By W. D. JACKSON
“Although democratic then
The frogs begged a royal yoke”
– La Fontaine, Fables IV, 4 (trans. Marianne Moore)
“Whenever history makes her move she catches us unawares… Since the general purpose of society is the safety of its members, it should first postulate the total arbitrariness of history, and the limited value of any recorded negative experience. Second, it should postulate that, although its institutions will strive to obtain the greatest measure of safety, this very quest for stability and security effectively turns society into a sitting duck. And third, if you don’t want to become a target, you should move.”
– Joseph Brodsky, ‘Profile of Clio’
The frogs interpreted
Their world so anxiously
That thousands now are dead
Who might have lived and croaked in peace beneath a moonlit sky.
But neither sun- nor moon-light could dispel their fear of why
The darkness kept returning, while their dread
Of death or danger made some freeze
In panic, others seek distraction
In meaningless activities –
Much movement, little action…Until, afraid – or so it seemed – of poverty, of hunger,
One clan indulged in greed, self-interest, anger,
And strove to dominate the others,
Who might have swum elsewhere (the lakeland bogs were endless)
But stood up for their ranine rights: All frogs are brothers –
So what about the poor and sick, the retarded, lame and friendless?
We weak are many, the strong are few:
We need a king to see that all
Are fairly treated. Ah, but who
Will take upon himself so hard and thankless a role?
The wise are sure to abstain, but heaven protect us from a fool!
Whereon they asked their Frog-god what to do:
That is, they prayed – but nothing happened. Then,
One day a rotten bough from high in a tree
Came crashing down into their fen
With an almighty splash, which they
Took as a sign from God that this, their wished-for king,
Would stand no nonsense. All the frogs
Were truly terrified. And hid in pools, ponds, lakes and bogs
Until the following spring
When, feeling somewhat braver, they emerged. Till one of the greedy,
Observing from the rushes how their king did literally nothing,
Dared to approach him – hopped on top –
And found he was no living frog
Of any sort, but an unmoving, water-logged ‘King Log’,
On whom the other members of the clan now also hop,
Soon to be followed by thousands of the needy…
Order restored at last, they start to think
There must have been some mistake,
But whose? Some, dwelling in bog and lake,
Suspected a tasteless joke
On the part of their cousins, the tree-frogs…
Others, mud-stirrers, caused a stink
By claiming this ‘king’ was no king but a fake
Who’d failed to survive the winter… Or
(Since all of the more
Highly developed species had their own king or queen)
Could it – the log – be a test, perhaps, of their faith
In Frog their Father?… Worried to death
By this last eventuality, the leaders of the needy –
On behalf of all free frogs
(Including the greedy) –
Soon begged forgiveness of Him who’d created them in His image
For their sacrilegious misbehaviour.
Moreover, regarding their humble wish
For an earthly (or rather ‘aquatic’) king –
Whether frog, fowl or fish –
To be their saviour
By guiding and ruling all, His will of course be done,
But might they be sent another, more active monarch – one
Who’d tell them what to do and how to live?
How not to take from others, how to share – or even give…
And so they prayed again, and nothing happened. Then,
One day the tranquil surface of the largest lake
Was troubled by the lazy coils of a voracious water-snake.
– Was this their king?! A desperate scrimmage
To escape ensued – for many in vain,
And for more and more as time went on.
The needy asked themselves what they had done
To bring down such a curse upon their race. They might have swum
Elsewhere again. But leaving home
Meant crossing the great unknown
Of which they’d always feared the worst –
And so they stayed. Until, again,
The bravest of the greedy – this time a delegation –
Observing how their king had breakfasted fit to burst,
Approached him with trepidation
And reverently inquired
As to whence and why he’d come –
And why he ate his subjects with such calm
Persistence. His snout and tongue being half-immersed,
His sibilous sussuration –
They s-s-said you were s-s-seeking a king – was hard to hear.
Its import, though, was clear.
– But not a king like you! their leader blurted, vexed.
The enormous, unblinking water-snake suspired,
Well, if that’s-s-s how you s-s-see it, s-s-sir, I’d better eat you firs-s-st –
You other trouble-makers-s-s nex-x-xt.
From which they learned to welcome their new ruler – in the hope
He’d treat them better. Or, disgusted with the narrow scope
Of every meal – as well as being required
By his size to eat so much – depart in peace. Or even die
One wintry night, or summer’s day…
It didn’t work. The frogs interpreted
His words / their world so fearfully
That many thousands now are dead
Who might have lived beneath another sky…
– They had no rights; there was no god, no king; they were not cursed,
Except by what they foolishly desired:
Snakes eat frogs anyway.
Note: ‘A King and Not a King’ is an adaptation of one of Aesop’s cleverest fables, as first versified by the Augustan poet Phaedrus (d. ca 50 AD), formerly a Greek slave and then a freedman. The fable has since been interpreted in many ways. The epigraph from La Fontaine (who had the highest respect for Phaedrus) consists of the first two lines of his version, ‘The Frogs Ask for a King’, which was written shortly after the Cromwellian interregnum in England — thereby implying a contemporary moral as regards upending the status quo only to proceed from bad to worse…
In ‘Profile of Clio’ (in On Grief and Reason) and elsewhere, Brodsky considers the role of “eschatological dread” and self-interest in human history and how we view it. Brodsky’s brilliant but also (in some respects inevitably) unsatisfactory essay on the ‘Muse of the unique / Historical fact’, as Auden called her in Homage to Clio, is (like ‘A King and Not a King’) post-Existentialist – and typically impractical (although are there any large-scale practical solutions to the issues Brodsky raises?). The verse-form of the poem is an imitation of Marianne Moore’s imitation of La Fontaine’s in The Fables of La Fontaine (1954) – one of the few great translations of the twentieth century – and a homage to mistress as well as master.
W.D. Jackson’s five books and a pamphlet are all parts of his work-in-progress, Then and Now, on the subject of the individual’s place in history. The most recent of them, Opus 3 (Shoestring Press, Nov 2018), was reviewed in The Fortnightly, and was one of Frederick Raphael’s TLS (2019) Books of the Year. A review by Chris McCully in PN Review 253 can be read here (under Altered Distances Vol 54, Nos. 1-2, ‘Special Features’). A new pamphlet, Aesopean (with woodcuts by Alan Dixon) is due from Shoestring in 2022.