Arabic.
The _Hitopadesa_, the fountain of poetic fables, with its
innumerable translations and modifications, seems to have had the
greatest charms for the Orientals. As it passed down the stream of time,
version after version, the ornament and machinery outgrew the moral
instruction, till it gave birth, at last, to such works of mere amusement
as the "Thousand and One Nights."
Fable slept, with other things, in the dark ages of Europe. Abridgments
took the place of the large collections, and probably occasioned the
entire loss of some of them. As literature revived, fable was
resuscitated. The crusades had brought European mind in contact with the
Indian works which we have already described, in their Arabic dress.
Translations and imitations in the European tongues were speedily
multiplied. The "Romance of the Fox," the work of Perrot de Saint Cloud,
one of the most successful of these imitations, dates back to the
thirteenth century. It found its way into most of the northern languages,
and became a household book. It undoubtedly had great influence over the
taste of succeeding ages, shedding upon the severe and satirical wit of
the Greek and Roman literature the rich, mellow light of Asiatic poetry.
The poets of that age were not confined, however, to fables from the
Hindoo source. Marie de France, also, in the thirteenth century,
versified one hundred of the fables of Aesop, translating from an English
collection, which does not now appear to be extant. Her work is entitled
the _Ysopet_, or "Little Aesop." Other versions, with the same
title, were subsequently written. It was in 1447 that Planudes, already
referred to, wrote in Greek prose a collection of fables, prefacing it
with a life of Aesop, which, for a long time, passed for the veritable
work of that ancient. In the next century, Abstemius wrote two hundred
fables in Latin prose, partly of modern, but chiefly of ancient
invention. At this time, the vulgar languages had undergone so great
changes, that works in them of two or three centuries old could not be
understood, and, consequently, the Latin became the favourite language of
authors. Many collections of fables were written in it, both in prose and
verse. By the art of printing these works were greatly multiplied; and
again the poets undertook the task of translating them into the language
of the people. The French led the way in this species of literature,
their language seeming to present some great advantages for it. One
hundred years before La Fontaine, Corrozet, Guillaume Gueroult, and
Philibert Hegemon, had written beautiful fables in verse, which it is
supposed La Fontaine must have read and profited by, although they had
become nearly obsolete in his time. It is a remarkable fact, that these
poetical fables should so soon have been forgotten. It was soon after
their appearance that the languages of Europe attained their full
development; and, at this epoch, prose seems to have been universally
preferred to poetry. So strong was this preference, that Ogilby, the
Scotch fabulist, who had written a collection of fables in English verse,
reduced them to prose on the occasion of publishing a more splendid
edition in 1668. It seems to have been the settled opinion of the critics
of that age, as it has, indeed, been stoutly maintained since, that the
ornaments of poetry only impair the force of the fable--that the Muses,
by becoming the handmaids of old Aesop, part with their own dignity
without conferring any on him. La Fontaine has made such an opinion
almost heretical. In his manner there is a perfect originality, and an
immortality every way equal to that of the matter which he gathered up
from all parts of the great storehouse of human experience. His fables
are like pure gold enveloped in solid rock-crystal. In English, a few of
the fables of Gay, of Moore, and of Cowper, may be compared with them in
some respects, but we have nothing resembling them as a whole. Gay, who
has done more than any other, though he has displayed great power of
invention, and has given his verse a flow worthy of his master, Pope, has
yet fallen far behind La Fontaine in the general management of his
materials. His fables are all beautiful poems, but few of them are
beautiful fables. His animal speakers do not sufficiently preserve their
animal characters. It is quite otherwise with La Fontaine. His beasts are
made most nicely to observe all the proprieties not only of the scene in
which they are called to speak, but of the great drama into which they
are from time to time introduced. His work constitutes an harmonious
whole. To those who read it in the original, it is one of the few which
never cloy the appetite. As in the poetry of Burns, you are apt to think
the last verse you read of him the best.
But the main object of this Preface was to give a few traces of the life
and literary career of our poet. A remarkable poet cannot but have been a
remarkable man. Suppose we take a man with native benevolence amounting
almost to folly; but little cunning, caution, or veneration; good
perceptive, but better reflective faculties; and a dominant love of the
beautiful;--and toss him into the focus of civilization in the age of
Louis XIV. It is an interesting problem to find out what will become of
him. Such is the problem worked out in the life of JEAN DE LA FONTAINE,
born on the eighth of July, 1621, at Chateau-Thierry. His father, a man
of some substance and station, committed two blunders in disposing of his
son. First, he encouraged him to seek an education for ecclesiastical
life, which was evidently unsuited to his disposition. Second, he brought
about his marriage with a woman who was unfitted to secure his
affections, or to manage his domestic affairs. In one other point he was
not so much mistaken: he laboured unremittingly to make his son a poet.
Jean was a backward boy, and showed not the least spark of poetical
genius till his twenty-second year. His poetical genius did not ripen
till long after that time. But his father lived to see him all, and more
than all, that he had ever hoped.
 The Translator in his sixth edition replaced the next paragraph by
the following remarks:--"The case is apparently, and only apparently,
an exception to the old rule _Poeta nascitur, orator fit_--the
poet is born, the orator is made. The truth is, without exception,
that every poet is born such; and many are born such of whose poetry
the world knows nothing. Every known poet is also somewhat an
orator; and as to this part of his character, he is made. And many
are known as poets who are altogether made; they are mere
second-hand, or orator poets, and are quite intolerable unless
exceedingly well made, which is, unfortunately, seldom the case. It
would be wise in them to busy themselves as mere translators. Every
one who is born with propensities to love and wonder too strong and
deep to be worn off by repetition or continuance,--in other words,
who is born to be always young,--is born a poet. The other
requisites he has of course. Upon him the making will never be lost.
The richest gems do most honour to their polishing. But they are
gems without any. So there are men who pass through the world with
their souls full of poetry, who would not believe you if you were to
tell them so. Happy for them is their ignorance, perhaps. La
Fontaine came near being one of them. All that is artificial in
poetry to him came late and with difficulty. Yet it resulted from
his keen relish of nature, that he was never satisfied with his art
of verse till he had brought it to the confines of perfection. He
did not philosophize over the animals; he sympathized with them. A
philosopher would not have lost a fashionable dinner in his
admiration of a common ant-hill. La Fontaine did so once, because
the well-known little community was engaged in what he took to be a
funeral. He could not in decency leave them till it was over.
Verse-making out of the question, this was to be a genuine poet,
though, with commonplace mortals, it was also to be a fool."
But we will first, in few words, despatch the worst--for there is a very
bad part--of his life. It was not specially _his_ life; it was the
life of the age in which he lived. The man of strong amorous
propensities, in that age and country, who was, nevertheless, faithful to
vows of either marriage or celibacy,--the latter vows then proved sadly
dangerous to the former,--may be regarded as a miracle. La Fontaine,
without any agency of his own affections, found himself married at the
age of twenty-six, while yet as immature as most men are at sixteen. The
upshot was, that his patrimony dwindled; and, though he lived many years
with his wife, and had a son, he neglected her more and more, till at
last he forgot that he had been married, though he unfortunately did not
forget that there were other women in the world besides his wife. His
genius and benevolence gained him friends everywhere with both sexes, who
never suffered him to want, and who had never cause to complain of his
ingratitude. But he was always the special favourite of the Aspasias who
ruled France and her kings. To please them, he wrote a great deal of fine
poetry, much of which deserves to be everlastingly forgotten. It must be
said for him, that his vice became conspicuous only in the light of one
of his virtues. His frankness would never allow concealment. He
scandalized his friends Boileau and Racine; still, it is matter of doubt
whether they did not excel him rather in prudence than in purity. But,
whatever may be said in palliation, it is lamentable to think that a
heaven-lighted genius should have been made, in any way, to minister to a
hell-envenomed vice, which has caused unutterable woes to France and the
world. Some time before he died, he repented bitterly of this part of his
course, and laboured, no doubt sincerely, to repair the mischiefs he had
As we have already said, Jean was a backward boy. But, under a dull
exterior, the mental machinery was working splendidly within. He lacked
all that outside care and prudence,--that constant looking out for
breakers,--which obstruct the growth and ripening of the reflective
faculties. The vulgar, by a queer mistake, call a man _absent-minded_,
when his mind shuts the door, pulls in the latch-string, and is
wholly at home. La Fontaine's mind was exceedingly domestic. It was
nowhere but at home when, riding from Paris to Chateau-Thierry, a bundle
of papers fell from his saddle-bow without his perceiving it. The
mail-carrier, coming behind him, picked it up, and overtaking La
Fontaine, asked him if he had lost anything. "Certainly not," he replied,
looking about him with great surprise. "Well, I have just picked up these
papers," rejoined the other. "Ah! they are mine," cried La Fontaine;
"they involve my whole estate." And he eagerly reached to take them. On
another occasion he was equally at home. Stopping on a journey, he
ordered dinner at an hotel, and then took a ramble about the town. On his
return, he entered another hotel, and, passing through into the garden,
took from his pocket a copy of Livy, in which he quietly set himself to
read till his dinner should be ready. The book made him forget his
appetite, till a servant informed him of his mistake, and he returned to
his hotel just in time to pay his bill and proceed on his journey.
It will be perceived that he took the world quietly, and his doing so
undoubtedly had important bearings on his style. We give another
anecdote, which illustrates this peculiarity of his mind as well as the
superlative folly of duelling. Not long after his marriage, with all his
indifference to his wife, he was persuaded into a fit of singular
jealousy. He was intimate with an ex-captain of dragoons, by name
Poignant, who had retired to Chateau-Thierry; a frank, open-hearted man,
but of extremely little gallantry. Whenever Poignant was not at his inn,
he was at La Fontaine's, and consequently with his wife, when he himself
was not at home. Some person took it in his head to ask La Fontaine why
he suffered these constant visits. "And why," said La Fontaine, "should I
not? He is my best friend." "The public think otherwise," was the reply;
"they say that he comes for the sake of Madame La Fontaine." "The public
is mistaken; but what must I do in the case?" said the poet. "You must
demand satisfaction, sword in hand, of one who has dishonoured you."
"Very well," said La Fontaine, "I will demand it." The next day he called
on Poignant, at four o'clock in the morning, and found him in bed.
"Rise," said he, "and come out with me!" His friend asked him what was
the matter, and what pressing business had brought him so early in the
morning. "I shall let you know," replied La Fontaine, "when we get
abroad." Poignant, in great astonishment, rose, followed him out, and
asked whither he was leading. "You shall know by-and-by," replied La
Fontaine; and at last, when they had reached a retired place, he said,
"My friend, we must fight." Poignant, still more surprised, sought to
know in what he had offended him, and moreover represented to him that
they were not on equal terms. "I am a man of war," said he, "while, as
for you, you have never drawn a sword." "No matter," said La Fontaine;
"the public requires that I should fight you." Poignant, after having
resisted in vain, at last drew his sword, and, having easily made himself
master of La Fontaine's, demanded the cause of the quarrel. "The public
maintains," said La Fontaine, "that you come to my house daily, not for
my sake, but my wife's." "Ah! my friend," replied the other, "I should
never have suspected that was the cause of your displeasure, and I
protest I will never again put a foot within your doors." "On the
contrary," replied La Fontaine, seizing him by the hand, "I have
satisfied the public, and now you must come to my house, every day, or I
will fight you again." The two antagonists returned, and breakfasted
together in good-humour.
It was not, as we have said, till his twenty-second year, that La
Fontaine showed any taste for poetry. The occasion was this:--An officer,
in winter-quarters at Chateau-Thierry, one day read to him, with great
spirit, an ode of Malherbe, beginning thus--
Que direz-vous, races futures,
Si quelquefois un vrai discours
Vous recite les aventures
De nos abominables jours?
Or, as we might paraphrase it,--
What will ye say, ye future days,
If I, for once, in honest rhymes,
Recount to you the deeds and ways
Of our abominable times?
La Fontaine listened with involuntary transports of joy, admiration, and
astonishment, as if a man born with a genius for music, but brought up in
a desert, had for the first time heard a well-played instrument. He set
himself immediately to reading Malherbe, passed his nights in learning
his verses by heart, and his days in declaiming them in solitary places.
He also read Voiture, and began to write verses in imitation. Happily, at
this period, a relative named Pintrel directed his attention to ancient
literature, and advised him to make himself familiar with Horace, Homer,
Virgil, Terence, and Quinctilian. He accepted this counsel. M. de
Maucroix, another of his friends, who cultivated poetry with success,
also contributed to confirm his taste for the ancient models. His great
delight, however, was to read Plato and Plutarch, which he did only
through translations. The copies which he used are said to bear his
manuscript notes on almost every page, and these notes are the maxims
which are to be found in his fables. Returning from this study of the
ancients, he read the moderns with more discrimination. His favourites,
besides Malherbe, were Corneille, Rabelais, and Marot. In Italian, he
read Ariosto, Boccaccio, and Machiavel. In 1654 he published his first
work, a translation of the _Eunuch_ of Terence. It met with no
success. But this does not seem at all to have disturbed its author. He
cultivated verse-making with as much ardour and good-humour as ever; and
his verses soon began to be admired in the circle of his friends. No man
had ever more devoted friends. Verses that have cost thought are not
relished without thought. When a genius appears, it takes some little
time for the world to educate itself to a knowledge of the fact. By one
of his friends, La Fontaine was introduced to Fouquet, the minister of
finance, a man of great power, and who rivalled his sovereign in wealth
and luxury. It was his pride to be the patron of literary men, and he was
pleased to make La Fontaine his poet, settling on him a pension of one
thousand francs per annum, on condition that he should produce a piece in
verse each quarter,--a condition which was exactly complied with till the
fall of the minister.
Fouquet was a most splendid villain, and positively, though perhaps not
comparatively, deserved to fall. But it was enough for La Fontaine that
Fouquet had done him a kindness. He took the part of the disgraced
minister, without counting the cost. His "Elegy to the nymphs of Vaux"
was a shield to the fallen man, and turned popular hatred into sympathy.
The good-hearted poet rejoiced exceedingly in its success. _Bon-homme_
was the appellation which his friends pleasantly gave him, and by
which he became known everywhere;--and never did a man better deserve it
in its best sense. He was good by nature--not by the calculation of
consequences. Indeed it does not seem ever to have occurred to him that
kindness, gratitude, and truth, could have any other than good
consequences. He was truly a Frenchman without guile, and possessed to
perfection that comfortable trait,--in which French character is commonly
allowed to excel the English,--_good-humour_ with the whole world.
La Fontaine was the intimate friend of Moliere, Boileau, and Racine.
Moliere had already established a reputation; but the others became known
to the world at the same time. Boileau hired a small chamber in the
Faubourg Saint Germain, where they all met several times a week; for La
Fontaine, at the age of forty-four, had left Chateau-Thierry, and become
a citizen of Paris. Here they discussed all sorts of topics, admitting to
their society Chapelle, a man of less genius, but of greater
conversational powers, than either of them--a sort of connecting link
between them and the world. Four poets, or four men, could hardly have
been more unlike. Boileau was blustering, blunt, peremptory, but honest
and frank; Racine, of a pleasant and tranquil gaiety, but mischievous and
sarcastic; Moliere was naturally considerate, pensive, and melancholy; La
Fontaine was often absent-minded, but sometimes exceedingly jovial,
delighting with his sallies, his witty _naivetes_, and his arch
simplicity. These meetings, which no doubt had a great influence upon
French literature, La Fontaine, in one of his prefaces, thus
describes:--"Four friends, whose acquaintance had begun at the foot of
Parnassus, held a sort of society, which I should call an Academy, if
their number had been sufficiently great, and if they had had as much
regard for the Muses as for pleasure. The first thing which they did was
to banish from among them all rules of conversation, and everything which
savours of the academic conference. When they met, and had sufficiently
discussed their amusements, if chance threw them upon any point of
science or belles-lettres, they profited by the occasion; it was,
however, without dwelling too long on the same subject, flitting from one
thing to another like the bees that meet divers sorts of flowers on their
way. Neither envy, malice, nor cabal, had any voice among them. They
adored the works of the ancients, never refused due praise to those of
the moderns, spoke modestly of their own, and gave each other sincere
counsel, when any one of them--which rarely happened--fell into the
malady of the age, and published a book."
The absent-mindedness of our fabulist not unfrequently created much
amusement on these occasions, and made him the object of mirthful
conspiracies. So keenly was the game pursued by Boileau and Racine, that
the more considerate Moliere felt obliged sometimes to expose and rebuke
them. Once, after having done so, he privately told a stranger, who was
present with them, the wits would have worried themselves in vain; they
could not have obliterated the _bon-homme_.
La Fontaine, as we have said, was an admirer of Rabelais;--to what a
pitch, the following anecdote may show. At one of the meetings at
Boileau's were present Racine, Valincourt, and a brother of Boileau's, a
doctor of the Sorbonne. The latter took it upon him to set forth the
merits of St. Augustin in a pompous eulogium. La Fontaine, plunged in one
of his habitual reveries, listened without hearing. At last, rousing
himself as if from a profound sleep, to prove that the conversation had
not been lost upon him, he asked the doctor, with a very serious air,
whether he thought St. Augustin had as much wit as Rabelais. The divine,
surprised, looked at him from head to foot, and only replied, "Take care,
Monsieur La Fontaine;--you have put one of your stockings on wrong side
outwards"--which was the fact.
It was in 1668 that La Fontaine published his first collection of fables,
under the modest title _Fables Choisies, mises en Vers_, in a quarto
volume, with figures designed and engraved by Chauveau. It contained six
books, and was dedicated to the Dauphin. Many of the fables had already
been published in a separate form. The success of this collection was so
great, that it was reprinted the same year in a smaller size. Fables had
come to be regarded as beneath poetry; La Fontaine established them at
once on the top of Parnassus. The ablest poets of his age did not think
it beneath them to enter the lists with him; and it is needless to say
they came off second best.
One of the fables of the first book is addressed to the Duke de la
Rochefoucauld, and was the consequence of a friendship between La
Fontaine and the author of the celebrated "Maxims." Connected with the
duke was Madame La Fayette, one of the most learned and ingenious women
of her age, who consequently became the admirer and friend of the
fabulist. To her he wrote verses abundantly, as he did to all who made
him the object of their kind regard. Indeed, notwithstanding his avowed
indolence, or rather passion for quiet and sleep, his pen was very
productive. In 1669, he published "Psyche," a romance in prose and verse,
which he dedicated to the Duchess de Bouillon, in gratitude for many
kindnesses. The prose is said to be better than the verse; but this can
hardly be true in respect to the following lines, in which the poet under
the apt name of Polyphile, in a hymn addressed to Pleasure, undoubtedly
Volupte, Volupte, qui fus jadis maitresse
Du plus bel esprit de la Grece,
Ne me dedaigne pas; viens-t'en loger chez moi:
Tu n'y seras pas sans emploi:
J'aime le jeu, l'amour, les livres, la musique,
La ville et la campagne, enfin tout; il n'est rien
Qui ne me soit souverain bien,
Jusqu'au sombre plaisir d'un coeur melancolique.
The characteristic grace and playfulness of this seem to defy
translation. To the mere English reader, the sense may be roughly given
Delight, Delight, who didst as mistress hold
The finest wit of Grecian mould,
Disdain not me; but come,
And make my house thy home.
Thou shalt not be without employ:
In play, love, music, books, I joy,
In town and country; and, indeed, there's nought,
E'en to the luxury of sober thought,--
The sombre, melancholy mood,--
But brings to me the sovereign good.
Come, then, &c.
The same Polyphile, in recounting his adventures on a visit to the
infernal regions, tells us that he saw, in the hands of the cruel
------Les auteurs de maint hymen force
L'amant chiche, et la dame au coeur interesse;
La troupe des censeurs, peuple a l'Amour rebelle;
Ceux enfin dont les vers ont noirci quelque belle.
------Artificers of many a loveless match,
And lovers who but sought the pence to catch;
The crew censorious, rebels against Love;
And those whose verses soiled the fair above.
To be "rebels against Love" was quite unpardonable with La Fontaine; and
to bring about a "_hymen force_" was a crime, of which he probably
spoke with some personal feeling. The great popularity of "Psyche"
encouraged the author to publish two volumes of poems and tales in 1671,
in which were contained several new fables. The celebrated Madame de
Sevigne thus speaks of these fables, in one of her letters to her
daughter:--"But have you not admired the beauty of the five or six fables
of La Fontaine contained in one of the volumes which I sent you? We were
charmed with them the other day at M. de la Rochefoucauld's: we got by
art that of the Monkey and the Cat." Then, quoting some lines, she
adds,--"This is painting! And the Pumpkin--and the Nightingale--they are
worthy of the first volume!" It was in his stories that La Fontaine
excelled; and Madame de Sevigne expresses a wish to invent a fable which
would impress upon him the folly of leaving his peculiar province. He
seemed himself not insensible where his strength lay, and seldom ventured
upon any other ground, except at the instance of his friends. With all
his lightness, he felt a deep veneration for religion--the most spiritual
and rigid which came within the circle of his immediate acquaintance. He
admired Jansenius and the Port Royalists, and heartily loved Racine, who
was of their faith. Count Henri-Louis de Lomenie, of Brienne,--who, after
being secretary of state, had retired to the Oratoire,--was engaged in
bringing out a better collection of Christian lyrics. To this work he
pressed La Fontaine, whom he called his particular friend, to lend his
name and contributions. Thus the author of "Psyche," "Adonis," and
"Joconde," was led to the composition of pious hymns, and versifications
of the Psalms of David. Gifted by nature with the utmost frankness of
disposition, he sympathized fully with Arnauld and Pascal in the war
against the Jesuits; and it would seem, from his _Ballade sur Escobar_,
that he had read and relished the "Provincial Letters." This
ballad, as it may be a curiosity to many, shall be given entire:--
BALLADE SUR ESCOBAR.
C'est a bon droit que l'on condamne a Rome
L'eveque d'Ypre , auteur de vains debats;
Ses sectateurs nous defendent en somme
Tous les plaisirs que l'on goute ici-bas.
En paradis allant au petit pas,
On y parvient, quoi qu'ARNAULD  nous en die:
La volupte sans cause il a bannie.
Veut-on monter sur les celestes tours,
Chemin pierreux est grande reverie,
ESCOBAR  sait un chemin de velours.
Il ne dit pas qu'on peut tuer un homme
Qui sans raison nous tient en altercas
Pour un fetu ou bien pour une pomme;
Mais qu'on le peut pour quatre ou cinq ducats.
Meme il soutient qu'on peut en certains cas
Faire un serment plein de supercherie,
S'abandonner aux douceurs de la vie,
S'il est besoin conserver ses amours.
Ne faut-il pas apres cela qu'on crie:
ESCOBAR sait un chemin de velours?
Au nom de Dieu, lisez-moi quelque somme
De ces ecrits don't chez lui l'on fait cas.
Qu'est-il besoin qu'a present je les nomme?
II en est tant qu'on ne les connoit pas.
De leurs avis servez-vous pour compas;
N'admettez qu'eux en votre librairie;
Brulez ARNAULD avec sa coterie,
Pres d'ESCOBAR ce ne sont qu'esprits lourds.
Je vous le dis: ce n'est point raillerie,
ESCOBAR sait un chemin de velours.
Toi, que l'orgueil poussa dans la voirie,
Qui tiens la-bas noire conciergerie,
Lucifer, chef des infernales cours,
Pour eviter les traits de ta furie,
ESCOBAR sait un chemin de velours.
 _Corneille Jansenius_,--the originator of the sect called
Jansenists. Though he was bishop of Ypres, his chief work,
"Augustinus," and his doctrines generally, were condemned by Popes
Urban VIII. and Innocent X., as heretical (1641 and 1653).--Ed.
 _Arnauld_.--This was Antoine Arnauld, doctor of the Sorbonne,
and one of the Arnaulds famous among the Port Royalists, who were
Jansenists in opposition to the Jesuits. He was born in 1612, and
died a voluntary exile in Belgium, 1694. Boileau wrote his
 _Escobar_.--A Spanish Jesuit, who flourished mostly in France,
and wrote against the Jansenists. Pascal, as well as La Fontaine,
ridiculed his convenient principles of morality, he "chemin de
velours," as La Fontaine puts it. His chief work in moral theology
was published in seven vols., folio, at Lyons, 1652-1663. He died in
Thus does the _Bon-homme_ treat the subtle Escobar, the prince and
prototype of the moralists of _expediency_. To translate his artless
and delicate irony is hardly possible. The writer of this hasty Preface
offers the following only as an attempted imitation:--
BALLAD UPON ESCOBAR.
Good cause has Rome to reprobate
The bishop who disputes her so;
His followers reject and hate
All pleasures that we taste below.
To heaven an easy pace may go,
Whatever crazy ARNAULD saith,
Who aims at pleasure causeless wrath.
Seek we the better world afar?
We're fools to choose the rugged path:
A velvet road hath ESCOBAR.
Although he does not say you can,
Should one with you for nothing strive,
Or for a trifle, kill the man--
You can for ducats four or five.
Indeed, if circumstances drive,
Defraud, or take false oaths you may,
Or to the charms of life give way,
When Love must needs the door unbar.
Henceforth must not the pilgrim say,
A velvet road hath ESCOBAR?
Now, would to God that one would state
The pith of all his works to me.
What boots it to enumerate?
As well attempt to drain the sea!--
Your chart and compass let them be;
All other books put under ban;
Burn ARNAULD and his rigid clan--
They're blockheads if we but compare;--
It is no joke,--I tell you, man,
A velvet road hath ESCOBAR.
Thou warden of the prison black,
Who didst on heaven turn thy back,
The chieftain of th' infernal war!
To shun thy arrows and thy rack,
A velvet road hath ESCOBAR.
The verses of La Fontaine did more for his reputation than for his purse.
His paternal estate wasted away under his carelessness; for, when the
ends of the year refused to meet, he sold a piece of land sufficient to
make them do so. His wife, no better qualified to manage worldly gear
than himself, probably lived on her family friends, who were able to
support her, and who seem to have done so without blaming him. She had
lived with him in Paris for some time after that city became his
abode; but, tiring at length of the city life, she had returned at
Chateau-Thierry, and occupied the family mansion. At the earnest
expostulation of Boileau and Racine, who wished to make him a better
husband, he returned to Chateau-Thierry himself, in 1666, for the purpose
of becoming reconciled to his wife. But his purpose strangely vanished.
He called at his own house, learned from the domestic, who did not know
him, that Madame La Fontaine was in good health, and passed on to the
house of a friend, where he tarried two days, and then returned to Paris
without having seen his wife. When his friends inquired of him his
success, with some confusion he replied, "I have been to see her, but I
did not find her: she was well." Twenty years after that, Racine
prevailed on him to visit his patrimonial estate, to take some care of
what remained. Racine, not hearing from him, sent to know what he was
about, when La Fontaine wrote as follows:--"Poignant, on his return from
Paris, told me that you took my silence in very bad part; the worse,
because you had been told that I have been incessantly at work since my
arrival at Chateau-Thierry, and that, instead of applying myself to my
affairs, I have had nothing in my head but verses. All this is no more
than half true: my affairs occupy me as much as they deserve to--that is
to say not at all; but the leisure which they leave me--it is not poetry,
but idleness, which makes away with it." On a certain occasion, in the
earlier part of his life, when pressed in regard to his improvidence, he
gaily produced the following epigram, which has commonly been appended to
his fables as "The Epitaph of La Fontaine, written by Himself":--
Jean s'en alla comme il etait venu,
Mangea le fonds avec le revenu,
Tint les tresors chose peu necessaire.
Quant a son temps, bien sut le dispenser:
Deux parts en fit, don't il souloit passer
L'urie a dormir, et l'autre a ne rien faire.
This confession, the immortality of which was so little foreseen by its
author, liberally rendered, amounts to the following:--
John went as he came--ate his farm with its fruits,
Held treasure to be but the cause of disputes;
And, as to his time, be it frankly confessed,
Divided it daily as suited him best,--
Gave a part to his sleep, and to nothing the rest.
It is clear that a man who provided so little for himself needed good
friends to do it; and Heaven kindly furnished them. When his affairs
began to be straitened, he was invited by the celebrated Madame de la
Sabliere to make her house his home; and there, in fact, he was
thoroughly domiciliated for twenty years. "I have sent away all my
domestics," said that lady, one day; "I have kept only my dog, my cat,
and La Fontaine." She was, perhaps, the best-educated woman in France,
was the mistress of several languages, knew Horace and Virgil by heart,
and had been thoroughly indoctrinated in all the sciences by the ablest
masters. Her husband, M. Rambouillet de la Sabliere, was secretary to the
king, and register of domains, and to immense wealth united considerable
poetical talents, with a thorough knowledge of the world. It was the will
of Madame de la Sabliere, that her favourite poet should have no further
care for his external wants; and never was a mortal more perfectly
resigned. He did all honour to the sincerity of his amiable hostess; and,
if he ever showed a want of independence, he certainly did not of
gratitude. Compliments of more touching tenderness we nowhere meet than
those which La Fontaine has paid to his benefactress. He published
nothing which was not first submitted to her eye, and entered into her
affairs and friendships with all his heart. Her unbounded confidence in
his integrity she expressed by saying, "La Fontaine never lies in
prose." By her death, in 1693, our fabulist was left without a home; but
his many friends vied with each other which should next furnish one. He
was then seventy-two years of age, had turned his attention to personal
religion, and received the seal of conversion at the hands of the Roman
Catholic church. In his conversion, as in the rest of his life, his
frankness left no room to doubt his sincerity. The writings which had
justly given offence to the good were made the subject of a public
confession, and everything in his power was done to prevent their
circulation. The death of one who had done so much for him, and whose
last days, devoted with the most self-denying benevolence to the welfare
of her species, had taught him a most salutary lesson, could not but be
deeply felt. He had just left the house of his deceased benefactress,
never again to enter it, when he met M. d'Hervart in the street, who
eagerly said to him, "My dear La Fontaine, I was looking for you, to beg
you to come and take lodgings in my house." "I was going thither,"
replied La Fontaine. A reply could not have more characteristic. The
fabulist had not in him sufficient hypocrisy of which to manufacture the
commonplace politeness of society. His was the politeness of a warm and
unsuspecting heart. He never concealed his confidence in the fear that it
might turn out to be misplaced.
His second collection of fables, containing five books, La Fontaine
published in 1678-9, with a dedication to Madame de Montespan; the
previous six books were republished at the same time, revised, and
enlarged. The twelfth book was not added till many years after, and
proved, in fact, the song of the dying swan. It was written for the
special use of the young Duke de Bourgogne, the royal pupil of Fenelon,
to whom it contains frequent allusions. The eleven books now published
sealed the reputation of La Fontaine, and were received with
distinguished regard by the king, who appended to the ordinary protocol
or imprimatur for publication the following reasons: "in order to testify
to the author the esteem we have for his person and his merit, and
because youth have received great advantage in their education from the
fables selected and put in verse, which he has heretofore published." The
author was, moreover, permitted to present his book in person to the
sovereign. For this purpose he repaired to Versailles, and after having
well delivered himself of his compliment to royalty, perceived that he
had forgotten to bring the book which he was to present; he was,
nevertheless, favourably received, and loaded with presents. But it is
added, that, on his return, he also lost, by his absence of mind, the
purse full of gold which the king had given him, which was happily found
under a cushion of the carriage in which he rode.
In his advertisement to the second part of his Fables, La Fontaine
informs the reader that he had treated his subjects in a somewhat
different style. In fact, in his first collection, he had timidly
confined himself to the brevity of Aesop and Phaedrus; but, having
observed that those fables were most popular in which he had given most
scope to his own genius, he threw off the trammels in the second
collection, and, in the opinion of the writer, much for the better. His
subjects, too, in the second part, are frequently derived from the Indian
fabulists, and bring with them the richness and dramatic interest of the
Of all his fables, the Oak and the Reed is said to have been the
favourite of La Fontaine. But his critics have almost unanimously given
the palm of excellence to the Animals sick of the Plague, the first of
the seventh book. Its exquisite poetry, the perfection of its dialogue,
and the weight of its moral, well entitle it to the place. That must have
been a soul replete with honesty, which could read such a lesson in the
ears of a proud and oppressive court. Indeed, we may look in vain through
this encyclopaedia of fable for a sentiment which goes to justify the
strong in their oppression of the weak. Even in the midst of the fulsome
compliments which it was the fashion of his age to pay to royalty, La
Fontaine maintains a reserve and decency peculiar to himself. By an
examination of his fables, we think, we might fairly establish for him
the character of an honest and disinterested lover and respecter of his
species. In his fable entitled Death and the Dying, he unites the genius
of Pascal and Moliere; in that of the Two Doves is a tenderness quite
peculiar to himself, and an insight into the heart worthy of Shakspeare.
In his Mogul's Dream are sentiments worthy of the very high-priest of
nature, and expressed in his own native tongue with a felicity which
makes the translator feel that all his labours are but vanity and
vexation of spirit. But it is not the purpose of this brief Preface to
criticize the Fables. It is sufficient to say, that the work occupies a
position in French literature, which, after all has been said that can be
for Gay, Moore, and other English versifiers of fables, is left quite
vacant in ours.
Our author was elected a member of the French Academy in 1684, and
received with the honour of a public session. He read on this occasion a
poem of exquisite beauty, addressed to his benefactress, Madame de la
Sabliere. In that distinguished body of men he was a universal favourite,
and none, perhaps, did more to promote its prime object--the improvement
of the French language. We have already seen how he was regarded by some
of the greatest minds of his age. Voltaire, who never did more than
justice to merit other than his own, said of the Fables, "I hardly know a
book which more abounds with charms adapted to the people, and at the
same time to persons of refined taste. I believe that, of all authors, La
Fontaine is the most universally read. He is for all minds and all
ages." La Bruyere, when admitted to the Academy, in 1693, was warmly
applauded for his _eloge_ upon La Fontaine, which contained the
following words:--"More equal than Marot, and more poetical than Voiture,
La Fontaine has the playfulness, felicity, and artlessness of both. He
instructs while he sports, persuades men to virtue by means of beasts,
and exalts trifling subjects to the sublime; a man unique in his species
of composition, always original, whether he invents or translates,--who
has gone beyond his models, himself a model hard to imitate."
La Fontaine, as we have said, devoted his latter days to religion. In
this he was sustained and cheered by his old friends Racine and De
Maucroix. Death overtook him while applying his poetical powers to the
hymns of the church. To De Maucroix he wrote, a little before his
death,--"I assure you that the best of your friends cannot count upon
more than fifteen days of life. For these two months I have not gone
abroad, except occasionally to attend the Academy, for a little
amusement. Yesterday, as I was returning from it, in the middle of the
Rue du Chantre, I was taken with such a faintness that I really thought
myself dying. O, my friend, to die is nothing: but think you how I am
going to appear before God! You know how I have lived. Before you receive
this billet, the gates of eternity will perhaps have been opened upon
me!" To this, a few days after, his friend replied,--"If God, in his
kindness, restores you to health, I hope you will come and spend the rest
of your life with me, and we shall often talk together of the mercies of
God. If, however, you have not strength to write, beg M. Racine to do me
that kindness, the greatest he can ever do for me. Adieu, my good, my
old, and my true friend. May God, in his infinite, goodness, take care of
the health of your body, and that of your soul." He died the 13th of
April, 1695, at the age of seventy-three, and was buried in the cemetery
of the Saints-Innocents.
When Fenelon heard of his death, he wrote a Latin eulogium, which he gave
to his royal pupil to translate. "La Fontaine is no more!" said Fenelon,
in this composition; "he is no more! and with him have gone the playful
jokes, the merry laugh, the artless graces, and the sweet Muses."
* * * * *
THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE
* * * * *
To Monseigneur The Dauphin.
I sing the heroes of old Aesop's line,
Whose tale, though false when strictly we define,
Containeth truths it were not ill to teach.
With me all natures use the gift of speech;
Yea, in my work, the very fishes preach,
And to our human selves their sermons suit.
'Tis thus, to come at man, I use the brute.
Son of a Prince the favourite of the skies,
On whom the world entire hath fix'd its eyes,
Who hence shall count his conquests by his days,
And gather from the proudest lips his praise,
A louder voice than mine must tell in song
What virtues to thy kingly line belong.
I seek thine ear to gain by lighter themes,
Slight pictures, deck'd in magic nature's beams;
And if to please thee shall not be my pride,
I'll gain at least the praise of having tried.
 This dedication prefaced La Fontaine's first collection of his
Fables, which comprised Books I. to VI., published in 1668. The
Dauphin was Louis, the only son of Louis XIV. and Marie-Therese of
Austria. He was born at Fontainebleau in 1661, and died at Meudon in
1712, before his father, the "Grand Monarque," had ceased to reign.
The Dauphin being but a child, between six and seven years old, at
the time of this dedication, La Fontaine's act may be viewed rather
as an offering to the King, than to the child himself. See the
* * * * *
I.--THE GRASSHOPPER AND THE ANT.
A Grasshopper gay
Sang the summer away,
And found herself poor
By the winter's first roar.
Of meat or of bread,
Not a morsel she had!
So a begging she went,
To her neighbour the ant,
For the loan of some wheat,
Which would serve her to eat,
Till the season came round.
'I will pay you,' she saith,
'On an animal's faith,
Double weight in the pound
Ere the harvest be bound.'
The ant is a friend
(And here she might mend)
Little given to lend.
'How spent you the summer?'
Quoth she, looking shame
At the borrowing dame.
'Night and day to each comer
I sang, if you please.'
'You sang! I'm at ease;
For 'tis plain at a glance,
Now, ma'am, you must dance.'
 For the story of this fable, as for the stories of so many of the
fables which follow, especially in the first six books, La Fontaine
is indebted to the Father of Fable, Aesop the Phrygian. See account
of Aesop in the Translator's Preface.
II.--THE RAVEN AND THE FOX.
Perch'd on a lofty oak,
Sir Raven held a lunch of cheese;
Sir Fox, who smelt it in the breeze,
Thus to the holder spoke:--
'Ha! how do you do, Sir Raven?
Well, your coat, sir, is a brave one!
So black and glossy, on my word, sir,
With voice to match, you were a bird, sir,
Well fit to be the Phoenix of these days.'
Sir Raven, overset with praise,
Must show how musical his croak.
Down fell the luncheon from the oak;
Which snatching up, Sir Fox thus spoke:--
'The flatterer, my good sir,
Aye liveth on his listener;
Which lesson, if you please,
Is doubtless worth the cheese.'
A bit too late, Sir Raven swore
The rogue should never cheat him more.
 Both Aesop and Phaedrus have a version of this fable.
III.--THE FROG THAT WISHED TO BE AS BIG AS THE OX.
The tenant of a bog,
An envious little frog,
Not bigger than an egg,
A stately bullock spies,
And, smitten with his size,
Attempts to be as big.
With earnestness and pains,
She stretches, swells, and strains,
And says, 'Sis Frog, look here! see me!
Is this enough?' 'No, no.'
'Well, then, is this?' 'Poh! poh!
Enough! you don't begin to be.'
And thus the reptile sits,
Enlarging till she splits.
The world is full of folks
Of just such wisdom;--
The lordly dome provokes
The cit to build his dome;
And, really, there is no telling
How much great men set little ones a swelling.
 The story of this fable is given in Horace, _Satires_, II. 3,
Phaedrus and Corrozet have also versions of it. For an account of
Phaedrus and his Fables see the Translator's Preface. Gilles Corrozet
was one of the French fabulists immediately preceding La Fontaine.
He was a Parisian bookseller-author who lived between 1516 and 1568.
IV.--THE TWO MULES.
Two mules were bearing on their backs,
One, oats; the other, silver of the tax.
The latter glorying in his load,
March'd proudly forward on the road;
And, from the jingle of his bell,
'Twas plain he liked his burden well.
But in a wild-wood glen
A band of robber men
Rush'd forth upon the twain.
Well with the silver pleased,
They by the bridle seized
The treasure-mule so vain.
Poor mule! in struggling to repel
His ruthless foes, he fell
Stabb'd through; and with a bitter sighing,
He cried, 'Is this the lot they promised me?
My humble friend from danger free,
While, weltering in my gore, I'm dying?'
'My friend,' his fellow-mule replied,
'It is not well to have one's work too high.
If thou hadst been a miller's drudge, as I,
Thou wouldst not thus have died.'
 _The silver of the tax_.--An allusion to the French _gabelle_, or
old salt tax, which, like all taxes levied upon the mass of the
people, was a very productive one. Its collection caused several
V.--THE WOLF AND THE DOG.
A prowling wolf, whose shaggy skin
(So strict the watch of dogs had been)
Hid little but his bones,
Once met a mastiff dog astray.
A prouder, fatter, sleeker Tray,
No human mortal owns.
Sir Wolf in famish'd plight,
Would fain have made a ration
Upon his fat relation;
But then he first must fight;
And well the dog seem'd able
To save from wolfish table
His carcass snug and tight.
So, then, in civil conversation
The wolf express'd his admiration
Of Tray's fine case. Said Tray, politely,
'Yourself, good sir, may be as sightly;
Quit but the woods, advised by me.
For all your fellows here, I see,
Are shabby wretches, lean and gaunt,
Belike to die of haggard want.
With such a pack, of course it follows,
One fights for every bit he swallows.
Come, then, with me, and share
On equal terms our princely fare.'
'But what with you
Has one to do?'
Inquires the wolf. 'Light work indeed,'
Replies the dog; 'you only need
To bark a little now and then,
To chase off duns and beggar men,
To fawn on friends that come or go forth,
Your master please, and so forth;
For which you have to eat
All sorts of well-cook'd meat--
Cold pullets, pigeons, savoury messes--
Besides unnumber'd fond caresses.'
The wolf, by force of appetite,
Accepts the terms outright,
Tears glistening in his eyes.
But faring on, he spies
A gall'd spot on the mastiff's neck.
'What's that?' he cries. 'O, nothing but a speck.'
'A speck?' 'Ay, ay; 'tis not enough to pain me;
Perhaps the collar's mark by which they chain me.'
'Chain! chain you! What! run you not, then,
Just where you please, and when?'
'Not always, sir; but what of that?'
'Enough for me, to spoil your fat!
It ought to be a precious price
Which could to servile chains entice;
For me, I'll shun them while I've wit.'
So ran Sir Wolf, and runneth yet.
 Phaedrus, III. 7.--The references to the Fables of Phaedrus are to
Bohn's edition, which is from the critical edition of Orellius, 1831.
VI.--THE HEIFER, THE GOAT, AND THE SHEEP, IN COMPANY WITH THE LION.
The heifer, the goat, and their sister the sheep,
Compacted their earnings in common to keep,
'Tis said, in time past, with a lion, who sway'd
Full lordship o'er neighbours, of whatever grade.
The goat, as it happen'd, a stag having snared,
Sent off to the rest, that the beast might be shared.
All gather'd; the lion first counts on his claws,
And says, 'We'll proceed to divide with our paws
The stag into pieces, as fix'd by our laws.'
This done, he announces part first as his own;
''Tis mine,' he says, 'truly, as lion alone.'
To such a decision there's nought to be said,
As he who has made it is doubtless the head.
'Well, also, the second to me should belong;
'Tis mine, be it known, by the right of the strong.
Again, as the bravest, the third must be mine.
To touch but the fourth whoso maketh a sign,
I'll choke him to death
In the space of a breath!'
 Phaedrus, I. 5. From this fable come the French proverbial
expression, _la part du lion_, and its English equivalent, the
From heaven, one day, did Jupiter proclaim,
'Let all that live before my throne appear,
And there if any one hath aught to blame,
In matter, form, or texture of his frame,
He may bring forth his grievance without fear.
Redress shall instantly be given to each.
Come, monkey, now, first let us have your speech.
You see these quadrupeds, your brothers;
Comparing, then, yourself with others,
Are you well satisfied?' 'And wherefore not?'
Says Jock. 'Haven't I four trotters with the rest?
Is not my visage comely as the best?
But this my brother Bruin, is a blot
On thy creation fair;
And sooner than be painted I'd be shot,
Were I, great sire, a bear.'
The bear approaching, doth he make complaint?
Not he;--himself he lauds without restraint.
The elephant he needs must criticize;
To crop his ears and stretch his tail were wise;
A creature he of huge, misshapen size.
The elephant, though famed as beast judicious,
While on his own account he had no wishes,
Pronounced dame whale too big to suit his taste;
Of flesh and fat she was a perfect waste.
The little ant, again, pronounced the gnat too wee;
To such a speck, a vast colossus she.
Each censured by the rest, himself content,
Back to their homes all living things were sent.
Such folly liveth yet with human fools.
For others lynxes, for ourselves but moles.
Great blemishes in other men we spy,
Which in ourselves we pass most kindly by.
As in this world we're but way-farers,
Kind Heaven has made us wallet-bearers.
The pouch behind our own defects must store,
The faults of others lodge in that before.
 One of Aesop's: Phaedrus also gives it, Book IV. 10.
VIII.--THE SWALLOW AND THE LITTLE BIRDS.
By voyages in air,
With constant thought and care,
Much knowledge had a swallow gain'd,
Which she for public use retain'd,
The slightest storms she well foreknew,
And told the sailors ere they blew.
A farmer sowing hemp, once having found,
She gather'd all the little birds around,
And said, 'My friends, the freedom let me take
To prophesy a little, for your sake,
Against this dangerous seed.
Though such a bird as I
Knows how to hide or fly,
You birds a caution need.
See you that waving hand?
It scatters on the land
What well may cause alarm.
'Twill grow to nets and snares,
To catch you unawares,
And work you fatal harm!
Great multitudes I fear,
Of you, my birdies dear,
That falling seed, so little,
Will bring to cage or kettle!
But though so perilous the plot,
You now may easily defeat it:
All lighting on the seeded spot,
Just scratch up every seed and eat it.'
The little birds took little heed,
So fed were they with other seed.
Anon the field was seen
Bedeck'd in tender green.
The swallow's warning voice was heard again:
'My friends, the product of that deadly grain,
Seize now, and pull it root by root,
Or surely you'll repent its fruit.'
'False, babbling prophetess,' says one,
'You'd set us at some pretty fun!
To pull this field a thousand birds are needed,
While thousands more with hemp are seeded.'
The crop now quite mature,
The swallow adds, 'Thus far I've fail'd of cure;
I've prophesied in vain
Against this fatal grain:
It's grown. And now, my bonny birds,
Though you have disbelieved my words
Thus far, take heed at last,--
When you shall see the seed-time past,
And men, no crops to labour for,
On birds shall wage their cruel war,
With deadly net and noose;
Of flying then beware,
Unless you take the air,
Like woodcock, crane, or goose.
But stop; you're not in plight
For such adventurous flight,
O'er desert waves and sands,
In search of other lands.
Hence, then, to save your precious souls,
Remaineth but to say,
'Twill be the safest way,
To chuck yourselves in holes.'
Before she had thus far gone,
The birdlings, tired of hearing,
And laughing more than fearing,
Set up a greater jargon
Than did, before the Trojan slaughter,
The Trojans round old Priam's daughter.
And many a bird, in prison grate,
Lamented soon a Trojan fate.
'Tis thus we heed no instincts but our own;
Believe no evil till the evil's done.
 _Priam's daughter_.--Cassandra, who predicted the fall of Troy, and
was not heeded.
IX.--THE CITY RAT AND THE COUNTRY RAT.
A city rat, one night,
Did, with a civil stoop,
A country rat invite
To end a turtle soup.
Upon a Turkey carpet
They found the table spread,
And sure I need not harp it
How well the fellows fed.
The entertainment was
A truly noble one;
But some unlucky cause
Disturb'd it when begun.
It was a slight rat-tat,
That put their joys to rout;
Out ran the city rat;
His guest, too, scamper'd out.
Our rats but fairly quit,
The fearful knocking ceased.
'Return we,' cried the cit,
To finish there our feast.
'No,' said the rustic rat;
'To-morrow dine with me.
I'm not offended at
Your feast so grand and free,--
'For I've no fare resembling;
But then I eat at leisure,
And would not swap, for pleasure
So mix'd with fear and trembling.'
 Horace, _Satires_, II. 6: also in Aesop.
X.--THE WOLF AND THE LAMB.
That innocence is not a shield,
A story teaches, not the longest.
The strongest reasons always yield
To reasons of the strongest.
A lamb her thirst was slaking,
Once, at a mountain rill.
A hungry wolf was taking
His hunt for sheep to kill,
When, spying on the streamlet's brink
This sheep of tender age,
He howl'd in tones of rage,
'How dare you roil my drink?
Your impudence I shall chastise!'
'Let not your majesty,' the lamb replies,
'Decide in haste or passion!
For sure 'tis difficult to think
In what respect or fashion
My drinking here could roil your drink,
Since on the stream your majesty now faces
I'm lower down, full twenty paces.'
'You roil it,' said the wolf; 'and, more, I know
You cursed and slander'd me a year ago.'
'O no! how could I such a thing have done!
A lamb that has not seen a year,
A suckling of its mother dear?'
'Your brother then.' 'But brother I have none.'
'Well, well, what's all the same,
'Twas some one of your name.
Sheep, men, and dogs of every nation,
Are wont to stab my reputation,
As I have truly heard.'
Without another word,
He made his vengeance good--
Bore off the lambkin to the wood,
And there, without a jury,
Judged, slew, and ate her in his fury.
 Phaedrus, I. 1: also in Aesop.
XI.--THE MAN AND HIS IMAGE.
To M. The Duke De La Rochefoucauld.
A man, who had no rivals in the love
Which to himself he bore,
Esteem'd his own dear beauty far above
What earth had seen before.
More than contented in his error,
He lived the foe of every mirror.
Officious fate, resolved our lover
From such an illness should recover,
Presented always to his eyes
The mute advisers which the ladies prize;--
Mirrors in parlours, inns, and shops,--
Mirrors the pocket furniture of fops,--
Mirrors on every lady's zone,
From which his face reflected shone.
What could our dear Narcissus do?
From haunts of men he now withdrew,
On purpose that his precious shape
From every mirror might escape.
But in his forest glen alone,
Apart from human trace,
Of purest source,
While with unconscious gaze
He pierced its waveless face,
Reflected back his own.
Incensed with mingled rage and fright,
He seeks to shun the odious sight;
But yet that mirror sheet, so clear and still,
He cannot leave, do what he will.
Ere this, my story's drift you plainly see.
From such mistake there is no mortal free.
That obstinate self-lover
The human soul doth cover;
The mirrors follies are of others,
In which, as all are genuine brothers,
Each soul may see to life depicted
Itself with just such faults afflicted;
And by that charming placid brook,
Needless to say, I mean your Maxim Book.
 This is one of La Fontaine's most admired fables, and is one of the
few for which he did not go for the groundwork to some older
fabulist. The Duke de la Rochefoucauld, to whom it was dedicated,
was the author of the famous "Reflexions et Maximes Morales," which
La Fontaine praises in the last lines of his fable. La
Rochefoucauld was La Fontaine's friend and patron. The "Maximes"
had achieved a second edition just prior to La Fontaine's
publication of this first series of his Fables, in 1668. "The
Rabbits" (Book X., Fable 15.), published in the second collection,
in 1678-9, is also dedicated to the Duke, who died the following
year, 1680. See Translator's Preface.
 _Lady's zone_.--One of La Fontaine's commentators remarks upon
this passage that it is no exaggeration of the foppishness of the
times in which the poet wrote, and cites the instance that the
canons of St. Martin of Tours wore mirrors on their shoes, even
while officiating in church.
XII.--THE DRAGON WITH MANY HEADS, AND THE DRAGON WITH MANY TAILS.
An envoy of the Porte Sublime,
As history says, once on a time,
Before th' imperial German court
Did rather boastfully report,
The troops commanded by his master's firman,
As being a stronger army than the German:
To which replied a Dutch attendant,
'Our prince has more than one dependant
Who keeps an army at his own expense.'
The Turk, a man of sense,
Rejoin'd, 'I am aware
What power your emperor's servants share.
It brings to mind a tale both strange and true,
A thing which once, myself, I chanced to view.
I saw come darting through a hedge,
Which fortified a rocky ledge,
A hydra's hundred heads; and in a trice
My blood was turning into ice.
But less the harm than terror,--
The body came no nearer;
Nor could, unless it had been sunder'd,
To parts at least a hundred.
While musing deeply on this sight,
Another dragon came to light,
Whose single head avails
To lead a hundred tails:
And, seized with juster fright,
I saw him pass the hedge,--
Head, body, tails,--a wedge
Of living and resistless powers.--
The other was your emperor's force; this ours.'
 The original of this fable has been attributed to the chief who
made himself Emperor of Tartary and called himself Ghengis Khan
(b.1164, d. 1227). He is said to have applied the fable to the
Great Mogul and his innumerable dependent potentates.
 _German court_.--The court of the "Holy Roman Empire" is here meant.
XIII.--THE THIEVES AND THE ASS.
Two thieves, pursuing their profession,
Had of a donkey got possession,
Whereon a strife arose,
Which went from words to blows.
The question was, to sell, or not to sell;
But while our sturdy champions fought it well,
Another thief, who chanced to pass,
With ready wit rode off the ass.
This ass is, by interpretation,
Some province poor, or prostrate nation.
The thieves are princes this and that,
On spoils and plunder prone to fat,--
As those of Austria, Turkey, Hungary.
(Instead of two, I've quoted three--
Enough of such commodity.)
These powers engaged in war all,
Some fourth thief stops the quarrel,
According all to one key,
By riding off the donkey.
XIV.--SIMONIDES PRESERVED BY THE GODS.
Three sorts there are, as Malherbe says,
Which one can never overpraise--
The gods, the ladies, and the king;
And I, for one, endorse the thing.
The heart, praise tickles and entices;
Of fair one's smile, it oft the price is.
See how the gods sometimes repay it.
Simonides--the ancients say it--
Once undertook, in poem lyric,
To write a wrestler's panegyric;