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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Animals Sick of the Plague

By Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695)

Translation of Elizur Wright

THE SOREST ill that Heaven hath

Sent on this lower world in wrath—

The plague (to call it by its name),

One single day of which

Would Pluto’s ferryman enrich,—

Waged war on beasts, both wild and tame.

They died not all, but all were sick:

No hunting now, by force or trick,

To save what might so soon expire.

No food excited their desire;

Nor wolf nor fox now watched to slay

The innocent and tender prey.

The turtles fled;

So love and therefore joy were dead.

The lion council held, and said:—

“My friends, I do believe

This awful scourge, for which we grieve,

Is for our sins a punishment

Most righteously by Heaven sent.

Let us our guiltiest beast resign,

A sacrifice to wrath divine.

Perhaps this offering, truly small,

May gain the life and health of all.

By history we find it noted

That lives have been just so devoted.

Then let us all turn eyes within,

And ferret out the hidden sin.

Himself let no one spare nor flatter,

But make clean conscience in the matter.

For me, my appetite has played the glutton

Too much and often upon mutton.

What harm had e’er my victims done?

I answer truly, None.

Perhaps sometimes, by hunger pressed,

I’ve eat the shepherd with the rest.

I yield myself, if need there be:

And yet I think in equity,

Each should confess his sins with me;

For laws of right and justice cry,

The guiltiest alone should die.”

“Sire,” said the fox, “your Majesty

Is humbler than a king should be,

And over-squeamish in the case.

What! eating stupid sheep a crime?

No, never, sire, at any time.

It rather was an act of grace,

A mark of honor to their race.

And as to shepherds, one may swear,

The fate your Majesty describes

Is recompense less full than fair

For such usurpers o’er our tribes.”

Thus Reynard glibly spoke,

And loud applause from flatterers broke.

Of neither tiger, boar, nor bear,

Did any keen inquirer dare

To ask for crimes of high degree;

The fighters, biters, scratchers, all

From every mortal sin were free;

The very dogs, both great and small,

Were saints as far as dogs could be.

The ass, confessing in his turn,

Thus spoke in tones of deep concern:—

“I happened through a mead to pass;

The monks, its owners, were at mass;

Keen hunger, leisure, tender grass,

And add to these the Devil too,

All tempted me the deed to do.

I browsed the bigness of my tongue;

Since truth must out, I own it wrong.”

On this, a hue and cry arose,

As if the beasts were all his foes:

A wolf, haranguing lawyer-wise,

Denounced the ass for sacrifice,—

The bald-pate, scabby, ragged lout,

By whom the plague had come, no doubt.

His fault was judged a hanging crime.

“What! eat another’s grass? oh, shame!

The noose of rope and death sublime,

For that offense, were all too tame!”

And soon poor Grizzle felt the same.

Thus human courts acquit the strong,

And doom the weak as therefore wrong.