A man was planting at fourscore.
Three striplings, who their satchels wore,
“In building,” cried, “the sense were more;
But then to plant young trees at that age!
The man is surely in his dotage.
Pray, in the name of common sense,
What fruit can he expect to gather
Of all this labour and expense?
Why, he must live like Lamech’s father!
What use for you, grey-headed man,
To load the remnant of your span
With care for days that never can be thine?
Yourself to thought of errors past resign.
Long-growing hope, and lofty plan,
Leave you to us, to whom such things belong.”
“To you!” replied the old man, hale and strong;
“I dare pronounce you altogether wrong.
The settled part of man’s estate
Is very brief, and comes full late.
To those pale, gaming sisters trine,
Your lives are stakes as well as mine.
While so uncertain is the sequel,
Our terms of future life are equal;
For none can tell who last shall close his eyes
On the glories of these azure skies;
Nor any moment give us, before it flies,
Assurance that another such shall rise,
But my descendants, whosoever they be,
Shall owe these cooling fruits and shades to me.
Do you acquit yourselves, in wisdom’s sight,
From ministering to other hearts delight?
Why, boys, this is the fruit I gather now;
And sweeter never blushed on bended bough.
Of this, tomorrow, I may take my fill;
Indeed, I may enjoy its sweetness till
I see full many mornings chase the glooms
From off the marble of your youthful tombs.”
The grey-beard man was right. One of the three,
Embarking, foreign lands to see,
Was drowned within the very port.
In quest of dignity at court,
Another met his country’s foe,
And perished by a random blow.
The third was killed by falling from a tree
Which he himself would graft. The three
Were mourned by him of hoary head,
Who chiselled on each monument—
On doing good intent—
The things which we have said.
The Old Man and the Three Young Ones – Jean de La Fontaine Fables – Book 11