The Raven, The Gazelle, The Tortoise, And The Rat.

A poem by Jean de La Fontaine

[1]

To Madame De La Sablière.[2]

A temple I reserved you in my rhyme:
It might not be completed but with time.
Already its endurance I had grounded
Upon this charming art, divinely founded;
And on the name of that divinity
For whom its adoration was to be.
These words I should have written o'er its gate -
TO IRIS IS THIS PALACE CONSECRATE;
Not her who served the queen divine;
For Juno's self, and he who crown'd her bliss,
Had thought it for their dignity, I wis,
To bear the messages of mine.
Within the dome the apotheosis
Should greet th' enraptured sight -
All heaven, in pomp and order meet,
Conducting Iris to her seat
Beneath a canopy of light!
The walls would amply serve to paint her life, -
A matter sweet, indeed, but little rife
In those events, which, order'd by the Fates,
Cause birth, or change, or overthrow of states.
The innermost should hold her image, -
Her features, smiles, attractions there, -
Her art of pleasing without care, -
Her loveliness, that's sure of homage.
Some mortals, kneeling at her feet,[3] -
Earth's noblest heroes, - should be seen;
Ay, demigods, and even gods, I ween:
(The worshipp'd of the world thinks meet,
Sometimes her altar to perfume.)
Her eyes, so far as that might be,
Her soul's rich jewel should illume;
Alas! but how imperfectly!
For could a heart that throbb'd to bless
Its friends with boundless tenderness, -
Or could that heaven-descended mind
Which, in its matchless beauty, join'd
The strength of man with woman's grace, -
Be given to sculptor to express?
O Iris, who canst charm the soul -
Nay, bind it with supreme control, -
Whom as myself I can but love, -
(Nay, not that word: as I'm a man,
Your court has placed it under ban,
And we'll dismiss it,) pray approve
My filling up this hasty plan!
This sketch has here received a place,
A simple anecdote to grace,
Where friendship shows so sweet a face,
That in its features you may find
Somewhat accordant to your mind.
Not that the tale may kings beseem;
But he who winneth your esteem
Is not a monarch placed above
The need and influence of love,
But simple mortal, void of crown,
That would for friends his life lay down -
Than which I know no friendlier act.
Four animals, in league compact,
Are now to give our noble race
A useful lesson in the case.

Rat, raven, tortoise, and gazelle,
Once into firmest friendship fell.
'Twas in a home unknown to man
That they their happiness began.
But safe from man there's no retreat:
Pierce you the loneliest wood,
Or dive beneath the deepest flood,
Or mount you where the eagles brood, -
His secret ambuscade you meet.
The light gazelle, in harmless play,
Amused herself abroad one day,
When, by mischance, her track was found
And follow'd by the baying hound -
That barbarous tool of barbarous man -
From which far, far away she ran.
At meal-time to the others
The rat observed, - 'My brothers,
How happens it that we
Are met to-day but three?
Is Miss Gazelle so little steady?
Hath she forgotten us already?'
Out cried the tortoise at the word, -
'Were I, as Raven is, a bird,
I'd fly this instant from my seat,
And learn what accident, and where,
Hath kept away our sister fair, -
Our sister of the flying feet;
For of her heart, dear rat,
It were a shame to doubt of that.'
The raven flew;
He spied afar, - the face he knew, -
The poor gazelle entangled in a snare,
In anguish vainly floundering there.
Straight back he turn'd, and gave the alarm;
For to have ask'd the sufferer now,
The why and wherefore, when and how,
She had incurr'd so great a harm, -
And lose in vain debate
The turning-point of fate,
As would the master of a school, -
He was by no means such a fool.[4]
On tidings of so sad a pith,
The three their council held forthwith.
By two it was the vote
To hasten to the spot
Where lay the poor gazelle.
'Our friend here in his shell,
I think, will do as well
To guard the house,' the raven said;
'For, with his creeping pace,
When would he reach the place?
Not till the deer were dead.'
Eschewing more debate,
They flew to aid their mate,
That luckless mountain roe.
The tortoise, too, resolved to go.
Behold him plodding on behind,
And plainly cursing in his mind,
The fate that left his legs to lack,
And glued his dwelling to his back.
The snare was cut by Rongemail,
(For so the rat they rightly hail).
Conceive their joy yourself you may.
Just then the hunter came that way,
And, 'Who hath filch'd my prey?'
Cried he, upon the spot
Where now his prey was not. -
A hole hid Rongemail;
A tree the bird as well;
The woods, the free gazelle.
The hunter, well nigh mad,
To find no inkling could be had,
Espied the tortoise in his path,
And straightway check'd his wrath.
'Why let my courage flag,
Because my snare has chanced to miss?
I'll have a supper out of this.'
He said, and put it in his bag.
And it had paid the forfeit so,
Had not the raven told the roe,
Who from her covert came,
Pretending to be lame.
The man, right eager to pursue,
Aside his wallet threw,
Which Rongemail took care
To serve as he had done the snare;
Thus putting to an end
The hunter's supper on his friend.
'Tis thus sage Pilpay's tale I follow.
Were I the ward of golden-hair'd Apollo,
It were, by favour of that god, easy -
And surely for your sake -
As long a tale to make
As is the Iliad or Odyssey.
Grey Rongemail the hero's part should play,
Though each would be as needful in his way.
He of the mansion portable awoke
Sir Raven by the words he spoke,
To act the spy, and then the swift express.
The light gazelle alone had had th' address
The hunter to engage, and furnish time
For Rongemail to do his deed sublime.
Thus each his part perform'd. Which wins the prize?
The heart, so far as in my judgment lies.[5]

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