THE TWO RATS, THE FOX, AND THE EGG. Fable by Jean de La Fontaine. Illustration by Grandville

THE TWO RATS, THE FOX, AND THE EGG. Fable by Jean de La Fontaine. Illustration by Grandville

Iris, it were easy, quite,
Verses in your praise to write,
Were′t not that, scornful, you refuse
The plaintive homage of my muse,
In that unlike your sisters fair,
Who any weight of praise can bear:
Most women doat on flattery′s lies,
Nor are they, on this point, unwise;
For, if it be a crime, ′tis one
That gods and monarchs fail to shun.
That nectar which, the poets say,
Is quaffed by him who holds the sway
O′er thunders, and which kings on earth
Get drunk on, from their earliest birth,
Is flattery, Iris, flattery—such
As you ′ll not even deign to touch.
No, Iris! you have rich resources
In genuine wit, and wise discourses,—
Sometimes half earnest, sometimes gay;
The world believes it not, they say:
Let the poor world think what it may.
In conversation, I maintain
That truth and jokes are equal gain.
Pure science well may be the stay
Of friendly converse; but the ray
Of mirth should, ever and anon,
Electric, light friends′ union.
Discourse, when rightly comprehended,
Is with a thousand graces blended,
And much resembles gardens sweet,
Where Flora′s various beauties meet;
And where the bees search every bloom,
And from each bush bring honey home.
Allowing this to be so, let
Some theories in my tales be met:
Theories philosophic, new,
Engaging, subtle; have not you
Heard speak of them? Their holders say
That animals are mere machines,
And move but by mechanic means;
That, move or gambol as they may,
They move but blindly, have no soul,
No feeling heart, no self-control;
But are like watches, which, set going,
Work on, without their object knowing.
If we should open one of these,
What is′t the eye within them sees?
A score of tiny wheels we find;
The first is moved, then, close behind,
A second follows, then a third,
And so on, till the hour is heard.
To hark to these philosophers,
The heart is such; some object stirs
A certain nerve, and straight, again,
A fellow-nerve endures the strain;
And so on, till the sense it reaches,
And some deep vital lesson teaches.
"But how′s it done?" These theorists cry,
′Tis done by pure necessity;
That neither will nor even passion
Assist in it, in any fashion.
That, moved by some inherent force,
The beast is sent to run the course
Of love and grief, joy, pain, and hate,
Or any other varied state.
A watch may be a watch, and go,
Compelled by springs; but ′tis not so
With us;—and here ′twere wise to ask
Descartes to aid us in our task,—
Descartes, who, in the times of eld,
Had for a deity been held;
And who, between mere men and spirits,
Holds such a place, by special merits,
As ′twixt man and oyster has
That patient animal, the ass.
He reasons thus, and boldly says,
"Of all the animals that dwell
On this round world, I know, full well,
My brain alone has reason′s rays."
Now, Iris, you will recollect,
′Twas taught us by that older science,
On which we used to have reliance,
That when beasts think, they don′t reflect.
Descartes goes farther, and maintains
That beasts are quite devoid of brains.
This you believe with ease, and so
Can I, until to woods I go,
Just when, perchance, some motley crew,
With dogs and horns, a stag pursue.
In vain it doubles, and confounds.
With many a devious turn, the hounds.

At length this ancient stag of ten,
Discovering all its efforts vain,
And almost wholly worn and spent,
Drives by main force, from covert near,
Athwart the dogs, some younger deer,
To tempt them off, by fresher scent.
What reasoning here the beast displays!
Its backward tracks on beaten ways,
Its numerous schemes its scent to smother,
And skill, at length, to thrust another

On danger almost at its feet,
For some great party chief were meet;
And worthy of some better fate
Than death from dogs insatiate.

′Tis thus the red-legged partridge, sprung
By pointer, strives to save her young,
As yet unfledged. With piteous cries,
And lagging wing, she feigns to rise,
Runs on, then halts, then hurries on again,
And dog and hunter tempts across the plain;
But when her nest is far enough behind,
She laughs at both, and skims along the wind.

′Tis said that beings have been found,
In distant lands, in northern climes,
Who still in ignorance profound
Are steeped, as in primeval times.
But only of the men I speak,
For there four-footed creatures break
The force of streams by dams and ridges,
And join opposing banks by bridges:
Beams morticed well with beams, their toil
Resists the stream′s attempt to spoil;
Each labourer with the other vies,
And old ones guide young energies;
Chief engineers the whole survey,
And point out aught that goes astray.
Pluto′s well-ordered state could never
Have vied with these amphibians clever.

In snows they build their houses high,
And pass o′er pools on bridges dry:
Such is their prudence, art, and skill;
Whilst men like us around them, still,
If they, perchance, should have the whim
A distant shore to reach, must swim.
Now, spite of all, this evidence
Convinces me of beavers′ sense.
But still, my point to make more clear,
I will a story here relate,
Which but lately met my ear
From lips of one who rules in state:
A king, I mean, and one whose glory
Soars high on wings of victory—
The Polish prince, whose name alone
Spreads terror round the Turkish throne.
That kings can lie not is well known:
He says, then, that his frontiers wide
Are edged by wilds where beasts reside,
Who warfare wage inveterate,
And to their sons transmit their hate.
"These beasts are fox-like," says the king,
And to their wars such arts they bring,
That neither this nor any age
Has seen men with like skill engage.
All pickets, sentinels, and spies,
With ambuscades and treacheries,
That she who from Styx′s entrails came,
And unto heroes gives their fame,
Invented has, for man′s perdition,
These beasts employ, with erudition.
To sing their battles we should have
Homer restored us, from the grave;
And, oh! that he who Epicurus
Rivals once more could re-assure us
That, whatever beasts may do,
Is to mechanic means but due;
That all their minds corporeal are;
That building houses, making war,
They are but agents, weak and blind,
Of some mere watchspring in the mind.
The object which their sense attacks,
Returning, fills its former tracks,
And straightway, in their bestial pates,
The image seen before creates,
Without that thought, or sense, or soul
Have o′er the thing the least control.
But men a different station fill,
And, scorning instinct, use their will.
I speak, I walk, and feel within
Something to God-like power akin.
Distinct from all my flesh and bone,
It lives a life that′s all its own,
Yet o′er my flesh it rules alone.
But how can soul be understood
By what is merely flesh and blood?
There lies the point. The tool by hand is guided;
Who guides the hand has not yet been decided.
Ah! what is that strange power which wings
The planets on their heavenly way?
Doth each some angel lord obey?
And are my spirit′s secret springs
Moved and controlled the selfsame way?
My soul obeys some influence;
I know not what it is, nor whence.
That secret must for ever lie
Hid by God′s awful majesty.
Descartes knew just as much as I:
In other things he may supplant
All men; he′s here as ignorant.
But, Iris, this, at least, I know,—
That no such lofty souls endow
The beasts of whom I′ve made example:—
Of soul, man only is the temple.
Yet must we to the beasts accord
Some sense the plant-world can′t afford;
And even plants have humble lives.
But let me add one story still;
And let me know how much your skill
Of moral from its facts derives.

Two Rats, seeking something to eat, found an Egg:
For such folks, to have something to eat is sufficient;
And seldom or never you′ll find that they beg
Of the gods turtle soup, or a French cook proficient.
Full of appetite, nimbly they sat down to eat,
And soon from the shell would have drawn out the meat,
When a Fox in the distance appeared, to molest them,
And a question arose, which most greatly distress′d them,—
No other, as you may suppose, but the way
The Egg from Sir Reynard′s keen snout to convey.
To drag it behind them, or roll it on floor,
To pack it behind them, or shove it before,
Were the plans tried in turn, but were all tried in vain.
When at length the old mother of arts made it plain
That, if one on his back held the Egg in his paw,
The other from danger could readily draw.
The plan was successful, in spite of some jolting;
And we leave the two sages their pleasant meal bolting.

Who shall, after this, declare
That beasts devoid of reason are?
For my part, I′ll to beasts allow
The sense that dwells in childhood′s brow.
Reason, from childhood′s earliest years,
In all its acts and ways appears;
And so it seems to me quite plain
That without soul there may be brain.
I give to beasts a sort of mind,
Compared to ours, a league behind.
Some matter I would subtilise,
Some matter hard to analyse,
Some atoms essence, light′s extract;
Fire, subtlest of all things; in fact,
The flames that out of wood arise
Enable us to form some thought
Of what the soul is. Silver lies
Involved in lead. Beasts′ brains are wrought
So that they think and judge;—no more.
They judge imperfectly. ′Tis sure
No ape could ever argue. Then
Above all beasts I′ll place us men;
For to us men a double treasure
Belongs—that sense which, in some measure,
To all things living here below,
The wise and foolish, high and low,
Is common; and that holier spirit
Which men, with seraphim, inherit.
And, oh! this loftier soul can fly
Through all the wondrous realms of sky:
On smallest point can lie at ease;
And though commenced shall never cease.
Things strange, but true. In infancy
This soul must dim and feeble be;
But ripening years its frame develop,
And then it bursts the gross envelope
Which still in fetters always binds,
In men and beasts, the lower minds.

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