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The Woodman and Mercury

(Recueil 1, Livre 5, Fable 1)



Your taste has served my work to guide;

To gain its suffrage I have tried.

You'd have me shun a care too nice,

Or beauty at too dear a price,

Or too much effort, as a vice.

My taste with yours agrees:

Such effort cannot please;

And too much pains about the polish

Is apt the substance to abolish;

Not that it would be right or wise

The graces all to ostracize.

You love them much when delicate;

Nor is it left for me to hate.

As to the scope of Aesop's plan,

I fail as little as I can.

If this my rhymed and measured speech

Avails not to please or teach,

I own it not a fault of mine;

Some unknown reason I assign.

With little strength endued

For battles rough and rude,

Or with Herculean arm to smite,

I show to vice its foolish plight.

In this my talent wholly lies;

Not that it does at all suffice.

My fable sometimes brings to view

The face of vanity purblind

With that of restless envy joined;

And life now turns on these pivots two.

Such is the silly little frog

That aped the ox on her bog.

A double image sometimes shows

How vice and folly do oppose

The ways of virtue and good sense;

As lambs with wolves so grim and gaunt,

The silly fly and frugal ant.

Thus swells my work—a comedy immense

Its acts unnumbered and diverse,

Its scene the boundless universe.

Gods, men, and brutes, all play their part

In fields of nature or of art,

And Jupiter among the rest.

Here comes the god who's wont to bear

Jove's frequent errands to the fair,

With winged heels and haste;

But other work's in hand today.

A man that laboured in the wood

Had lost his honest livelihood;

That is to say,

His axe was gone astray.

He had no tools to spare;

This wholly earned his fare.

Without a hope beside,

He sat him down and cried,

"Alas, my axe! where can it be?

O Jove! but send it back to me,

And it shall strike good blows for you."

His prayer in high Olympus heard,

Swift Mercury started at the word.

"Your axe must not be lost," said he:

"Now, will you know it when you see?

An axe I found on the road."

With that an axe of gold he showed.

"Is it this?" The woodman answered, "Nay."

An axe of silver, bright and gay,

Refused the honest woodman too.

At last the finder brought to view

An axe of iron, steel, and wood.

"That's mine," he said, in joyful mood;

"With that I'll quite contented be."

The god replied, "I give the three,

As due reward of honesty."

This luck when neighbouring choppers knew,

They lost their axes, not a few,

And sent their prayers to Jupiter

So fast, he knew not which to hear.

His winged son, however, sent

With gold and silver axes, went.

Each would have thought himself a fool

Not to have owned the richest tool.

But Mercury promptly gave, instead

Of it, a blow on the head.

With simple truth to be contented,

Is surest not to be repented;

But still there are who would

With evil trap the good,

Whose cunning is but stupid,

For Jove is never duped.

Jean de La Fontaine

Book 5, Fable 1



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