The Animals Sick of the Plague

Original Text: 

The Fables of La Fontaine, trans. Elizur Wright, Jr. (London: William Smith, 1842): 39-40. Internet Archive

1 The sorest ill that Heaven hath
2    Sent on this lower world in wrath,--
3    The plague (to call it by its name,)
4            One single day of which
5        Would Pluto's ferryman enrich,--
6    Waged war on beasts, both wild and tame.
7    They died not all, but all were sick:
8    No hunting now, by force or trick,
9    To save what might so soon expire.
10    No food excited their desire;
11    Nor wolf nor fox now watch'd to slay
12    The innocent and tender prey.
13                The turtles fled;
14    So love and therefore joy were dead.
15    The lion council held, and said:
16    My friends, I do believe
17    This awful scourge, for which we grieve,
18    Is for our sins a punishment
19    Most righteously by Heaven sent.
20    Let us our guiltiest beast resign,
21    A sacrifice to wrath divine.
22    Perhaps this offering, truly small,
23    May gain the life and health of all.
24    By history we find it noted
25    That lives have been just so devoted.
26    Then let us all turn eyes within,
27    And ferret out the hidden sin.
28    Himself let no one spare nor flatter,
29    But make clean conscience in the matter.
30For me, my appetite has play'd the glutton
31    Too much and often upon mutton.
32    What harm had e'er my victims done?
33        I answer, truly, None.
34    Perhaps, sometimes, by hunger press'd,
35    We eat the shepherd with the rest.
36    I yield myself, if need there be;
37    And yet I think, in equity,
38Each should confess his sins with me;
39    For laws of right and justice cry,
40    The guiltiest alone should die.
41        Sire, said the fox, your majesty
42    Is humbler than a king should be,
43    And over-squeamish in the case.
44    What! eating stupid sheep a crime?
45    No, never, sire, at any time.
46It rather was an act of grace,
47A mark of honour to their race.
48And as to shepherds, one may swear,
49    The fate your majesty describes,
50Is recompense less full than fair
51    For such usurpers o'er our tribes.
52    Thus Renard glibly spoke,
53And loud applause from flatterers broke.
54Of neither tiger, boar, nor bear,
55Did any keen inquirer dare
56To ask for crimes of high degree;
57    The fighters, biters, scratchers, all
58From every mortal sin were free;
59    The very dogs, both great and small,
60Were saints, as far as dogs could be.
61    The ass, confessing in his turn,
62Thus spoke in tones of deep concern:--
63I happen'd through a mead to pass;
64The monks, its owners, were at mass;
65Keen hunger, leisure, tender grass,
66    And add to these the devil too,
67    All tempted me the deed to do.
68I browsed the bigness of my tongue;
69Since truth must out, I own it wrong.
70On this, a hue and cry arose,
71As if the beasts were all his foes:
72A wolf, haranguing lawyer-wise,
73Denounced the ass for sacrifice--
74The bald-pate, scabby, ragged lout,
75By whom the plague had come, no doubt.
76His fault was judged a hanging crime.
77    What? eat another's grass? O shame!
78The noose of rope and death sublime,
79    For that offence, were all too tame!
80    And soon poor Grizzle felt the same.
81Thus human courts acquit the strong,
82And doom the weak, as therefore wrong.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
Data entry: Sharine Leung
RPO Edition: