The Fables of La Fontaine

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Shapiro's language sparkles with wit, word play, and even unexpected archaisms, all in keeping with La Fontaine's own style. Coates, translator of Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals. A celebrated master translator, Norman R. Shapiro is a professor of Romance languages and literatures at Wesleyan University. As the author or translator of many books, he has received a number of awards, including the MLA Scaglione Prize for translation. University of Illinois Press. Shopping Cart. Introduction by John Hollander.

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The Fables of La Fontaine, translated by Elizur Wright

Get quick answers from Les Fables de La Fontaine staff and past visitors. Previous Next 1 2. Then list! Which well its crafty authors did repay. And, more than that, it fits you ill To wield the old heroic quill. Know I not how to end my song? Of time and strength what greater waste Than my attempt to suit your taste? The few that did remain, To leave their holes afraid, From usual food abstain, Not eating half their fill.

No better plan, they all believed, Could possibly have been conceived, No doubt the thing would work right well, If any one would hang the bell. And many a council I have seen, Or reverend chapter with its dean, That, thus resolving wisely, Fell through like this precisely. To argue or refute Wise counsellors abound; The man to execute Is harder to be found. Come at it right or wrong, the judge opined No other than a villain could be fined. One bull was beat, and much to their expense; For, quick retreating to their reedy bower, He trod on twenty of them in an hour. Of little folks it oft has been the fate To suffer for the follies of the great.

Are you not really a mouse, That gnawing pest of every house, Your special aim to do the cheese ill? I a mouse! Who told you such a lie? Long live the mice that cleave the sky!


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Your eyesight strange conclusions gathers. What makes a bird, I pray? Its feathers. Great Jupiter confound the cats! This ruin partly by myself was brought! Hard-hearted men! But mock us not, ye cruel race, For you must often take our place. The work of half the human brothers Is making arms against the others. At proper time the lender came Her little premises to claim. Her little pups, she said, could hardly walk. In short, the lender yielded to her talk. The second term expired; the friend had come To take possession of her house and home. The creditor, from whom a villain borrows, Will fewer shillings get again than sorrows.

I leave you all to think If such a little chink Could to a rabbit give protection thorough. But, since no better could be got, John Rabbit there was fain to squat. Of course, in an asylum so absurd, John felt ere long the talons of the bird. Her wrath in vain, that year it was her fate To live a mourning mother, desolate.

And no one did. Their enemy, this time, Upsoaring to a place sublime, Let fall upon his royal robes some dirt, Which Jove just shaking, with a sudden flirt, Threw out the eggs, no one knows whither. Poor Jupiter in silence heard The uproar of his favourite bird. The god pronounced the eagle in the wrong. The gnat declared immediate war. Think you I tremble at your power or fame? The ox is bigger far than you; Yet him I drive, and all his crew.

With foaming mouth, and flashing eye, He roars.


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  4. With constant change of his attack, The snout now stinging, now the back, And now the chambers of the nose; The pigmy fly no mercy shows. He beat the harmless air, and worse; For, though so fierce and stout, By effort wearied out, He fainted, fell, gave up the quarrel. The gnat retires with verdant laurel. Now rings his trumpet clang, As at the charge it rang. We often have the most to fear From those we most despise; Again, great risks a man may clear, Who by the smallest dies. The sponger, like a sequent sheep, Pursuing through the water deep, Into the same hole plunges Himself, his rider, and the sponges.

    All three drank deeply: asseteer and ass For boon companions of their load might pass; Which last became so sore a weight, The ass fell down, Belike to drown, His rider risking equal fate. A helper came, no matter who. I quote two fables for this weighty creed, Which either of them fully proves. By time and toil we sever What strength and rage could never. Just as his deadly bow he drew, Our ant just bit his heel.

    This upshot of a story will suffice To give a useful hint to most; For few there are in this our world so wise As not to trust in star or ghost, Or cherish secretly the creed That men the book of destiny may read. But from the purposes divine, The deep of infinite design, Who boasts to lift the curtain? Whom but himself doth God allow To read his bosom thoughts? And all for what? To exercise the wit Of those who on astrology have writ? To help us shun inevitable ills? The choicest blessings to destroy, Exhausting, ere they come, their joy? How tallies this revolving universe With human things, eternally diverse?

    Return we now, bethinking Of our poor star-man, whom we left a drinking. Besides the folly of his lying trade, This man the type may well be made Of those who at chimeras stare When they should mind the things that are. Myself, for one, am forced by cursed fear To sleep with open eye as well as ear. Grows fear, by such advice, the wiser? Indeed, I well enough descry That men have fear, as well as I.

    Full soon, his melancholy soul Aroused from dreaming doze By noise too slight for foes, He scuds in haste to reach his hole. The sight of even me, a hare, Sufficeth some, I find, to scare. And here, the terror of my tramp Hath put to rout, it seems, a camp. The trembling fools! So much the tidings do concern all, That I must spread them far to-day. Now you and yours can take your walks Without a fear or thought of hawks. Now, sooth to say, This sheep would weigh More than a cheese; And had a fleece Much like that matting famous Which graced the chin of Polyphemus; 23 So fast it clung to every claw, It was not easy to withdraw.

    The shepherd came, caught, caged, and, to their joy, Gave croaker to his children for a toy. Is there a bird beneath the blue That has more charms than you? No animal in everything can shine. By prayers, and tears, and magic art, The man got Fate to take his part; And, lo! In wedded state our man was seen The fool in courtship he had been.

    He praised her beauties, this and that, And saw there nothing of the cat. Excited by the noise, The bride sprang at them in a trice; The mice were scared and fled. In mockery of change, the old Will keep their youthful bent. When once the cloth has got its fold, The smelling-pot its scent, In vain your efforts and your care To make them other than they are. To work reform, do what you will, Old habit will be habit still. Nor fork 27 nor strap can mend its manners, Nor cudgel-blows beat down its banners. Secure the doors against the renter, And through the windows it will enter.

    Had I not known yourself and race, I should have been myself afraid! The following tale gives but a sample Of what has made his fame so ample. The first, bewitched with drinks delicious; The next, coquettish and capricious; The third, supremely avaricious. The father died. The females three Were much in haste the will to see. This done, since it was thought To give the parts by lot Might suit, or it might not, Each paid her share of fees dear, And took the part that pleased her.

    And there the public voice Applauded both the judgment and the choice. But Aesop well was satisfied The learned men had set aside, In judging thus the testament, The very gist of its intent. De Maucroix. The fiction-world hath deserts yet to dare, And, daily, authors make discoveries there.

    You know my fortune, birth, and disposition. Ought I to make the country my resort, Or seek the army, or to rise at court? Why, let me tell a story ere I answer. In order there to get the highest price, They needs must keep their donkey fresh and nice; So, tying fast his feet, they swung him clear, And bore him hanging like a chandelier. The most an ass is not the one that rides! Nor make a foot-boy of your grey-beard sire; Change places, as the rights of age require. Not thirty yards ahead, another set Found fault. The ass is faint, and dying with their blows.

    Is this, indeed, the mercy which these rustics Show to their honest, faithful, old domestics? Another man they met. Not so went Nicholas his Jane 4 to woo, Who rode, we sing, his ass to save his shoe. Ourselves we profit not. Our labour has no object but one, That is, to feed this lazy glutton. Their boss might labour if he pleased!

    It was an error which they soon repented, With pain of languid poverty acquainted. For royalty our fable makes, A thing that gives as well as takes Its power all labour to sustain, Nor for themselves turns out their labour vain. It gives the artist bread, the merchant riches; Maintains the diggers in their ditches; Pays man of war and magistrate; Supports the swarms in place, That live on sovereign grace; In short, is caterer for the state.

    Menenius 7 told the story well: When Rome, of old, in pieces fell, The commons parting from the senate. The real Willie, on the grass asleep, Slept there, indeed, profoundly, His dog and pipe slept, also soundly; His drowsy sheep around lay. He thought undoubtedly he could. He tried: the tone in which he spoke, Loud echoing from the wood, The plot and slumber broke; Sheep, dog, and man awoke. The wolf, in sorry plight, In hampering coat bedight, Could neither run nor fight. Whoever is a wolf had better Keep clear of hypocritic fetter. Jove flung it down, at first, a king pacific.

    Who nathless fell with such a splash terrific, The marshy folks, a foolish race and timid, Made breathless haste to get from him hid. They dived into the mud beneath the water, Or found among the reeds and rushes quarter.

    The Original Fables of La Fontaine

    And long it was they dared not see The dreadful face of majesty, Supposing that some monstrous frog Had been sent down to rule the bog. With trembling and with fear, At last he drew quite near. His gracious majesty kept still, And let his people work their will. Clack, clack!

    Think you such government is bad? With this now make yourselves content, Lest for your sins a worse be sent. The fox was deeply versed in trickery. These travellers did thirst compel To seek the bottom of a well. Had it been left to mine, I do confess, I never should have thought of this. For me, affairs of state Permit me not to wait.

    Whatever way you wend, Consider well the end. An eagle held a lofty bough, The hollow root a wild wood sow, A female cat between the two. All busy with maternal labours, They lived awhile obliging neighbours. Her constant digging, soon or late, Our proud old castle will uproot. And then — O, sad and shocking fate! Your pigs should you but leave a minute, This eagle here will seize them in it. Speak not of this, I beg, at all, Lest on my head her wrath should fall. The eagle ventured no egress To feed her young, the sow still less. Fools they, to think that any curse Than ghastly famine could be worse!

    O, what is there of hellish plot The treacherous tongue dares not!

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    This apophthegm a story brings, To make its truth more clear. A sot had lost health, mind, and purse; And, truly, for that matter, Sots mostly lose the latter Ere running half their course. There did the fumes evaporate At leisure from his drowsy pate. My wife a widow sad? The spider, on the lofty ceiling, As if she had a life-lease feeling. Wove wide her cunning toils, Soon rich with insect spoils. The wretched creature, every day, From house and home must pack away. O, sister spider, if you please, Our places let us swop. Needless to say, the sisterhood Thought their exchange both wise and good.

    Deep in his throat a bone stuck fast. By signs invited, with her beak The bone she drew With slight ado, And for this skilful surgery Demanded, modestly, her fee. Go, for a wretch ingrate, Nor tempt again your fate! Much gloried at the sight the rabble. But, gentles, possibly you are The dupes of easy fiction: Had we the art of making pictures, Perhaps our champion had beat yours! One day the cook, named Thirsty John, Sent for the gosling, took the swan, In haste his throat to cut, And put him in the pot.

    Hence peace was sweet; and, lest it should be riven, On both sides hostages were given. So quick the deed of perfidy was done, There fled to tell the tale not one! From which we may conclude That peace with villains will be rued. Pray, will you never quit this dull retreat? Besides, the woods remind of harms That Tereus in them did your charms.

    What grief more keen should have edge Than loss of her, of all our joys the crowning? Thus much suggests the fable I am borrowing. But search the stream below: It must nave borne her in its flow. In that direction She would have floated, by the love Of contradiction.

    Of which the consequence Was sudden corpulence. A week or so was past, When having fully broken fast. At length, so sadly were they scared. Well said, I think, and prudently, By one who knew distrust to be The parent of security. Strange conqueror, Love! And happy he, And strangely privileged and free, Who only knows by story Him and his feats of glory! If on this subject you are wont To think the simple truth too blunt, The fabulous may less affront; Which now, inspired with gratitude, Yea, kindled into zeal most fervent, Doth venture to intrude Within your maiden solitude, And kneel, your humble servant.

    And wherefore not? And if refusal there should be, Perhaps a marriage one would see, Some morning, made clandestinely. For, over and above The fact that she could bear With none but males of martial air, The lady was in love With him of shaggy hair. I fear to her Your fond caressings Will prove rough blessings.

    To banish all alarm About such sort of harm, Permit us to remove the cause, By filing off your teeth and claws. In such a case, your royal kiss Will be to her a safer bliss, And to yourself a sweeter; Since she will more respond To those endearments fond With which you greet her. The dogs, let loose upon him, slew him, All biting safely where they liked.

    His fortune, though but small, Was safe within his call. Address yourself to some one else, I pray; You shall not get it out of me! I know too well your treachery. In palaces I am a guest, And even at thy glorious feast. But tell me now, my little thing, Do you camp ever on a king, An emperor, or lady? I do, and have full many a play-day On fairest bosom of the fair, And sport myself upon her hair. Come now, my hearty, rack your brain To make a case about your grain. You enter with the holy train; So enters many a wretch profane. On heads of kings and asses you may squat; Deny your vaunting I will not; But well such impudence, I know, Provokes a sometimes fatal blow.

    By which this truth I leave to you, That by two sorts of glory we are tempted, The false one and the true. Work waits, time flies; adieu:— This gabble does not fill My granary or till. He laughs at my cunning-set dead-falls and snares; For clubbing and stoning as little he cares. I think him a wizard. A wizard! That lass, my good man, I suppose is your daughter: No news of a son-in-law? Any one sought her? No doubt, by the score. Keep an eye on the docket, Eh? Dost understand me? I speak of the pocket. Meanwhile in the kitchen what bustling and cooking! They are very good looking. To breakfast, the huddle of hunters succeeds, The yelping of dogs and the neighing of steeds, All cheering and fixing for wonderful deeds; The horns and the bugles make thundering din; Much wonders our gardener what it can mean.

    The worst is, his garden most wofully fares; Adieu to its arbours, and borders, and squares; Adieu to its chiccory, onions, and leeks; Adieu to whatever good cookery seeks. Beneath a great cabbage the hare was in bed, Was started, and shot at, and hastily fled. Off went the wild chase, with a terrible screech, And not through a hole, but a horrible breach, Which some one had made, at the beck of the lord, Wide through the poor hedge!

    Small princes, this story is true, When told in relation to you. In settling your quarrels with kings for your tools, You prove yourselves losers and eminent fools. What doth the cur a kiss to draw? Forsooth, he only gives his paw! O, such caressing was there ever? Or melody with such a quaver? One year it did betide, When they were multiplied, An army took the field Of rats, with spear and shield, Whose crowded ranks led on A king named Ratapon. Their efforts were in vain; Fate ruled that final hour, Inexorable power! A feather in the cap Is oft a great mishap. An equipage too grand Comes often to a stand Within a narrow place.

    A ship, that had such things on deck, Not far from Athens, went to wreck. They did their best on this occasion. My cousin, sir, is now lord mayor. The people are by no means few, Who never went ten miles from home, Nor know their market-town from Rome, Yet cackle just as if they knew. But all this worship at his shrine Brought not from this same block divine Inheritance, or hidden mine, Or luck at play, or any favour. Now leave my house, and go your way, And search for altars where you may. But hush! Such is the power of use to change The face of objects new and strange; Which grow, by looking at, so tame, They do not even seem the same.

    The word, though rather unrefined, Has yet an energy we ill can spare; So by its aid I introduce my tale. A well-fed rat, rotund and hale, Not knowing either Fast or Lent, Disporting round a frog-pond went. Of words persuasive there was little need: She spoke, however, of a grateful bath; Of sports and curious wonders on their path; Of rarities of flower, and rush, and reed: One day he would recount with glee To his assembled progeny The various beauties of these places, The customs of the various races, And laws that sway the realms aquatic, She did not mean the hydrostatic!

    Perfidious breach of law and right! She meant to have a supper warm Out of his sleek and dainty form. Already did her appetite Dwell on the morsel with delight. The gods, in anguish, he invokes; His faithless hostess rudely mocks; He struggles up, she struggles down. A kite, that hovers in the air, Inspecting everything with care, Now spies the rat belike to drown, And, with a rapid wing, Upbears the wretched thing, The frog, too, dangling by the string!

    The joy of such a double haul Was to the hungry kite not small. Far in the desert met their various races, All gathering from their hiding-places. At last, it was resolved, on motion, To pacify the conquering banner, By sending homage in, and tribute. With both the homage and its manner They charged the monkey, as a glib brute; And, lest the chap should too much chatter, In black on white they wrote the matter.

    Nought but the tribute served to fash, As that must needs be paid in cash. A prince, who chanced a mine to own, At last, obliged them with a loan. No sooner is the lion there Than of some sickness he complains. A fever, with its thirst and pains, Dries up my blood, and bakes my brains; And I must search some herb, Its fatal power to curb.

    For you, there is no time to waste; Pay me my money, and make haste. And see the young ones of the gold As big already as the old! Confounded were the monkey and his suite. Though a celestial scion, He could but fight, as lion versus lion. When, in the far-off past, The fare of gentlemen was mast, And even hats were never felt, Horse, ass, and mule in forests dwelt.

    Nor saw one then, as in these ages, So many saddles, housings, pillions; Such splendid equipages, With golden-lace postilions; Such harnesses for cattle, To be consumed in battle; As one saw not so many feasts, And people married by the priests. Man first his suppliant bitted; Then, on his back well seated, Gave chase with spear, and rested not Till to the ground the foe he brought. Here, free from all abuse, Remain a liege to me, And large your provender shall be. The horse his folly now perceived, But quite too late he grieved.

    No grief his fate could alter; His stall was built, and there he lived, And died there in his halter. Revenge, however sweet, is dearly bought By that one good, which gone, all else is nought. A bust, somewhat colossal in its size, Attracted crowds of wondering eyes. So, much surprised, our gormandiser Retired to fast till he was wiser.

    How would the kid have been undone Had she but trusted to the word The wolf by chance had overheard! Now hot, now cool! Is this the way they change their metre? And do they take me for a fool? Some day, a nutting in the wood, That young one yet shall be my food. He told it all, as I have done. And did I nurse the darling boy, Your fiendish appetite to cloy? Some blamed the inside; some, the out; and all Agreed that the apartments were too small.

    Such rooms for him, the greatest sage of Greece! A crowd to be your friends will claim, Till some unhandsome test you bring. Phaedrus enriches oft his story, In quest — I doubt it not — of glory: Such thoughts were idle in my breast. The youngest took them with the like success. All were obliged their weakness to confess. Their father took them by the hand, and died; And soon the virtue of their vows was tried. Their sire had left a large estate Involved in lawsuits intricate; Here seized a creditor, and there A neighbour levied for a share.

    At first the trio nobly bore The brunt of all this legal war. The judge, by turns, condemns each brother. Their creditors make new assault, Some pleading error, some default. All lose their wealth; and now their sorrows Bring fresh to mind those broken arrows. The labyrinthine mazes of the heart Are open to His eyes in every part. Whatever one may do, or think, or feel, From Him no darkness can the thing conceal. Consulted, at his shrine, the god Apollo. I see afar, and far I shoot my arrow. I ask that sort of men, whose passion It is to get and never spend, Of all their toil what is the end?

    What they enjoy of all their labours Which do not equally their neighbours? He had a great estate, But chose a second life to wait Ere he began to taste his pleasure. His cash he buried under ground, Where only might his heart be found; It being, then, his sole delight To ponder of it day and night, And consecrate his rusty pelf, A sacred offering, to himself. He took it all, and babbled not. One morning, ere the dawn, Forth had our miser gone To worship what he loved the best, When, lo! What deep and bitter sighing!

    His torment makes him tear Out by the roots his hair. A passenger demandeth why Such marvellous outcry. Ah, Heaven knows That cash comes harder than it goes! Go, change this dirty litter too. More care than this I want to see Of oxen that belong to me. And put these yokes, and hames, and traces, All as they should be, in their places?

    The stag is found; his foes Deal heavily their blows. Down sinks he in the strife; No tears can save his life. They slay, and dress, and salt the beast, And cook his flesh in many a feast, And many a neighbour gets a taste. All went as well as such things could. The wheat-crop ripening ere the brood Were strong enough to take their flight, Aware how perilous their plight, The lark went out to search for food, And told her young to listen well, And keep a constant sentinel.

    Hear all he says; we little birds Must shape our conduct by his words. As gay as larks, now eat your victuals. The dawn arrives, but not the friends; The lark soars up, the owner wends His usual round to view his land. Our friends do wrong; and so does he Who trusts that friends will friendly be.

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    My son, go call our kith and kin To help us get our harvest in. Engrave this lesson deep, my son. And know you now what must be done? We must ourselves our sickles bring, And, while the larks their matins sing, Begin the work; and, on this plan, Get in our harvest as we can.

    The Chevalier De Bouillon. My taste with yours agrees: Such effort cannot please; And too much pains about the polish Is apt the substance to abolish; Not that it would be right or wise The graces all to ostracize. You love them much when delicate; Nor is it left for me to hate. If this my rhymed and measured speech Availeth not to please or teach, I own it not a fault of mine; Some unknown reason I assign. With little strength endued For battles rough and rude, Or with Herculean arm to smite, I show to vice its foolish plight.

    In this my talent wholly lies; Not that it does at all suffice. Such is the silly little frog That aped the ox upon her bog. A double image sometimes shows How vice and folly do oppose The ways of virtue and good sense; As lambs with wolves so grim and gaunt, The silly fly and frugal ant. Gods, men, and brutes, all play their part In fields of nature or of art, And Jupiter among the rest.

    O Jove! An axe I found upon the road. At last the finder brought to view An axe of iron, steel, and wood. His winged son, however, sent With gold and silver axes, went. But Mercury promptly gave, instead Of it, a blow upon the head. The latter was opposed, Expressing the concern he Had felt about the danger Of going out a ranger. He thought the kitchen hearth The safest place on earth For one so very brittle. Take care that you associate With equals only, lest your fate Between these pots should find its mate.

    Upon a river bank, a fisher took A tiny troutling from his hook. Pray let me grow to be a trout, And then come here and fish me out. Some alderman, who likes things nice, Will buy me then at any price. In some things, men of sense Prefer the present to the future tense. Such brutes all promptly fled. A hare, the shadow of his ears perceiving, Could hardly help believing That some vile spy for horns would take them, And food for accusation make them.

    By luck he escaped, not wholly and hale, For the price of his luck was the loss of his tail. Escaped in this way, to save his disgrace, He thought to get others in similar case. Pray tell me its use, if any one knows. If the council will take my advice, We shall dock off our tails in a trice. To urge the reform would have wasted his breath. Long tails were the mode till the day of his death. No care did this old woman know But giving tasks as she might please. The beldam roused, more graceless yet, In greasy petticoat bedight, Struck up her farthing light, And then forthwith the bed beset, Where deeply, blessedly did snore Those two maid-servants tired and poor.

    And yet this murder mended not The cruel hardship of their lot; For now the twain were scarce in bed Before they heard the summons dread. The beldam, full of apprehension Lest oversleep should cause detention, Ran like a goblin through her mansion.