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The Two Rats, the Fox, and the Egg

(Recueil 2, Livre 9, Fable 20)

 

 

Address to Madame de la Sabliere.

You, Iris, it were an easy task to praise;

But you refuse the incense of my lays.

In this you are unlike all other mortals,

Who welcome all the praise that seeks their portals;

Not one who is not soothed by sound so sweet.

For me to blame this humour were not meet,

By gods and mortals shared in common,

And, in the main, by lovely woman.

That drink, so vaunted by the rhyming trade,

That cheers the god who deals the thunder blow,

And often intoxicates the gods below,

The nectar, Iris, is of praises made.

You taste it not. But, in its place,

Wit, science, even trifles grace

Your bill of fare; but, for that matter,

The world will not believe the latter.

Well, leave the world in unbelief.

Still science, trifles, fancies light as air,

I hold, should mingle in a bill of fare,

Each giving each its due relief;

As, where the gifts of Flora fall,

On different flowers we see

Alight the busy bee,

Educing sweet from all.

Thus much premised, don't think it strange,

Or anything beyond my muse's range,

If even my fables should infold,

Among their nameless trumpery,

The traits of a philosophy

Far famed as subtle, charming, bold.

They call it new the men of wit;

Perhaps you have not heard of it?

My verse will tell you what it means:

They say that beasts are mere machines;

That, in their doings, everything

Is done by virtue of a spring

No sense, no soul, nor notion;

But matter merely, set in motion,

Just such the watch in kind,

Which jogs on, to purpose blind.

Now ope, and read within its breast

The place of soul is by its wheels possessed.

One moves a second, that a third,

Till finally its sound is heard.

And now the beast, our sages say,

Is moved precisely in this way

An object strikes it in a certain place:

The spot thus struck, without a moment's space,

To neighbouring parts the news conveys;

Thus sense receives it through the chain,

And takes impression. How? Explain.

Not I. They say, by sheer necessity,

From will as well as passion free,

The animal is found the thrall

Of movements which the vulgar call

Joy, sadness, pleasure, pain, and love

The cause extrinsic and above.

Believe it not. What's this I hold?

Why, sooth, it is a watch of gold

Its life, the mere unbending of a spring.

And we? are quite a different thing.

Hear how Descartes, whom all applaud,

Whom pagans would have made a god,

Who holds, in fact, the middle place

"Between ours and the celestial race,

About as does the plodding ass

From man to oyster as you pass

Hear how this author states the case

"Of all the tribes to being brought

By our Creator out of nothing,

I only have the gift of thought."

Now, Iris, you will recollect

We were by older science taught

That when brutes think, they don't reflect.

Descartes proceeds beyond the wall,

And says they do not think at all.

This you believe with ease;

And so could I, if I should please.

Still, in the forest, when, from morn

Till midday, sounds of dog and horn

Have terrified the stag forlorn;

When he has doubled forth and back,

And laboured to confound his track,

Till tired and spent with efforts vain

An ancient stag, of antlers ten;

He puts a younger in his place,

All fresh, to weary out the chase.

What thoughts for one that merely grazes!

The doublings, turnings, windings, mazes,

The substituting fresher bait,

Were worthy of a man of state

And worthy of a better fate!

To yield to rascal dogs his breath

Is all the honour of his death.

And when the partridge danger spies,

Before her brood have strength to rise,

She wisely counterfeits a wound,

And drags her wing on the ground

Thus, from her home, beside some ancient log,

Safe drawing off the sportsman and his dog;

And while the latter seems to seize her,

The victim of an easy chase

"Your teeth are not for such as me, sir,"

She cries,

And flies,

And laughs the former in his face.

Far north, it's said, the people live

In customs nearly primitive;

That is to say, are bound

In ignorance profound:

I mean the people human;

For animals are dwelling there

With skill such buildings to prepare

As could on earth but few men.

Firm laid across the torrent's course,

Their work withstands its mighty force,

So damming it from shore to shore,

That, gliding smoothly over,

In even sheets the waters pour.

Their work, as it proceeds, they grade and bevel,

Or bring it up to plumb or level;

First lay their logs, and then with mortar smear,

As if directed by an engineer.

Each labours for the public good;

The old command, the youthful brood

Cut down, and shape, and place the wood.

Compared with theirs, even Plato's model state

Were but the work of some apprentice pate.

Such are the beaver folks, who know

Enough to house themselves from snow,

And bridge, though they can swim, the pools.

Meanwhile, our kinsmen are such fools,

In spite of their example,

They dwell in huts less ample,

And cross the streams by swimming,

However cold and brimming!

Now that the skilful beaver,

Is but a body void of spirit,

From whomsoever I might hear it,

I would believe it never.

But I go farther in the case.

Pray listen while I tell

A thing which lately fell

From one of truly royal race.

A prince beloved by Victory,

The North's defender here shall be

My voucher and your guaranty;

Whose mighty name alone

Commands the sultan's throne,

The king whom Poland calls her own.

This king declares (kings cannot lie, we hear)

That, on his own frontier,

Some animals there are;

Engaged in ceaseless war;

From age to age the quarrel runs,

Transmitted down from sires to sons;

(These beasts, he says, are to the fox akin;)

And with more skill no war has been,

By highest military powers,

Conducted in this age of ours

Guards, piquets, scouts, and spies,

And ambuscade that hidden lies,

The foe to capture by surprise,

And many a shrewd appliance

Of that pernicious, cursed science,

The daughter of the Stygian wave,

And mother harsh of heroes brave,

Those military creatures have.

To chant their feats a bard we lack,

Till Death shall give us Homer back.

And should he such a wonder do,

And, while his hand was in, release

Old Epicurus' rival too,

What would the latter say to facts like these?

Why, as I have said, that nature does such things

In animals by means of springs;

That Memory is but corporeal;

And that to do the things arrayed

So proudly in my story all,

The animal but needs her aid.

At each return, the object, so to speak,

Proceeds directly to her store

With keenest optics there to seek

The image it had traced before,

Which found, proceeds forthwith to act

Just as at first it did, in fact,

By neither thought nor reason backed.

Not so with us, beasts perpendicular;

With us kind Heaven is more particular.

Self ruled by independent mind,

We're not the sport of objects blind,

Nor even to instinct are consigned.

I walk; I talk; I feel the sway

Of power within

This nice machine,

It cannot but obey.

This power, although with matter linked,

Is comprehended as distinct.

Indeed It's comprehended better

In truth and essence than is matter.

Over all our arts it is supreme.

But how does matter understand

Or hear its sovereign lord's command?

Here does a difficulty seem:

I see the tool obey the hand;

But then the hand who guides it;

Who guides the stars in order fit?

Perhaps each mighty world,

Since from its Maker hurled,

Some angel may have kept in custody.

However that may be,

A spirit dwells in such as we;

It moves our limbs; we feel its mandates now;

We see and know it rules, but know not how:

Nor shall we know, indeed,

Till in the breast of God we read.

And, speaking in all verity,

Descartes is just as ignorant as we;

In things beyond a mortal's ken,

He knows no more than other men.

But, Iris, I confess to this,

That in the beasts of which I speak

Such spirit it were vain to seek,

For man its only temple is.

Yet beasts must have a place

Beneath our godlike race,

Which no mere plant requires

Although the plant respires.

But what shall one reply

To what I next shall certify?

Two rats in foraging fell on an egg,

For gentry such as they

A genteel dinner every way;

They needed not to find an ox's leg.

Brimful of joy and appetite,

They were about to sack the box,

So tight without the aid of locks,

When suddenly there came in sight

A personage Sir Pullet Fox.

Sure, luck was never more untoward

Since Fortune was a vixen froward!

How should they save their egg and bacon?

Their plunder couldn't then be bagged;

Should it in forward paws be taken,

Or rolled along, or dragged?

Each method seemed impossible,

And each was then of danger full.

Necessity, ingenious mother,

Brought forth what helped them from their pother.

As still there was a chance to save their prey,

The spunger yet some hundred yards away,

One seized the egg, and turned on his back,

And then, in spite of many a thump and thwack,

That would have torn, perhaps, a coat of mail,

The other dragged him by the tail.

Who dares the inference to blink,

That beasts possess wherewith to think?

Were I commissioned to bestow

This power on creatures here below,

The beasts should have as much of mind

As infants of the human kind.

Think not the latter, from their birth?

It hence appears there are on earth

That have the simple power of thought

Where reason has no knowledge wrought.

And on this wise an equal power I had yield

To all the various tenants of the field;

Not reason such as in ourselves we find,

But something more than any mainspring blind.

A speck of matter I would subtilise

Almost beyond the reach of mental eyes;

An atom's essence, one might say,

An extract of a solar ray,

More quick and pungent than a flame of fire,

For if of flame the wood is sire,

Cannot the flame, itself refined,

Give some idea of the mind?

Comes not the purest gold

From lead, as we are told?

To feel and choose, my work should soar

Unthinking judgment nothing more.

No monkey of my manufacture

Should argue from his sense or fact, sure:

But my allotment to mankind

Should be of very different mind.

We men should share in double measure,

Or rather have a twofold treasure;

The one the soul, the same in all

That bear the name of animal

The sages, dunces, great and small,

That tenant this our teeming ball;

The other still another soul,

Which should to mortals here belong

In common with the angel throng;

Which, made an independent whole,

Could pierce the skies to worlds of light,

Within a point have room to be,

Its life a morn, sans noon or night.

Exempt from all destructive change

A thing as real as it is strange.

In infancy this child of day

Should glimmer but a feeble ray.

Its earthly organs stronger grown,

The beam of reason, brightly thrown,

Should pierce the darkness, thick and gross,

That holds the other prisoned close.

Jean de La Fontaine

Book 9, Fable 20

 

 

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