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Of Peace and Strife 2.

After Aesop.

From Then and Now

Second in a Series.

Illustration by Alan Dixon.


“And the lion showed to Jerome his foot, being hurt… Then this holy man put thereto diligent cure, and healed him, and he abode ever after as a tame beast with [him].”
The Golden Legend (ca. 1265)

“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”
– Matthew VII.6


Jerome was studying in his cave.
The desert night was cold.
A lion roared and roared. Though brave,
The saint was weak and old.

But pulled the thorn, and dressed the wound.
The lion stayed. At ease,
Jerome wrote on. No sight or sound
Disturbed his inner peace.


(after Lessing)

Bones, skin and putrid flesh were all
Of a hero’s famous war-horse
That remained, after a fatal fall,
While Nature ran her course.

A swarm of wasps had made their nest
Inside this rotting beast –
Whose glorious history was their boast,
Whose carcass their fixed feast.


A vain old vixen had never seen
A lion, until one day
She saw one big enough to dine
On her – and slunk away.

No roar pursued her. They met again –
The lion yawned. When, later,
She dared to hobnob, he shook his mane,
Pounced on her back, and ate her.


Before the cat was belled, the mice
Were all for one, one all.
Their elders’ sound but unheeded advice
Was Hideand let her prowl…

After, they gave up helping each other
And squabbled: which male got more
Females / space / food? And which big brother
Should lead them into war?


A lion had caught a hare when a stag
Ran by. The hare cried, Lunch,
Your Majesty! – A BIGGER bag
Of bones for you to crunch!!

– Don’t move, the lion growled – and followed
The fleet-footed stag. Hares hide
With ease. The greedy lion swallowed
Nothing that day but his pride.


One night a fisherman’s net was full
Of a large and various catch.
Smart small-fry slipped away. Big dull
Flounders went down the hatch.

A monstrous shark, though, scenting blood,
Snapped up the shoal, capsized
The vessel. Fish and men, as food
For sharks, are any-sized.


(after Goethe)

An old and toothless lion invited
The fox and stork to dinner.

A long-necked vase with fish provided
The best of meals for the thinner.

Chicken (not grapes) on a golden platter
Flattered the somewhat fatter.

Each mocked the other’s ill-bred manners.
But the lion was no one’s fool.

The old being nothing if not planners,
His plan was – Divide and rule.


Can small be big? A tiny ant
Fell in a river. A dove
Dropped her a leaf: Whenever you want
Any help, said the ant…
Them both, she glimpsed two greedy eyes
Trained on her pure white friend –
And bit. The hunter, caught by surprise,
Shot wide. Thus lives depend.


A pregnant bitch – shut out in the bitter
Cold of mid-winter – creeping –
In search of a lair to bear her litter –
Almost as if she were weeping –

Passed a soft-hearted sheep-dog, who
Invited her in: I’ll sleep
Elsewhere, my dear, for a night or two.
There now. You needn’t weep.

But she wept again next day: six pups
Would die outside in the cold!…
The sheep-dog knew about life’s ups
And downs, and slept by the fold.

All summer she slept in the open air
Beneath the fresh green trees.
In autumn, feeling she’d done her share,
She asked for her den back, please.

Alas, six snarling brutes and their beast
Of a mother stood their ground:
Well, well, my puppies, she thought. At least
You grew up safe and sound.


(after Tommaso da Celano)

St Francis praised a flock of birds
For joyfully praising their Maker
In beautiful song, as he with words:
“Gratitude turns a taker
Into an open-hearted giver,
My sisters, who neither sow
Nor reap – praise, praise the wind and weather,
And all things here below!

Be praised, with all Your creatures, Lord:
We thank You for our Mother the Earth
Who supports and feeds us, bringing forth
Her berries and fruits, her trees and grass.

Be praised for Brother Wind – for the air
And constantly changing weather,
Cloudy and cool or soft and fair! –
Where all things change and pass.


Winter. A hungry cicada begged
A colony of ants for food…
– All summer we gathered grain, thin-legged
Though we are. You sang. What good

Was that? We worked, you played. It’s wrong
To think that God will provide…
But St Francis praised the cicada’s song –
And when he died it died.


(after Heine)

There are two common sorts of rat:
One hungry and one fat.
The fat rats stay content at home;
The thin and hungry roam.

From continent to continent,
Nothing on earth can, now, prevent
Their progress – nothing sate
Their need to find more things to eat.


Their litters swell great nameless groups:
Females are common property.
Their stubborn, rat-radical, foul-mouthed troops
Know nothing of Christianity.

They file on grimly, straight ahead –
Cross mountains, deserts, seas.
If any fall, they’re left for dead.
The living carry disease.


The fat rats only think of guzzling,
Though some fall prey to sozzling.
While sozzling and guzzling, they do not think
Of the legions of skinny rats on the brink

Of doing the sort of damage that
The biggest, wildest, hungriest cat
Could not conceive of. By changing the rules,
They make the wise look fools.


“Give not that which is holy to the dogs, etc.”:

An unusually exclusive saying on the part of Jesus – although, dogs and pigs being unclean but relatively intelligent animals, one which needs little explanation (in his unforgettable Fables II, 18 – in which a cat turns into a woman but continues to hunt mice – La Fontaine writes “You’ve tried to reform what will not learn”)… The fables associated with Aesop himself are on the whole remarkable for their knowing cleverness and understanding of human weakness and folly – but not for what one might think of as Christian or enlightened Eastern values, nor even for pagan heroism or magnanimity. The closest they get to altruism is ‘one good turn deserves another’, and the idea of forgiveness is entirely foreign to them.

(after Lessing):

As already noted re On Peace and Strife (1), iii, 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. Goethe’s and Heine’s contributions to the Aesopean tradition (see vii and xii above) came somewhat later. Both poets suffered in their earlier works from Romantic attitudes of various sorts, from which they may be said to have recovered in different ways.

(after Tommaso da Celano):

Tommaso completed the earliest biography of the saint in 1229. He certainly knew St Francis in person, becoming a Franciscan monk in 1215, shortly after the order was founded. Ch. XXI of his book is entitled ‘Of his preaching to the birds and of the obedience of the creatures’. Other stories of Francis resemble Aesopean fables – for example, ‘How St Francis converted the very fierce wolf of Gubbio’ (The Little Flowers of St Francis, ch. XXI) – adapted in my Opus 3 as ‘Al Vescovo d’Assisi’. The second and third stanzas of x are adapted from St Francis’ famous ‘Canticle of Brother Sun’, also in Opus 3.

But St Francis praised the cicada’s song:

For eight days shortly before his death in 1226, St Francis is said to have been visited every morning outside his cell at the Portiuncula chapel near Assisi by a cicada, which sang for him (St Bonaventure, The Life of St Francis, ch.8).

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.

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