The Charlatan.

A poem by Jean de La Fontaine

[1]

The world has never lack'd its charlatans,
More than themselves have lack'd their plans.
One sees them on the stage at tricks
Which mock the claims of sullen Styx.
What talents in the streets they post!
One of them used to boast
Such mastership of eloquence
That he could make the greatest dunce
Another Tully Cicero
In all the arts that lawyers know.
'Ay, sirs, a dunce, a country clown,
The greatest blockhead of your town, -
Nay more, an animal, an ass, -
The stupidest that nibbles grass, -
Needs only through my course to pass,
And he shall wear the gown
With credit, honour, and renown.'
The prince heard of it, call'd the man, thus spake:
'My stable holds a steed
Of the Arcadian breed,[2]
Of which an orator I wish to make.'
'Well, sire, you can,'
Replied our man.
At once his majesty
Paid the tuition fee.
Ten years must roll, and then the learned ass
Should his examination pass,
According to the rules
Adopted in the schools;
If not, his teacher was to tread the air,
With halter'd neck, above the public square, -
His rhetoric bound on his back,
And on his head the ears of jack.
A courtier told the rhetorician,
With bows and terms polite,
He would not miss the sight
Of that last pendent exhibition;
For that his grace and dignity
Would well become such high degree;
And, on the point of being hung,
He would bethink him of his tongue,
And show the glory of his art, -
The power to melt the hardest heart, -
And wage a war with time
By periods sublime -
A pattern speech for orators thus leaving,
Whose work is vulgarly call'd thieving.
'Ah!' was the charlatan's reply,
'Ere that, the king, the ass, or I,
Shall, one or other of us, die.'
And reason good had he;
We count on life most foolishly,
Though hale and hearty we may be.
In each ten years, death cuts down one in three.

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