Some men are ground so readily in our own world they cannot hope to look beyond; some seem to scrape the boundaries of the imagination for all its worth. Jean de la Fontaine was one of the latter men, a poet of the 17th century and one of France’s most famed “fabulists.” A fabulist, by the by, is simply a writer of fables–one of those strange yet talented sorts capable of mixing the mythical, the animal, and morals into a succinct and often cautionary tale. It is, in many cases, folk literature at its finest.
While it is the Fables or the Contes–the former, more internationally; the latter, more nationally–that are oft-remembered today when Fontaine is summoned forth from the shelves, it hardly does the man justice to constrict his literary capabilities to these works. Many of the man’s poems, once widely read, have fallen by the wayside today, scarcely to be mentioned.
So this week, let’s say I’m working to bring you not only a poetic treat, but to restore a piece of history to its place. Hopefully it was a quality translation (not done by me, of course–French remains quite elusive to me).
We’re told that once a cobbler, BLASE by name;
A wife had got, whose charms so high in fame;
But as it happened, that their cash was spent,
The honest couple to a neighbour went,
A corn-factor by trade, not overwise
To whom they stated facts without disguise;
And begged, with falt’ring voice denoting care,
That he, of wheat, would half a measure spare,
Upon their note, which readily he gave,
And all advantages desired to wave.
The time for payment came; the money used;
The cash our factor would not be refused;
Of writs he talked, attorneys, and distress;
The reason:–heav’n can tell, and you may guess;
In short, ’twas clear our gay gallant desired,
To cheer the wife, whose beauty all admired.
Said he, what anxiously I wish to get,
You’ve plenty stored, and never wanted yet;
You surely know my meaning?–Yes, she cried;
I’ll turn it in my mind, and we’ll decide
How best to act. Away she quickly flew,
And Blase informed, what Ninny had in view.
Zounds! said the cobbler, we must see, my dear,
To hook this little sum:–the way is clear;
No risk I’m confident; for prithee run
And tell him I’ve a journey just begun;
That he may hither come and have his will;
But ‘ere he touch thy lips, demand the bill;
He’ll not refuse the boon I’m very sure;
Meantime, myself I’ll hide and all secure.
The note obtained, cough loudly, strong, and clear;
Twice let it be, that I may plainly hear;
Then forth I’ll sally from my lurking place,
And, spite of folly’s frowns, prevent disgrace.
The, plot succeeded as the pair desired;
The cobbler laughed, and ALL his scheme admired:
A purse-proud cit thereon observed and swore;
‘Twere better to have coughed when all was o’er;
Then you, all three, would have enjoyed your wish,
And been in future all as mute as fish.
OH! sir, replied the cobbler’s wife at ease,
Do you suppose that use can hope to please,
And like your ladies full of sense appear?
(For two were seated with his wedded dear)
Perhaps my lady ‘d act as you describe,
But ev’ry one such prudence don’t imbibe…
~Jean de la Fontaine