Friday, November 12, 2010

La Fontaine: The Mouse Metamorphosed into a Maid

A mouse once from an owl's beak fell;
I'd not have pick'd it up, I wis;
A Brahmin did it: very well;
Each country has its prejudice.
The mouse, indeed, was sadly bruised.
Although, as neighbours, we are used
To be more kind to many others,
The Brahmins treat the mice as brothers.
The notion haunts their heads, that when
The soul goes forth from dying men,
It enters worm, or bird, or beast,
As Providence or Fate is pleased;
And on this mystery rests their law,
Which from Pythagoras they're said to draw.
And hence the Brahmin kindly pray'd
To one who knew the wizard's trade,
To give the creature, wounded sore,
The form in which it lodged before.
Forthwith the mouse became a maid,
Of years about fifteen;
A lovelier was never seen.
She would have waked, I ween,
In Priam's son, a fiercer flame
Than did the beauteous Grecian dame.
Surprised at such a novelty,
The Brahmin to the damsel cried,
'Your choice is free;
For every he
Will seek you for his bride.'
Said she, 'Am I to have a voice?
The strongest, then, shall be my choice.'
'O sun!' the Brahmin cried, 'this maid is thine,
And thou shalt be a son-in-law of mine.'
'No,' said the sun, 'this murky cloud, it seems,
In strength exceeds me, since he hides my beams;
And him I counsel you to take.'
Again the reverend Brahmin spake--
'O cloud, on-flying with thy stores of water,
Pray wast thou born to wed my daughter?'
'Ah, no, alas! for, you may see,
The wind is far too strong for me.
My claims with Boreas' to compare,
I must confess, I do not dare.'
'O wind,' then cried the Brahmin, vex'd,
And wondering what would hinder next,--
'Approach, and, with thy sweetest air,
Embrace--possess--the fairest fair.'
The wind, enraptured, thither blew;--
A mountain stopp'd him as he flew,
To him now pass'd the tennis-ball,
And from him to a creature small.
Said he, 'I'd wed the maid, but that
I've had a quarrel with the rat.
A fool were I to take the bride
From one so sure to pierce my side.'
The rat! It thrill'd the damsel's ear;
To name at once seem'd sweet and dear.
The rat! 'Twas one of Cupid's blows;
The like full many a maiden knows;
But all of this beneath the rose.

One smacketh ever of the place
Where first he show'd the world his face.
Thus far the fable's clear as light;
But, if we take a nearer sight,
There lurks within its drapery
Somewhat of graceless sophistry;
For who, that worships e'en the glorious sun,
Would not prefer to wed some cooler one?
And doth a flea's exceed a giant's might,
Because the former can the latter bite?
And, by the rule of strength, the rat
Had sent his bride to wed the cat;
From cat to dog, and onward still
To wolf or tiger, if you will:
Indeed, the fabulist might run
A circle backward to the sun.--
But to the change the tale supposes,--
In learned phrase, metempsychosis.
The very thing the wizard did
Its falsity exposes--
If that indeed were ever hid.
According to the Brahmin's plan,
The proud aspiring soul of man,
And souls that dwell in humbler forms
Of rats and mice, and even worms,
All issue from a common source,
And, hence, they are the same of course.--
Unequal but by accident
Of organ and of tenement,
They use one pair of legs, or two,
Or e'en with none contrive to do,
As tyrant matter binds them to.
Why, then, could not so fine a frame
Constrain its heavenly guest
To wed the solar flame?
A rat her love possess'd.

In all respects, compared and weigh'd,
The souls of men and souls of mice
Quite different are made,--
Unlike in sort as well as size.
Each fits and fills its destined part
As Heaven doth well provide;
Nor witch, nor fiend, nor magic art,
Can set their laws aside.

Source: Wright's translation of La Fontaine, Fable 9.7.

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