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THE MAN AND THE SNAKE. Jean de La Fontaine

THE MAN AND THE SNAKE. Fable by Jean de La Fontaine. Illustration by Grandville

THE MAN AND THE SNAKE. Fable by Jean de La Fontaine. Illustration by Grandville

A Man once saw a Snake, and said,
"Thou wretched thing, I′ll strike thee dead—
′Tis for the general good!"
And straight the wicked thing
(By wicked be it understood,
I mean not Man, but wretch with sting;
For some my meaning might mistake),
Well, this base and atrocious Snake
Was placed in sack,
And doomed, alack!
To death without the aid of jury!
But yet the Man, despite his fury,
To show that he with justice acted,
His reasons in these words compacted:—
"Oh, symbol of all that is base,
′Twere a crime to spare one of thy race;
For mercy to those that are bad
Can from foolish ones only be had;
And no more shall thy sting or thy teeth,
Oh, thou villanous Snake, find their sheath!"
The Serpent, thus addressed,
His counter views expressed,
And briefly made reply:—
"O Man! if all must die
Who graceless are, there′s none
Who would not be undone.
Yourself shall be the judge; I′ll take
From you excuse for me, the Snake.
My life is in your hands, I know,
But ponder ere you strike the blow,
And see now what you justice call
Is based on vices great and small.
Your pleasure and convenience
You′ll satisfy at my expense;
But, pray, think not that I am rude,
If, dying, I this statement make—
That Man, and not the Snake,
The symbol is of all ingratitude."
These words the angry Man surprise,
He starts aside, and then replies—
"Your words are nonsense, and to me
Belongs of right your fate′s decree;
But, nathless, let us have resort
Unto some independent court."
The Snake assented; and a Cow
That stood hard by, appealed to, said—
"The case is plain; I can′t see how
The thing should puzzle any head:
The Snake is right, I′ll frankly say;
For yonder Man, for many a day,
With milk and curd I′ve amply fed,
And long ere this his child were dead,
If my rich food his pining son
Had rescued not from Acheron.
And now that I am old and dry,
He leaves me, wanting grass, to die;
Sure, had a Serpent been my master,
It could have been no worse disaster."
Thus saying, with an awkward bow,
Walked off, or rather limped, the Cow.
The Man, aghast at this decree,
Exclaimed, "O Snake! it cannot be;
The Cow is doting. Let us place
Before this Ox our mutual case."
The Snake assents, and heavily
The Ox walks up, and by-and-by,
Still ruminating, makes reply
To this effect—"That, after years
Of painful toil and weariness,
That Ceres′ wealth Man might possess
(And here the Ox burst into tears),
His sole reward had been the goad,
When panting with some weighty load;
And, what was worse, his owner thought
He—Ox—was honoured, being bought
By cruel butcher, to be flayed,
And as a prize beast then displayed!"
The Man declared the Ox a liar,
And said, "Yon Oak-tree shall be trier."
The tree, appealed to, made a case
Redounding unto Man′s disgrace;
Told how he sheltered Man from rain,
Told how he garnished hill and plain,
Told how he gave Man flowers and fruits,
And how that, when Man′s will it suits,
He cuts him down and burns his roots!

The Man, convinced against his will,
Resolved to have his vengeance still;
So took the Serpent, bag and all,
And banged it up against the wall,
Until the wretched Serpent died,
And human wrath was satisfied.

It is ever thus with the rich and great,
Truth and reason they always hate;
They think that all things here below
Solely for their convenience grow;
And if any this simple truth denies,
They call him a sulky growler of lies;
And this being so, when you wish to teach
The truth to such people, keep out of their reach.

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