First in a Series.
By W.D. JACKSON
Illustration by Alan Dixon.
“Aesop the storyteller, our great benefactor, happened to be a slave…”
– Life of Aesop, Anon. (1st century, AD)
“… a rat is not an elephant”
– Jean de la Fontaine, Fables VIII, 15
A lion, enraged with his partner, a wolf,
For having the nerve to divide
Their prey in equal parts, engulfed
His head with a roar. The wolf died.
Their fellow-hunter, a fox, to appease
His Highness, begged to suggest
He eat what he liked. The lion, pleased,
Allowed him to feast on the rest.
A bull dropped so much dung on a field
The mice who lived there too
Thought up a plan to try and shield
Their holes from his pats of poo:
When he raised his tail, one ran out and bit
His nose – ran in – repeated
The process. The roaring bull, plus bullshit,
Angrily – helplessly – retreated.
An ostrich boomed, I wanna fly!
And raced as fast as he could
Across the plain, beneath the sky –
The fastest of any bird.
He ran so hard he lost his breath:
With one last desperate bound
He briefly soared to a hero’s death
And smashed into the ground.
A frog swam into a shallow pool
And fell asleep. The sun
Heated the lakeside slowly. Fool!
An adder hissed: No fun
For me, though, if you don’t survive! –
And slept as well. The lake
Grew hotter. The frog awoke – and lived.
An eagle ate the snake.
A dog-fox and old roué of a goat
With his loud-mouthed friend, a cock,
Met one hot noon. The goat’s hoarse throat
Was dry with boasting. The fox
Jumped first into a well he knew…
And then? – I’ll climb on your back
And horns – fetch help… The doodle-doo
Helplessly made a fat snack.
Enemy soldiers approached a farm –
“Let’s leg it,” the farmer said
To his donkey, who pondered: What’s the harm?
I’ll work for them instead.
I’ve got two panniers and four good hooves,
I’m sound in mind and limb.
But the enemy army was short of food,
And so they butchered him.
A raven found a lump of cheese
And perched with it in her beak
On a branch. A dog-fox wheedled, Please,
Mrs Crow, you look so sleek –
With your beak so strong and pointed – won’t
You sing for me – I know
You can, o Queen of the Birds – I can’t
Wait for a song or two…
The fox’s wife spoke next. The serene
Raven still held her lump
Of Cheddar. Call yourself a Queen?
She sneered. You sad old frump!…
But the raven paid no serious heed
To the praise or blame of such
Sly (self-) deceivers – who shortly agreed
They’d never liked cheese much.
A poor wild ass inquired of his friend,
A donkey, how he’d grown so plump.
The donkey grinned. But his backbone was bent
From the stones he had to hump.
The ass, sneering, chewed a dry thistle.
That night a starving pack
Of hyaenas chewed him, skin and gristle.
The donkey rested his back.
Under a lion’s big paw, a rat
Shrieked, Let me go, my Lord!
I’m not a useless mouse or bat. –
And, soon, she’d bravely gnawed
Him free of a snare of ropes and gut…
The King, though, wasn’t just angry
(With trappers / life / wife / subjects…), but –
This time – felt rather hungry.
(after Grimms’ Märchen, No.75)
A cat encountered a sleek fox
Behind the old Manor Farm
Where recently six at least of the cock’s
Dumb wives had come to harm.
You know a lot of tricks, my friend,
She grinned as she shinned up a tree –
I one. But the farmer’s hounds, in the end,
Will tear you to bits, not me.
Knocked to the ground, a bat was once
Caught by a weasel, who
Detested mice. The bat was no dunce:
She trilled I’m a bird! And flew.
Another dusk, another weasel –
Who hated birds: I’m a mouse!…
‘WHO AM I?’ – Resolving the ancient puzzle
Needs nerve as well as nous.
A hunter killed a furious lion.
His donkey stole its skin,
And slouched about the fields, defying
Hunters and all their kin.
His appearance frightened friend and foe.
A fox, though, heard him bray:
He roared Hee-haw, hee-haw – and so
Gave his dumb self away.
His master failed to find this funny,
And in the ensuing fracas
The much-feared donkey died… But honey
Was shortly found in his carcass.
“Aesop the storyteller etc.”:
The historical Aesop may well have been a Greek-speaking slave, later freedman, living in Phrygia in the fifth or sixth century BC. Many of the fables as we know them were first written down by Latin and Greek authors from the first century AD onwards – and these versions have been translated or freely adapted into other languages up to the present. Not all of the poems in ‘Of Peace and Strife’ derive from fables attributed to Aesop. They are, even so, what one might call ‘Aesopean’.
“a rat is not an elephant”:
In La Fontaine’s fable (ca. 1678) a rat mocks a majestic elephant, bearing along a Queen with her cat, dog and other accoutrements. The rat asks why observers should praise mere size. Marianne Moore, in her superlative Fables of La Fontaine (1952), translates:
‘Who cares how much space something occupies?’
He said. ‘Size does not make a thing significant!
All crowding near an elephant? Why must I worship him?
Servile to brute force at which mere tots might faint?
Should persons such as I admire his heavy limb?
I pander to an elephant!’
About to prolong his soliloquy
When the cat broke from captivity
And instantly proved what her victim would grant:
That a rat is not an elephant.
The pre-Romantic German dramatist, poet and critic, G.E. Lessing (1729-81) based most of his mainly prose fables on early Greek and Latin authors – for example, the Augustan poet Phaedrus, whose common sense appealed to his Enlightenment values.
The frog awoke – and lived:
The so-called ‘boiling frog syndrome’ – whereby a frog would not notice until it was too late if the water in which it was sitting were heated very slowly – is much loved by political advisors, management trainers and the like, keen to encourage their employers or course participants to see themselves as ‘change-masters’ (another popular bit of seminar jargon). It seems to have been cooked up by late nineteenth century scientists and has been said to “stink” by more knowledgeable commentators than I. The adder in this poem, however, seems to believe it… One (post-Aesopean) moral might be the variously interpreted saying of Jesus in Matthew V.22: “Whosoever shall say to his brother, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”
(after Grimms’ Märchen, No.75):
The famous collection of folktales by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, Kinder- und Haus-Märchen (1819), includes a number of Aesopean fables, among various other forms of the storyteller’s art (cf headnote to ‘The Bride’s Story‘).
But honey / Was shortly found in his carcass:
As one would expect, fables are also found in the Bible. In Judges XIV.5-9, the young Samson is attacked by a lion, which he kills. Later he finds that “there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcase of the lion” – and eats of the honey. But Samson misuses his God-given strength: “It is not good to eat much honey: so for men to seek their own glory is not glory” (Proverbs XXV.27)… However, the Bible is ambivalent as regards honey, and elsewhere it is likened to wisdom or understanding: “My son, eat thou honey…, which is sweet to thy taste: So shall the knowledge of wisdom be to thy soul: when thou hast found it, then there shall be a reward” (Proverbs XXIV.13-14).
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. This column is also a part of that work. His most recent book, Opus 3 (Shoestring Press, Nov. 2018), was reviewed in The Fortnightly, and was one of Frederick Raphael’s TLS Books of the Year in 2019. 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. The Fortnightly archive for W.D. Jackson is here.
ALAN DIXON was born in Waterloo, Lancashire, and has been exhibiting his prints since the 1960s. Shoestring Press published his 73 Woodcuts in 2011 and Wood and Ink in 2013. An exhibition of prints at the Redfern Gallery, London, was held to coincide with the launch of his most recent collection of poems, The Wall Dancer, Shoestring Press, 2017.