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The Arbiter, the Almoner, and the Hermit

(Recueil 3, Livre 12, Fable 29)



Three saints, for their salvation jealous,

Pursued, with hearts alike most zealous,

By routes diverse, their common aim.

All highways lead to Rome: the same

Of heaven our rivals deeming true,

Each chose alone his pathway to pursue.

Moved by the cares, delays, and crosses

Attached to suits by legal process,

One gave himself as judge, without reward,

For earthly fortune having small regard.

Since there are laws, to legal strife

Man damns himself for half his life.

For half? - Three fourths! perhaps the whole!

The hope possessed our umpire's soul,

That on his plan he should be able

To cure this vice detestable.

The second chose the hospitals.

I give him praise: to solace pain

Is charity not spent in vain,

While men in part are animals.

The sick—for things went then as now they go

Gave trouble to the almoner, I trow.

Impatient, sour, complaining ever,

As racked by rheum, or parched with fever,

"His favourites are such and such;

With them he watches over-much,

And lets us die," they say,

Such sore complaints from day to day

Were nothing to those that did await

The reconciler of debate.

His judgments suited neither side;

Forsooth, in either party's view,

He never held the balance true,

But swerved in every cause he tried.

Discouraged by such speech, the arbiter

Betook himself to see the almoner.

As both received but murmurs for their fees,

They both retired, in not the best of moods,

To break their troubles to the silent woods,

And hold communion with the ancient trees.

There, underneath a rugged mountain,

Beside a clear and silent fountain,

A place revered by winds, to sun unknown,

They found the other saint, who lived alone.

Forthwith they asked his sage advice.

"Your own," he answered, "must suffice;

Who but yourselves your wants should know?

To know one's self, is, here below,

The first command of the Supreme.

Have you obeyed among the bustling throngs?

Such knowledge to tranquillity belongs;

Elsewhere to seek were fallacy extreme.

Disturb the water do you see your face?

See we ourselves within a troubled breast?

A murky cloud in such a case,

Though once it were a crystal vase!

But, brothers, let it simply rest,

And each shall see his features there impressed.

For inward thought a desert home is best."

Such was the hermit's answer brief;

And, happily, it gained belief.

But business, still, from life must not be stricken

Since men will doubtless sue at law, and sicken,

Physicians there must be, and advocates,

Whereof, thank God, no lack the world awaits,

While wealth and honours are the well-known baits.

Yet, in the stream of common wants when thrown,

What busy mortal but forgets his own?

O, you who give the public all your care,

Be it as judge, or prince, or minister,

Disturbed by countless accidents most sinister,

By adverse gales abased, debased by fair,

Yourself you never see, nor see you anything.

Comes there a moment's rest for serious thought,

There comes a flatterer too, and brings it all to nothing.

This lesson seals our varied page:

O, may it teach from age to age!

To kings I give it, to the wise propose;

Where could my labours better close?

Jean de La Fontaine

Book 12, Fable 29



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