The Fortune-Tellers.

A poem by Jean de La Fontaine

'Tis oft from chance opinion takes its rise,
And into reputation multiplies.
This prologue finds pat applications
In men of all this world's vocations;
For fashion, prejudice, and party strife,
Conspire to crowd poor justice out of life.
What can you do to counteract
This reckless, rushing cataract?
'Twill have its course for good or bad,
As it, indeed, has always had.

A dame in Paris play'd the Pythoness[1]
With much of custom, and, of course, success.
Was any trifle lost, or did
Some maid a husband wish,
Or wife of husband to be rid,
Or either sex for fortune fish,
Resort was had to her with gold,
To get the hidden future told.
Her art was made of various tricks,
Wherein the dame contrived to mix,
With much assurance, learned terms.
Now, chance, of course, sometimes confirms;
And just as often as it did,
The news was anything but hid.
In short, though, as to ninety-nine per cent.,
The lady knew not what her answers meant,
Borne up by ever-babbling Fame,
An oracle she soon became.
A garret was this woman's home,
Till she had gain'd of gold a sum
That raised the station of her spouse -
Bought him an office and a house.
As she could then no longer bear it,
Another tenanted the garret.
To her came up the city crowd, -
Wives, maidens, servants, gentry proud, -
To ask their fortunes, as before;
A Sibyl's cave was on her garret floor:
Such custom had its former mistress drawn
It lasted even when herself was gone.
It sorely tax'd the present mistress' wits
To satisfy the throngs of teasing cits.
'I tell your fortunes! joke, indeed!
Why, gentlemen, I cannot read!
What can you, ladies, learn from me,
Who never learn'd my A, B, C?'
Avaunt with reasons! tell she must, -
Predict as if she understood,
And lay aside more precious dust
Than two the ablest lawyers could.
The stuff that garnish'd out her room -
Four crippled chairs, a broken broom -
Help'd mightily to raise her merits, -
Full proof of intercourse with spirits!
Had she predicted e'er so truly,
On floor with carpet cover'd duly,
Her word had been a mockery made.
The fashion set upon the garret.
Doubt that? - none bold enough to dare it!
The other woman lost her trade.

All shopmen know the force of signs,
And so, indeed, do some divines.
In palaces, a robe awry
Has sometimes set the wearer high;
And crowds his teaching will pursue
Who draws the greatest listening crew.
Ask, if you please, the reason why.

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