The Arbiter, The Almoner, And The Hermit.

A poem by Jean de La Fontaine

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
Attach'd 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 possess'd 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 rack'd by rheum, or parch'd 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 nought 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 ask'd his sage advice.
'Your own,' he answer'd, '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 obey'd 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 impress'd.
For inward thought a desert home is best.'

Such was the hermit's answer brief;
And, happily, it gain'd 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,
Disturb'd by countless accidents most sinister,
By adverse gales abased, debased by fair, -
Yourself you never see, nor see you aught.
Comes there a moment's rest for serious thought,
There comes a flatterer too, and brings it all to nought.
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?[1]

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