Thursday, November 11, 2010

La Fontaine: The English Fox

Sound reason and a tender heart
With thee are friends that never part.
A hundred traits might swell the roll;--
Suffice to name thy nobleness of soul;
Thy power to guide both men and things;
Thy temper open, bland and free,
A gift that draweth friends to thee,
To which thy firm affection clings,
Unmarr'd by age or change of clime,
Or tempests of this stormy time;--
All which deserve, in highest lyric,
A rich and lofty panegyric;
But no such thing wouldst thou desire,
Whom pomp displeases, praises tire.
Hence mine is simple, short, and plain;
Yet, madam, I would fain
Tack on a word or two
Of homage to your country due,--
A country well beloved by you.

With mind to match the outward case,
The English are a thinking race.
They pierce all subjects through and through;
Well arm'd with facts, they hew their way,
And give to science boundless sway.
Quite free from flattery, I say,
Your countrymen, for penetration,
Must bear the palm from every nation;
For e'en the dogs they breed excel
Our own in nicety of smell.
Your foxes, too, are cunninger,
As readily we may infer
From one that practised, 'tis believed,
A stratagem the best conceived.
The wretch, once, in the utmost strait
By dogs of nose so delicate,
Approach'd a gallows, where,
A lesson to like passengers,
Or clothed in feathers or in furs,
Some badgers, owls, and foxes, pendent were.
Their comrade, in his pressing need,
Arranged himself among the dead.
I seem to see old Hannibal
Outwit some Roman general,
And sit securely in his tent,
The legions on some other scent.
But certain dogs, kept back
To tell the errors of the pack,
Arriving where the traitor hung,
A fault in fullest chorus sung.
Though by their bark the welkin rung,
Their master made them hold the tongue.
Suspecting not a trick so odd,
Said he, 'The rogue's beneath the sod.
My dogs, that never saw such jokes,
Won't bark beyond these honest folks.'

The rogue would try the trick again.
He did so to his cost and pain.
Again with dogs the welkin rings;
Again our fox from gallows swings;
But though he hangs with greater faith,
This time, he does it to his death.
So uniformly is it true,
A stratagem is best when new.
The hunter, had himself been hunted,
So apt a trick had not invented;
Not that his wit had been deficient;--
With that, it cannot be denied,
Your English folks are well-provision'd;--
But wanting love of life sufficient,
Full many an Englishman has died.
One word to you, and I must quit
My much-inviting subject:
A long eulogium is a project
For which my lyre is all unfit.
The song or verse is truly rare,
Which can its meed of incense bear,
And yet amuse the general ear,
Or wing its way to lands afar.
Your prince once told you, I have heard,
(An able judge, as rumour says,)
That he one dash of love preferr'd
To all a sheet could hold of praise.
Accept--'tis all I crave--the offering
Which here my muse has dared to bring--
Her last, perhaps, of earthly acts;
She blushes at its sad defects.
Still, by your favour of my rhyme,
Might not the self-same homage please, the while,
The dame who fills your northern clime
With wing├Ęd emigrants sublime
From Cytherea's isle?
By this, you understand, I mean
Love's guardian goddess, Mazarin.


Source: Wright's translation of La Fontaine, Fable 12.23.
1223

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