The Companions Of Ulysses.

A poem by Jean de La Fontaine

To Monseigneur The Duke De Bourgogne.[1]

Dear prince, a special favourite of the skies,
Pray let my incense from your altars rise.
With these her gifts, if rather late my muse,
My age and labours must her fault excuse.
My spirit wanes, while yours beams on the sight
At every moment with augmented light:
It does not go - it runs, - it seems to fly;
And he from whom it draws its traits so high,
In war a hero,[2] burns to do the same.
No lack of his that, with victorious force,
His giant strides mark not his glory's course:
Some god retains: our sovereign I might name;
Himself no less than conqueror divine,
Whom one short month made master of the Rhine.
It needed then upon the foe to dash;
Perhaps, to-day, such generalship were rash.
But hush, - they say the Loves and Smiles
Abhor a speech spun out in miles;
And of such deities your court
Is constantly composed, in short.
Not but that other gods, as meet,
There hold the highest seat:
For, free and lawless as the rest may seem,
Good Sense and Reason bear a sway supreme.
Consult these last about the case
Of certain men of Grecian race,
Who, most unwise and indiscreet,
Imbibed such draughts of poison sweet,
As changed their form, and brutified.
Ten years the heroes at Ulysses' side
Had been the sport of wind and tide.
At last those powers of water
The sea-worn wanderers bore
To that enchanted shore
Where Circe reign'd, Apollo's daughter.
She press'd upon their thirsty lips
Delicious drink, but full of bane:
Their reason, at the first light sips,
Laid down the sceptre of its reign.
Then took their forms and features
The lineaments of various creatures.
To bears and lions some did pass,
Or elephants of ponderous mass;
While not a few, I ween,
In smaller forms were seen, -
In such, for instance, as the mole.
Of all, the sage Ulysses sole
Had wit to shun that treacherous bowl.
With wisdom and heroic mien,
And fine address, he caused the queen
To swallow, on her wizard throne,
A poison somewhat like her own.
A goddess, she to speak her wishes dared,
And hence, at once, her love declared.
Ulysses, truly too judicious
To lose a moment so propitious,
Besought that Circe would restore
His Greeks the shapes that first they wore.
Replied the nymph, 'But will they take them back?
Go make the proffer to the motley pack.'
Ulysses ran, both glad and sure:
'That poisonous cup,' cried he 'hath yet its cure;
And here I bring what ends your shame and pain.
Will you, dear friends, be men again?
Pray speak, for speech is now restored.'
'No,' said the lion, - and he roar'd, -
'My head is not so void of brains!
Renounce shall I my royal gains?
I've claws and teeth to tear my foes to bits,
And, more than that, I'm king.
Am I such gifts away to fling,
To be but one of Ithaca's mere cits?
In rank and file perhaps I might bear arms.
In such a change I see no charms.' -
Ulysses passes to the bear: -
'How changed, my friend, from what you were!
How sightly once! how ugly now!'
'Humph! truly how?'
Growl'd Bruin in his way -
'How else than as a bear should be, I pray?
Who taught your stilted highness to prefer
One form to every other, sir?
Doth yours possess peculiar powers
The merits to decide, of ours?
With all respect, I shall appeal my case
To some sweet beauty of the bearish race.
Please pass it by, if you dislike my face.
I live content, and free from care;
And, well remembering what we were,
I say it, plain and flat,
I'll change to no such state as that.'
Next to the wolf the princely Greek
With flattering hope began to speak: -
'Comrade, I blush, I must confess,
To hear a gentle shepherdess
Complaining to the echoing rocks
Of that outrageous appetite
Which drives you, night by night,
To prey upon her flocks.
You had been proud to guard her fold
In your more honest life of old.
Pray quit this wolfship, now you can,
And leave the woods an honest man.'
'But is there one?' the wolf replied:
'Such man, I own, I never spied.
You treat me as a ravenous beast,
But what are you? To say the least,
You would yourself have eat the sheep,
Which, eat by me, the village weep.
Now, truly, on your faith confess,
Should I, as man, love flesh the less?
Why, man, not seldom, kills his very brother;
What, then, are you but wolves to one another?
Now, everything with care to scan,
And rogue with rogue to rate,
I'd better be a wolf than man,
And need not change my state.'
Thus all did wise Ulysses try,
And got from all the same reply,
As well from great as small.
Wild liberty was dear to all;
To follow lawless appetite
They counted their supreme delight.
All banish'd from their thought and care
The glorious praise of actions fair.
Where passion led, they thought their course was free;
Self-bound, their chains they could not see.

Prince, I had wish'd for you a theme to choose,
Where I might mingle pleasantry with use;
And I should meet with your approving voice,
No doubt, if I could make such choice.
At last, Ulysses' crew
Were offer'd to my view.
And there are like them not a few,
Who may for penalty await
Your censure and your hate.[3]

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