“You villain!” cried a man who found
An adder coiled on the ground,
“To do a very grateful deed
For all the world, I shall proceed.”
On this the animal perverse
(I mean the snake;
Pray don’t mistake
The human for the worse)
Was caught and bagged, and, worst of all,
His blood was by his captor to be spilt
Without regard to innocence or guilt.
However, to show the why, these words let fall
His judge and jailor, proud and tall:
“You type of all ingratitude!
All charity to hearts like thine
Is folly, certain to be rued.
You foe of men!
Your temper and your teeth malign
Shall never hurt a hair of mine.”
The muffled serpent, on his side,
The best a serpent could, replied,—
“If all this world’s ingrates
Must meet with such a death,
Who from this worst of fates
Could save his breath?
On yourself your law recoils;
I throw myself on your broils,
Your graceless revelling on spoils;
If you but homeward cast an eye,
Your deeds all mine will justify.
But strike: my life is in your hand;
Your justice, all may understand,
Is but your interest, pleasure, or caprice:
Pronounce my sentence on such laws as these.
But give me leave to tell you, while I can,
The type of all ingratitude is man.”
By such a lecture somewhat foiled,
The other back a step recoiled,
And finally replied,—
“Your reasons are abusive,
And wholly inconclusive.
I might the case decide
Because to me such right belongs;
But let’s refer the case of wrongs.”
The snake agreed; they to a cow referred it.
Who, being called, came graciously and heard it.
Then, summing up, “What need,” said she,
“In such a case, to call on me?
The adder’s right, plain truth to bellow;
For years I have nursed this haughty fellow,
Who, but for me, had long ago
Been lodging with the shades below.
For him my milk has had to flow,
My calves, at tender age, to die.
And for this best of wealth,
And often reestablished health,
What pay, or even thanks, have I?
Here, feeble, old, and worn, alas!
I’m left without a bite of grass.
Were I but left, it might be weathered,
But, shame to say it, I am tethered.
And now my fate is surely sadder
Than if my master were an adder,
With brains within the latitude
Of such immense ingratitude.
This, gentles, is my honest view;
And so I bid you both adieu.”
The man, confounded and astonished
To be so faithfully admonished,
Replied, “What fools to listen, now,
To this old, silly, dotard cow!
Let’s trust the ox.” “Let’s trust,” replied
The crawling beast, well gratified.
So said, so done;
The ox, with tardy pace, came on
And, ruminating over the case,
Declared, with very serious face,
That years of his most painful toil
Had clothed with Ceres’ gifts our soil—
Her gifts to men—but always sold
To beasts for higher cost than gold;
And that for this, for his reward,
More blows than thanks returned his lord;
And then, when age had chilled his blood,
And men would quell the wrath of Heaven,
Out must be poured the vital flood,
For others’ sins, all thankless given.
So spake the ox; and then the man:
“Away with such a dull declaimer!
Instead of judge, it is his plan
To play accuser and defamer.”
A tree was next the arbitrator,
And made the wrong of man still greater.
It served as refuge from the heat,
The showers, and storms which madly beat;
It grew our gardens’ greatest pride,
Its shadow spreading far and wide,
And bowed itself with fruit beside:
But yet a mercenary clown
With cruel iron chopped it down.
Behold the recompense for which,
Year after year, it did enrich,
With spring’s sweet flowers, and autumn’s fruits,
And summer’s shade, both men and brutes,
And warmed the hearth with many a limb
Which winter from its top did trim!
Why could not man have pruned and spared,
And with itself for ages shared?—
Much scorning thus to be convinced,
The man resolved his cause to gain.
Said he, “My goodness is evinced
By hearing this, it’s very plain;”
Then flung the serpent bag and all,
With fatal force, against a wall.
So ever is it with the great,
With whom the whim does always run,
That Heaven all creatures does create
For their behoof beneath the sun—
Count they four feet, or two, or none.
If one should dare the fact dispute,
He’s straight set down a stupid brute.
Now, grant it so,—such lords among,
What should be done, or said, or sung?
At distance speak, or hold your tongue.
The Man and the Adder by Jean de La Fontaine Fables – Book 10