THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE
THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE
JEAN DE LA FONTAINE
_Translated From The French_
By Elizur Wright.
_A New Edition With Notes_
By J. W. M. Gibbs.
* * * * *
To The Present Edition
With Some Account Of The Translator.
The first edition of this translation of La Fontaine's Fables appeared
in Boston U.S. in 1841. It achieved a considerable success and six
editions were printed in three years. Since then it has been allowed to
pass out of print except in the shape of a small-type edition produced
in London immediately after the first publication in Boston and the
present publishers have thought that a reprint in a readable yet popular
form would be generally acceptable.
The translator has remarked in the "Advertisement" to his original
edition (which follows these pages) on the singular neglect of La
Fontaine by English translators up to the time of his own work. Forty
years have elapsed since those remarks were penned yet translations into
English of the _complete_ Fables of the chief among modern fabulists
are almost as few in number as they were then. Mr. George Ticknor (the
author of the "History of Spanish Literature" &c.) in praising Mr.
Wright's translation when it first appeared said La Fontaine's was "a
book till now untranslated;" and since Mr. Wright so happily accomplished
his self-imposed task there has been but one other complete translation
viz. that of the late Mr. Walter Thornbury. This latter however seems
to have been undertaken chiefly with a view to supplying the necessary
accompaniment to the English issue of M. Dore's well-known designs for
the Fables (first published as illustrations to a Paris edition) and
existing as it does only in the large quarto form given to those
illustrations it cannot make any claim to be a handy-volume edition. Mr.
Wright's translation however still holds its place as the best English
version and the present reprint besides having undergone careful
revision embodies the corrections (but not the expurgations) of the
sixth edition which differed from those preceding it. The notes too
have for the most part been added by the reviser.
Some account of the translator who is still one of the living notables
of his nation may not be out of place here. Elizur Wright junior is
the son of Elizur Wright who published some papers in mathematics but
was principally engaged in agricultural pursuits at Canaan Litchfield
Co. Connecticut U.S. The younger Elizur Wright was born at Canaan in
1804. He graduated at Yale College in 1826 and afterwards taught in a
school at Groton. In 1829 he became Professor of Mathematics in Hudson
College from which post he went to New York in 1833 on being appointed
secretary to the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1838 he removed to the
literary centre of the United States Boston where he edited several
papers successively and where he published his "La Fontaine;" which
thus whilst it still remains his most considerable work was also one
of his earliest. How he was led to undertake it he has himself narrated
in the advertisement to his first edition. But previously to 1841 the
date of the first publication of the complete "Fables" he tried the
effect of a partial publication. In 1839 he published anonymously a
little 12mo volume "La Fontaine; A Present for the Young." This as
appears from the title was a book for children and though the substance
of these few (and simpler) fables may be traced in the later and complete
edition the latter shows a considerable improvement upon the work of his
"'prentice hand." The complete work was published as we have said in
1841. It appeared in an expensive and sumptuous form and was adorned
with the French artist Grandville's illustrations--which had first
appeared only two years previously in the Paris edition of La Fontaine's
Fables published by Fournier Aine. The book was well received both in
America and England and four other editions were speedily called for.
The sixth edition published in 1843 was a slightly expurgated one
designed for schools. The expurgation however almost wholly consisted
of the omission bodily of five of the fables whose places were as Mr.
Wright stated in his preface filled by six original fables of his own.
From his "Notice" affixed to this sixth edition it seems evident that he
by no means relished the task usually a hateful one of expurgating his
author. Having however been urged to the task by "criticisms both
friendly and unfriendly" (as he says) he did it; and did it wisely
because sparingly. But in his prefatory words he in a measure protests.
He says:--"In this age distinguished for almost everything more than
sincerity there are some people who would seem too delicate and refined
to read their Bibles." And he concludes with the appeal--"But the
unsophisticated lovers of _nature_ who have not had the opportunity
to acquaint themselves with the French language I have no doubt will
thank me for interpreting to them these honest and truthful fictions of
the frank old JEAN and will beg me to proceed no farther in the work
of expurgation." The first of the substituted fables of the sixth
edition--_The Fly and the Game_ given below--may also be viewed as
a protest to the same purpose. As a specimen of Mr. Wright's powers at
once as an original poet and an original fabulist we here print (for the
first time in England we believe) the substituted fables of his sixth
edition. We may add that they appeared in lieu of the following five
fables as given in Mr. Wright's complete edition--and in the present
edition:--_The Bitch and her Friend The Mountain in Labour The Young
Widow The Women and the Secret_ and _The Husband the Wife and
the Thief_. It should also be borne in mind that these original fables
were inserted in an edition professedly meant for schools rather than for
the general public.
* * * * *
THE FLY AND THE GAME.
A knight of powder-horn and shot
Once fill'd his bag--as I would not
Unless the feelings of my breast
By poverty were sorely press'd--
With birds and squirrels for the spits
Of certain gormandizing cits.
With merry heart the fellow went
Direct to Mr. Centpercent
Who loved as well was understood
Whatever game was nice and good.
This gentleman with knowing air
Survey'd the dainty lot with care
Pronounced it racy rich and rare
And call'd his wife to know her wishes
About its purchase for their dishes.
The lady thought the creatures prime
And for their dinner just in time;
So sweet they were and delicate
For dinner she could hardly wait.
But now there came--could luck be worse?--
Just as the buyer drew his purse
A bulky fly with solemn buzz
And smelt as an inspector does
This bird and that and said the meat--
But here his words I won't repeat--
Was anything but fit to eat.
'Ah!' cried the lady 'there's a fly
I never knew to tell a lie;
His coat you see is bottle-green;
He knows a thing or two I ween;
My dear I beg you do not buy:
Such game as this may suit the dogs.'
So on our peddling sportsman jogs
His soul possess'd of this surmise
About some men as well as flies:
A filthy taint they soonest find
Who are to relish filth inclined.
THE DOG AND CAT.
A dog and cat messmates for life
Were often falling into strife
Which came to scratching growls and snaps
And spitting in the face perhaps.
A neighbour dog once chanced to call
Just at the outset of their brawl
And thinking Tray was cross and cruel
To snarl so sharp at Mrs. Mew-well
Growl'd rather roughly in his ear.
'And who are you to interfere?'
Exclaim'd the cat while in his face she flew;
And as was wise he suddenly withdrew.
It seems in spite of all his snarling
And hers that Tray was still her darling.
THE GOLDEN PITCHER.
A father once whose sons were two
For each a gift had much ado.
At last upon this course he fell:
'My sons' said he 'within our well
Two treasures lodge as I am told;
The one a sunken piece of gold--
A bowl it may be or a pitcher--
The other is a thing far richer.
These treasures if you can but find
Each may be suited to his mind;
For both are precious in their kind.
To gain the one you'll need a hook;
The other will but cost a look.
But O of this I pray beware!--
You who may choose the tempting share--
Too eager fishing for the pitcher
May ruin that which is far richer.'
Out ran the boys their gifts to draw:
But eagerness was check'd with awe
How could there be a richer prize
Than solid gold beneath the skies?
Or if there could how could it dwell
Within their own old mossy well?
Were questions which excited wonder
And kept their headlong av'rice under.
The golden cup each fear'd to choose
Lest he the better gift should lose;
And so resolved our prudent pair
The gifts in common they would share.
The well was open to the sky.
As o'er its curb they keenly pry
It seems a tunnel piercing through
From sky to sky from blue to blue;
And at its nether mouth each sees
A brace of their antipodes
With earnest faces peering up
As if themselves might seek the cup.
'Ha!' said the elder with a laugh
'We need not share it by the half.
The mystery is clear to me;
That richer gift to all is free.
Be only as that water true
And then the whole belongs to you.'
That truth itself was worth so much
It cannot be supposed that such.
A pair of lads were satisfied;
And yet they were before they died.
But whether they fish'd up the gold
I'm sure I never have been told.
Thus much they learn'd I take for granted--
And that was what their father wanted:--
If truth for wealth we sacrifice
We throw away the richer prize.
Among the beasts a feud arose.
The lion as the story goes
Once on a time laid down
His sceptre and his crown;
And in his stead the beasts elected
As often as it suited them
A sort of king _pro tem._--
Some animal they much respected.
At first they all concurr'd.
The horse the stag the unicorn
Were chosen each in turn;
And then the noble bird
That looks undazzled at the sun.
But party strife began to run
Through burrow den and herd.
Some beasts proposed the patient ox
And others named the cunning fox.
The quarrel came to bites and knocks;
Nor was it duly settled
Till many a beast high-mettled
Had bought an aching head
Or possibly had bled.
The fox as one might well suppose
At last above his rival rose
But truth to say his reign was bootless
Of honour being rather fruitless.
All prudent beasts began to see
The throne a certain charm had lost
And won by strife as it must be
Was hardly worth the pains it cost.
So when his majesty retired
Few worthy beasts his seat desired.
Especially now stood aloof
The wise of head the swift of hoof
The beasts whose breasts were battle-proof.
It consequently came to pass
Not first but as we say in fine
For king the creatures chose the ass--
He for prime minister the swine.
'Tis thus that party spirit
Is prone to banish merit.
THE CAT AND THE THRUSH.
A thrush that sang one rustic ode
Once made a garden his abode
And gave the owner such delight
He grew a special favourite.
Indeed his landlord did his best
To make him safe from every foe;
The ground about his lowly nest
Was undisturb'd by spade or hoe.
And yet his song was still the same;
It even grew somewhat more tame.
At length Grimalkin spied the pet
Resolved that he should suffer yet
And laid his plan of devastation
So as to save his reputation;
For in the house from looks demure
He pass'd for honest kind and pure.
Professing search of mice and moles
He through the garden daily strolls
And never seeks our thrush to catch;
But when his consort comes to hatch
Just eats the young ones in a batch.
The sadness of the pair bereaved
Their generous guardian sorely grieved.
But yet it could not be believed
His faithful cat was in the wrong
Though so the thrush said in his song.
The cat was therefore favour'd still
To walk the garden at his will;
And hence the birds to shun the pest
Upon a pear-tree built their nest.
Though there it cost them vastly more
'Twas vastly better than before.
And Gaffer Thrush directly found
His throat when raised above the ground
Gave forth a softer sweeter sound.
New tunes moreover he had caught
By perils and afflictions taught
And found new things to sing about:
New scenes had brought new talents out.
So while improved beyond a doubt
His own old song more clearly rang
Far better than themselves he sang
The chants and trills of other birds;
He even mock'd Grimalkin's words
With such delightful humour that
He gain'd the Christian name of Cat.
Let Genius tell in verse and prose.
How much to praise and friends it owes.
Good sense may be as I suppose
As much indebted to its foes.
* * * * *
In 1844 Mr. Wright wrote the Preface to the first collected edition of
the works of the poet J. G. Whittier; and soon after he seems to have
become completely absorbed in politics and in the mighty anti-slavery
struggle which constituted the greater part of the politics of the
United States in those and many succeeding years. He became a journalist
in the anti-slavery cause; and in 1850 he wrote a trenchant answer to
Mr. Carlyle's then just published "Latter Day Pamphlets." Later on
slavery having been at length abolished he appeared as a writer in yet
another field publishing several works one as lately as 1877 on
* * * * *
To The First Edition Of This Translation.
[Boston U.S.A. 1841.]
Four years ago I dropped into Charles de Behr's repository of foreign
books in Broadway New York and there for the first time saw La
Fontaine's Fables. It was a cheap copy adorned with some two hundred
woodcuts which by their worn appearance betokened an extensive
manufacture. I became a purchaser and gave the book to my little boy
then just beginning to feel the intellectual magnetism of pictures. In
the course of the next year he frequently tasked my imperfect knowledge
of French for the story which belonged to some favourite vignette. This
led me to inquire whether any English version existed; and not finding
any I resolved though quite unused to literary exercises of the sort
to cheat sleep of an hour every morning till there should be one. The
result is before you. If in this I have wronged La Fontaine I hope the
best-natured of poets as well as yourselves will forgive me and lay
the blame on the better qualified who have so long neglected the task.
Cowper should have done it. The author of "John Gilpin" and the "Retired
Cat" would have put La Fontaine into every chimney-corner which resounds
with the Anglo-Saxon tongue.... To you who have so generously enabled me
to publish this work with so great advantages and without selling the
copyright for the _promise_ of a song I return my heartfelt thanks.
A hatchet-faced spectacled threadbare stranger knocked at your doors
with a prospectus unbacked by "the trade" soliciting your subscription
to a costly edition of a mere translation. It is a most inglorious
unsatisfactory species of literature. The slightest preponderance of that
worldly wisdom which never buys a pig-in-a-poke would have sent him and
his translation packing. But a kind faith in your species got the better
in your case. You not only gave the hungry-looking stranger your good
wishes but your good names. A list of those names it would delight me to
insert; and I should certainly do it if I felt authorized. As it is I
hope to be pardoned for mentioning some of the individuals who have not
only given their names but expressed an interest in my enterprise which
has assisted me in its accomplishment. Rev. John Pierpont Prof. George
Ticknor Prof. Henry W. Longfellow William H. Prescott Esq. Hon.
Theodore Lyman Prof. Silliman Prof. Denison Olmsted Chancellor Kent
William C. Bryant Esq. Dr. J. W. Francis Hon. Peter A. Jay Hon.
Luther Bradish and Prof. J. Molinard have special claims to my
The work--as it is not as it ought to be--I commit to your kindness. I
do not claim to have succeeded in translating "the inimitable La
Fontaine"--perhaps I have not even a right to say in his own language--
"J'ai du moins ouvert le chemin."
However this may be I am gratefully
Your obedient servant
Elizur Wright Jr.
Dorchester _September_ 1841.
* * * * *
Fable The Fabulists And La Fontaine.
By The Translator.
Human nature when fresh from the hand of God was full of poetry. Its
sociality could not be pent within the bounds of the actual. To the lower
inhabitants of air earth and water--and even to those elements
themselves in all their parts and forms--it gave speech and reason. The
skies it peopled with beings on the noblest model of which it could have
any conception--to wit its own. The intercourse of these beings thus
created and endowed--from the deity kindled into immortality by the
imagination to the clod personified for the moment--gratified one of
its strongest propensities; for man may well enough be defined as the
historical animal. The faculty which in after ages was to chronicle the
realities developed by time had at first no employment but to place on
record the productions of the imagination. Hence fable blossomed and
ripened in the remotest antiquity. We see it mingling itself with the
primeval history of all nations. It is not improbable that many of the
narratives which have been preserved for us by the bark or parchment of
the first rude histories as serious matters of fact were originally
apologues or parables invented to give power and wings to moral
lessons and afterwards modified in their passage from mouth to mouth
by the well-known magic of credulity. The most ancient poets graced their
productions with apologues. Hesiod's fable of the Hawk and the
Nightingale is an instance. The fable or parable was anciently as it is
even now a favourite weapon of the most successful orators. When Jotham
would show the Shechemites the folly of their ingratitude he uttered the
fable of the Fig-Tree the Olive the Vine and the Bramble. When the
prophet Nathan would oblige David to pass a sentence of condemnation upon
himself in the matter of Uriah he brought before him the apologue of the
rich man who having many sheep took away that of the poor man who had
but one. When Joash the king of Israel would rebuke the vanity of