The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

X. Writers of Burlesque and Translators

§ 15. His Aesop

The work by which he is best known, and by which he best deserves to be remembered, is his version of Aesop’s Fables. His language, here also, is the language of talk rather than of literature, yet, for the most part, he observes a strict economy of words, and seldom commits the blunder of making his fables diffuse. “A daw that had a mind to be sparkish,” says he; “I had much rather be knabbing of crusts,” his Country Mouse declares, “without fear or danger in my own little hole, than be mistress of the whole world with perpetual cares and alarums.” In a sensible essay upon fables in general, he asserts that the foundations of knowledge and virtue are laid in childhood, and, presently, with an inapposite humour, makes his fables unfit for a child’s comprehension. What child, we wonder, would read further after being confronted by such an opening as this: “In days of old, when Horses spoke Greek and Latin, and Asses made syllogisms”? The fault of taste is doubled when it is committed in defiance of a necessary simplicity. Yet, he sins not always, and his Aesop, stripped of its “reflexions,” still remains the best that we have. In Seneca’s Morals and The Works of Josephus, he was less happily inspired. In the first place, he challenged comparison with the incomparably better versions of Lodge; in the second, neither Seneca nor Josephus gave the smallest scope for his peculiar humour: when he was most himself, in their case he was furthest from excellence. But, of his Josephus, it may, at least, be said that it was a marvellous achievement for a man of eighty-six, beset, as he tells us, by “frequent troubles, and by ill-health.” Good or bad, it was a fitting conclusion to a career of rare vigour and energy, the crowning work of one whom Pepys found “a man of fine conversation,” and whom even the grave Evelyn pronounced “a person of excellent parts.”