Tuesday, November 9, 2010

La Fontaine: The Man and the Adder

'You villain!' cried a man who found
An adder coil'd upon the ground,
'To do a very grateful deed
For all the world, I shall proceed.'
On this the animal perverse
(I mean the snake;
Pray don't mistake
The human for the worse)
Was caught and bagg'd, and, worst of all,
His blood was by his captor to be spilt
Without regard to innocence or guilt.
Howe'er, to show the why, these words let fall
His judge and jailor, proud and tall:--
'Thou type of all ingratitude!
All charity to hearts like thine
Is folly, certain to be rued.
Die, then,
Thou foe of men!
Thy temper and thy teeth malign
Shall never hurt a hair of mine.'
The muffled serpent, on his side,
The best a serpent could, replied,--
'If all this world's ingrates
Must meet with such a death,
Who from this worst of fates
Could save his breath?
Upon thyself thy law recoils;
I throw myself upon thy broils,
Thy graceless revelling on spoils;
If thou but homeward cast an eye,
Thy deeds all mine will justify.
But strike: my life is in thy hand;
Thy justice, all may understand,
Is but thy interest, pleasure, or caprice:--
Pronounce my sentence on such laws as these.
But give me leave to tell thee, while I can,
The type of all ingratitude is man.'
By such a lecture somewhat foil'd,
The other back a step recoil'd,
And finally replied,--
'Thy reasons are abusive,
And wholly inconclusive.
I might the case decide
Because to me such right belongs;
But let's refer the case of wrongs.'
The snake agreed; they to a cow referr'd it.
Who, being called, came graciously and heard it.
Then, summing up, 'What need,' said she,
'In such a case, to call on me?
The adder's right, plain truth to bellow;
For years I've nursed this haughty fellow,
Who, but for me, had long ago
Been lodging with the shades below.
For him my milk has had to flow,
My calves, at tender age, to die.
And for this best of wealth,
And often re√ęstablished health,
What pay, or even thanks, have I?
Here, feeble, old, and worn, alas!
I'm left without a bite of grass.
Were I but left, it might be weather'd,
But, shame to say it, I am tether'd.
And now my fate is surely sadder
Than if my master were an adder,
With brains within the latitude
Of such immense ingratitude.
This, gentles, is my honest view;
And so I bid you both adieu.'
The man, confounded and astonish'd
To be so faithfully admonish'd,
Replied, 'What fools to listen, now,
To this old, silly, dotard cow!
Let's trust the ox.' 'Let's trust,' replied
The crawling beast, well gratified.
So said, so done;
The ox, with tardy pace, came on
And, ruminating o'er the case,
Declared, with very serious face,
That years of his most painful toil
Had clothed with Ceres' gifts our soil--
Her gifts to men--but always sold
To beasts for higher cost than gold;
And that for this, for his reward,
More blows than thanks return'd his lord;
And then, when age had chill'd his blood,
And men would quell the wrath of Heaven,
Out must be pour'd the vital flood,
For others' sins, all thankless given.
So spake the ox; and then the man:--
'Away with such a dull declaimer!
Instead of judge, it is his plan
To play accuser and defamer.'
A tree was next the arbitrator,
And made the wrong of man still greater.
It served as refuge from the heat,
The showers, and storms which madly beat;
It grew our gardens' greatest pride,
Its shadow spreading far and wide,
And bow'd itself with fruit beside:
But yet a mercenary clown
With cruel iron chopp'd it down.
Behold the recompense for which,
Year after year, it did enrich,
With spring's sweet flowers, and autumn's fruits,
And summer's shade, both men and brutes,
And warm'd the hearth with many a limb
Which winter from its top did trim!
Why could not man have pruned and spared,
And with itself for ages shared?--
Much scorning thus to be convinced,
The man resolved his cause to gain.
Quoth he, 'My goodness is evinced
By hearing this, 'tis very plain;'
Then flung the serpent bag and all,
With fatal force, against a wall.

So ever is it with the great,
With whom the whim doth always run,
That Heaven all creatures doth create
For their behoof beneath the sun--
Count they four feet, or two, or none.
If one should dare the fact dispute,
He's straight set down a stupid brute.
Now, grant it so,--such lords among,
What should be done, or said, or sung?
At distance speak, or hold your tongue.


Source: Wright's translation of La Fontaine, Fable 10.2.
1002

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