World of Tales

La Fontaine's fables Page 15

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The Spider and the Swallow.

"O Jupiter, whose fruitful brain,
By odd obstetrics freed from pain,
Bore Pallas, erst my mortal foe,
Pray listen to my tale of woe.
This Progne takes my lawful prey.
As through the air she cuts her way,
My flies she catches from my door,--
Yes, _mine_--I emphasize the word,--
And, but for this accursed bird,
My net would hold an ample store:
For I have woven it of stuff
To hold the strongest strong enough."
'Twas thus, in terms of insolence,
Complain'd the fretful spider, once
Of palace-tapestry a weaver,
But then a spinster and deceiver,
That hoped within her toils to bring
Of insects all that ply the wing.
The sister swift of Philomel,
Intent on business, prosper'd well;
In spite of the complaining pest,
The insects carried to her nest--
Nest pitiless to suffering flies--
Mouths gaping aye, to gormandize,
Of young ones clamouring,
And stammering,
With unintelligible cries.
The spider, with but head and feet,
And powerless to compete
With wings so fleet,
Soon saw herself a prey.
The swallow, passing swiftly by,
Bore web and all away,
The spinster dangling in the sky!

_Two tables hath our Maker set_
_For all that in this world are met._
_To seats around the first_
_The skilful, vigilant, and strong are beckon'd:_
_Their hunger and their thirst_
_The rest must quell with leavings at the second._

 

The Dog whose Ears were Cropped.

"What have I done, I'd like to know,
To make my master maim me so?
A pretty figure I shall cut!
From other dogs I'll keep, in kennel shut.
Ye kings of beasts, or rather tyrants, ho!
Would any beast have served you so?"
Thus Growler cried, a mastiff young;--
The man, whom pity never stung,
Went on to prune him of his ears.
Though Growler whined about his losses,
He found, before the lapse of years,
Himself a gainer by the process;
For, being by his nature prone
To fight his brethren for a bone,
He'd oft come back from sad reverse
With those appendages the worse.
All snarling dogs have ragged ears.

The less of hold for teeth of foe,
The better will the battle go.
When, in a certain place, one fears
The chance of being hurt or beat,
He fortifies it from defeat.
Besides the shortness of his ears,
See Growler arm'd against his likes
With gorget full of ugly spikes.
A wolf would find it quite a puzzle
To get a hold about his muzzle.

 

The Lioness and the Bear.

The lioness had lost her young;
A hunter stole it from the vale;
The forests and the mountains rung
Responsive to her hideous wail.
Nor night, nor charms of sweet repose,
Could still the loud lament that rose
From that grim forest queen.
No animal, as you might think,
With such a noise could sleep a wink.
A bear presumed to intervene.
"One word, sweet friend," quoth she,
"And that is all, from me.
The young that through your teeth have pass'd,
In file unbroken by a fast,
Had they nor dam nor sire?"
"They had them both." "Then I desire,
Since all their deaths caused no such grievous riot,
While mothers died of grief beneath your fiat,
To know why you yourself cannot be quiet?"
"I quiet!--I!--a wretch bereaved!
My only son!--such anguish be relieved!
No, never! All for me below
Is but a life of tears and woe!"--
"But say, why doom yourself to sorrow so?"--
"Alas! 'tis Destiny that is my foe."

_Such language, since the mortal fall,_
_Has fallen from the lips of all._
_Ye human wretches, give your heed;_
_For your complaints there's little need._
_Let him who thinks his own the hardest case,_
_Some widowed, childless Hecuba behold,_
_Herself to toil and shame of slavery sold,_
_And he will own the wealth of heavenly grace._

The Mice and the Owl.

A pine was by a woodman fell'd,
Which ancient, huge, and hollow tree
An owl had for his palace held--
A bird the Fates had kept in fee,
Interpreter to such as we.
Within the caverns of the pine,
With other tenants of that mine,
Were found full many footless mice,
But well provision'd, fat, and nice.
The bird had bit off all their feet,
And fed them there with heaps of wheat.
That this owl reason'd, who can doubt?
When to the chase he first went out,
And home alive the vermin brought,
Which in his talons he had caught,
The nimble creatures ran away.
Next time, resolved to make them stay,
He cropp'd their legs, and found, with pleasure,
That he could eat them at his leisure;
It were impossible to eat
Them all at once, did health permit.
His foresight, equal to our own,
In furnishing their food was shown.
Now, let Cartesians, if they can,
Pronounce this owl a mere machine.
Could springs originate the plan
Of maiming mice when taken lean,
To fatten for his soup-tureen?
If reason did no service there,
I do not know it anywhere.
Observe the course of argument:
These vermin are no sooner caught than gone:
They must be used as soon, 'tis evident;
But this to all cannot be done.
Hence, while their ribs I lard,
I must from their elopement guard.
But how?--A plan complete!--
I'll clip them of their feet!
Now, find me, in your human schools,
A better use of logic's tools!

 

The Cat and the Two Sparrows.

Contemporary with a sparrow tame
There lived a cat; from tenderest age,
Of both, the basket and the cage
Had household gods the same.
The bird's sharp beak full oft provoked the cat,
Who play'd in turn, but with a gentle pat,
His wee friend sparing with a merry laugh,
Not punishing his faults by half.
In short, he scrupled much the harm,
Should he with points his ferule arm.
The Sparrow, less discreet than he,
With dagger beak made very free.
Sir Cat, a person wise and staid,
Excused the warmth with which he play'd:
For 'tis full half of friendship's art
To take no joke in serious part.
Familiar since they saw the light,
Mere habit kept their friendship good;
Fair play had never turn'd to fight,
Till, of their neighbourhood,
Another sparrow came to greet
Old Ratto grave and Saucy Pete.
Between the birds a quarrel rose,
And Ratto took his side.
"A pretty stranger, with such blows
To beat our friend!" he cried.
"A neighbour's sparrow eating ours!
Not so, by all the feline powers."
And quick the stranger he devours.
"Now, truly," saith Sir Cat,
"I know how sparrows taste by that.
Exquisite, tender, delicate!"
This thought soon seal'd the other's fate.--
But hence what moral can I bring?
For, lacking that important thing,
A fable lacks its finishing:
I seem to see of one some trace,
But still its shadow mocks my chase.

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