Reflections

La Fontaine’s “The Wolf and the Lamb” (Le Loup et L’Agneau)

I’ve been having a hell of a time finding something to blog about. But a few minutes ago, it occurred to me that I have never discussed my favorite La Fontaine fable “The Wolf and the Lamb” on my blog. Although “The Crow and the Fox” is the most famous French fable, “The Wolf and the Lamb” is my favorite because it gets at a disturbing social dynamic.

I am including both the original poem and an English translation.

                         Le Loup et L’Agneau
La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure :
Nous l’allons montrer tout à l’heure.
Un Agneau se désaltérait
Dans le courant d’une onde pure.
Un Loup survient à jeun qui cherchait aventure,
Et que la faim en ces lieux attirait.
Qui te rend si hardi de troubler mon breuvage ?
Dit cet animal plein de rage :
Tu seras châtié de ta témérité.
— Sire, répond l’Agneau, que votre Majesté
Ne se mette pas en colère ;
Mais plutôt qu’elle considère
Que je me vas désaltérant
Dans le courant,
Plus de vingt pas au-dessous d’Elle,
Et que par conséquent, en aucune façon,
Je ne puis troubler sa boisson.
— Tu la troubles, reprit cette bête cruelle,
Et je sais que de moi tu médis l’an passé.
— Comment l’aurais-je fait si je n’étais pas né ?
Reprit l’Agneau, je tette encor ma mère.
— Si ce n’est toi, c’est donc ton frère.
— Je n’en ai point.
— C’est donc quelqu’un des tiens :
Car vous ne m’épargnez guère,
Vous, vos bergers, et vos chiens.
On me l’a dit : il faut que je me venge.
Là-dessus, au fond des forêts
Le Loup l’emporte, et puis le mange,
Sans autre forme de procès.

                         The Wolf and the Lamb
The reason of those best able to have their way is always the best:
We now show how this is true.
A lamb was quenching its thirst
In the water of a pure stream.
A fasting wolf came by, looking for something;
He was attracted by hunger to this place.
—What makes you so bold as to meddle with my drinking?
Said this animal, very angry.
You will be punished for your boldness.
—Sir, answered the lamb, let Your Majesty
Not put himself into a rage;
But rather, let him consider
That I am taking a drink of water
In the stream
More than twenty steps below him;
And that, consequently, in no way,
Am I troubling his supply.
—You do trouble it, answered the cruel beast.
And I know you said bad things of me last year.
—How could I do that when I wasn’t born,
Answered the lamb; I am still at my mother’s breast.
—If it wasn’t you, then it was your brother.
—I haven’t a brother.—It was then someone close to you;
For you have no sympathy for me,
You, your shepherds and your dogs.
I have been told of this.I have to make things even.
Saying this, into the woods
The wolf carries the lamb, and then eats him
Without any other why or wherefore.
-Trans. Eli Siegel

Admittedly, this is a pretty pessimistic fable. But which Aesop or La Fontaine fable isn’t? French fables do not teach children how the world should be but how it really is. Consequently, children are forced to confront the injustices of the world from a young age.

In most La Fontaine fables, the first line is the moral. The first line of Le Loup et L’Agneau is “La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure”. A literal translation is “The reason of the strongest [person] is always the best.” The fable beneath tells the story of a wolf who chastises a lamb for troubling his water supply. Never mind that the lamb has done absolutely nothing to deserve the wolf’s wrath. The two animals are so far from each other that the lamb is not at all in the way. Nevertheless, the wolf claims that he is.

The wolf’s complaint is far from reasonable. The lamb was already at the stream before the wolf arrived. When the lamb defends himself, the wolf’s accusations become even more ludicrous. He claims that the lamb insulted him the previous year, even though the lamb hadn’t even been born.

So why is the wolf’s reason (ie. the reason of the strongest) the best? It’s certainly not the best because it is the most logical. It’s the best because the wolf has the power to get what he wants. The lamb, on the other hand, lacks the power to escape from the wolf; nothing he might say can prevent him from being eaten.

Thus, the reason of the strongest is the best because the strongest always wins. The irony of the moral points to an unpleasant social reality. Those with the power to get what they want, will.

Many scholars believe that La Fontaine’s moral was an allusion to the case of Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finance under Louis XIV. Fouquet was an ambitious administrator and an extravagant spender. He built himself the castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte, which eventually became the model for Louis XIV’s Versailles. Indeed, King Louis was so afraid that a subordinate might become a Richelieu-type premier ministre that he imprisoned Fouquet and confiscated his castle. Fouquet ended his days in prison.

Fouquet may have been one of the wealthiest men in King Louis XIV’s court, but his wealth could not save him. Nor could the reasoning of his friends and acquaintances. Of course, calling Fouquet a lamb is more than a little disingenuous. He certainly acquired his wealth through unjust means. Nevertheless, the moral of the fable holds true: “The reason of those best able to have their way is always the best” (trans. Eli Siegel).

People who get away with saying and doing the most ludicrous things are those who have the most power in our society.

Reflections

Discovering Poetry | Teachers Open Doors (Part 1)

When I was in 8th grade, I had two experiences that have been pivotal in my intellectual development.

I will share one with you today.

______

The summer before the first day of class, my future 8th grade English teacher assigned a poetry anthology. It was an easy assignment. We were asked to select twenty poems relating to a topic of our choice. I selected my topic, “Animals”, easily because I have always loved learning about the natural world. Unfortunately, I was not a fan of poetry. The only poems I enjoyed were those found in children’s novels. Because of my obsession with Roald Dahl, I was quite familiar with his poems. Thankfully, Dahl had written a few poems about animals. My favorite to-date is “The Pig”. I later used it in my audition for the middle school play.

While I was curating my anthology, I discovered poems that I enjoyed but are not critically acclaimed. I couldn’t care less about meter or style. I was only looking for entertainment. If an animal poem was funny, I selected it for my anthology. Soon, I widened my reading to include non-animal-related children’s poems.

I was obsessed. Not only did I read and reread my favorite poems, I also memorized them. During the first month of class, I recited these “silly” poems before my teacher. “You are Old, Father William” from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “The Pig” from Roald Dahl’s short story collection Kiss Kiss, “Anabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, and some poem about the Easter bunny by Dean Koontz (yes, him!).

If it weren’t for children’s poetry I would never have discovered “fine” literature (poetry AND prose). I started to pay attention to words and the ways they disclose or conceal meaning.

The most successful teachers are those who can instill a passion for learning in their students. As you will discover next week, I was a weak language student for most of my childhood. I couldn’t analyze a book for beans, and my vocabulary was quite limited. Although I read a lot, my analytical essays were nothing but summaries of the work at hand. But Mr. Korvne’s simple assignment invited me to explore poetry at my own pace and on my own terms.

He also introduced me to imagery, but more on that later…

Poems

A Song for Matthew Shepard

Image result for a song for matthew shepardIt may be surprising that I started the year with such a depressing book, but I felt ready today to read this poetry pamphlet. Lesléa Newman delivered these poems at the University of Wyoming five days after Matthew Shepard’s murder.

Matthew Shepard is to the LGBTQ movement what Emmett Till was to the Civil Rights Movement. Shepard was kidnapped and tortured by two boys on the night of October 6, 1998. He was found tied to a fence by a cyclist who mistook the body for a scarecrow.

The poems in October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard are told from a variety of perspectives – some inanimate. Each section begins with a poem from the fence’s perspective, and most of the poems begin with a quote from one of the actual people involved in the case. According to the pamphlet, Newman was heavily inspired by the structure of “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams.

I was the most moved by the poems that addressed the national response to Shepard’s murder. “A Chorus of Parents”, “Then and Now”, and “The Drag Queen” were my favorite in the collection.

Not all of the poems were brilliant. A few were frankly pretty trite. But overall, I felt that Newman captured well Shepard’s influence on the Gay Rights Movement. We must not forget the son, student, and lover behind the involuntary martyr.

Then I was a guy
Now I am a ghost

Then I was a student
Now I am a lesson.

– from “Then and Now”

Reflections

Reading Poetry

When did you get into poetry? Have you ever gotten into poetry?

I was first introduced to poetry in the eighth grade. The summer before classes started, the English teacher asked us to make a poetry anthology. I chose to focus on poems written about farm animals. Because I didn’t know any “fine” poets, I searched for fun children’s poems. I knew that Roald Dahl included poetry in his fiction, so I decided to start with him. Dahl wrote a poem called “The Pig” that is still one of my favorite poems. I recited it to my teacher before class one day, and I got a role in a school play with the poem. Even though my anthology focused on farm animals, the poems I loved the most were not about animals at all. I loved “Father William” by Lewis Carroll and “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, so I recited both to my teacher. Nearly every week, I memorized a new poem so that by the end of the year I had memorized quite a few poems. While they weren’t necessarily the most sophisticated poems, I finally found poetry that I liked.

I dip in and out of poetry collections from time to time. Some poems resonate with me on a deep level like “Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I first came across it in the short, young adult novel Baby by Patricia McLaughlin. If you want a beautiful but depressing book, read Baby. Millay’s poem goes perfectly with yesterday’s post since it addresses grief.

My favorite French poet is Paul Claudel. His “Chemin de la Croix” (The Way of the Cross) is a 14-poem meditation on the Stations of the Cross. Claudel was a very difficult person and a fascist to boot, but I find his poems particularly moving. I also love “Zone” by the surrealist, World War I poet Guillaume Apollinaire.

So many young people hate poetry because of the way it’s taught in school. They spend hours dissecting a poem line by line, but they don’t get the point. Students today feel intimidated by the genre.

I am grateful to my 8th grade English teacher for having assigned that poetry anthology project. I found poems that I enjoyed, which encouraged me to read more poetry. At one time, most children’s books included short poems. They were a part of a child’s intellectual development. But today, students only encounter poetry in school where it’s dissected and analyzed bit by bit. I am not denying the value of literary analysis. I am a literature student after all. And I do it all the time on my blog. But poetry should be fun. Students should be encouraged to find poems that they love, even if they’re children’s poems.

I can’t say that I really understand poetry. I don’t have much experience analyzing poetry. But I care deeply about the poems that I’ve enjoyed. I’m sure that formal poetry courses would help me better appreciate 20th-century poetry, but that doesn’t mean that I am ignorant of the genre. I appreciate my favorite poems more each time I reread them. We would never tell a non-English student that she can’t understand The Great Gatsby because she hasn’t studied it in school, so why do we assume that those who lack formal education in poetry are completely ignorant of the genre? Find the poetry you enjoy and read it.

Cervantes, Miguel de, Literary Miscellanea

Don Quixote and Aristotle

In Chapter III of the Second Part of Don Quixote, Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza discuss the First Part of Cervantes’ work. One of the questions addressed is the difference between poetry and history.

“Even so,” responded the bachelor, “some people who have read the history say they would have been pleased if its authors had forgotten about some of the infinite beatings given to Señor Don Quixote in various encounters.”

“That’s where the truth of the history comes in,” said Sancho.

“They also could have kept quiet about them for the sake of fairness,” said Don Quixote, “because the actions that do not change or alter the truth of the history do not need to be written if they belittle the hero. By my faith, Aeneas was not as pious as Virgil depicts him, or Ulysses as prudent as Homer describes him.”

“That is true,” replied Sansón, “but it is one thing to write as a poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

The debate that these three men are having centers on an Aristotelian question, treated heavily by 16th and 17th century humanists. In chapter 9 of his Poetics, Aristotle writes:

But it is evident from what has been said that it is not the province of a poet to relate things which have happened, but such as might have happened, and such things as are possible according to probability, or which would necessarily have happened. For a historian and a poet do not differ from each other because the one writes in verse and the other in prose; for the history of Herodotus might be written in verse, and yet it would be no less a history with meter than without meter. But they differ in this, that the one speaks of things which have happened, and the other of such as might have happened.

The poet’s job is to relate what might have happened while the historian’s job is to give an account of what actually happened. But what does Aristotle mean? During the Renaissance, writers try to systematically describe a verisimilitudinous play (i.e. a play that presents events as they might have happened). The 17th century humanist Nicolas Boileau even applies Aristotle to non-theatrical poetry in his Art Poétique (Art of Poetry). The debate concerning the difference between a poet and a historian is also a debate about the role of the public. What does the public expect from a poet vs. from a historian?

Don Quixote, as part meta-fiction, is not only a satire on courtly romance but also a commentary on Renaissance values such as verisimilitude. What does the public expect from a history of Don Quixote? If the story is about a knight errant, should it follow tropes found in the courtly romances that Don Quixote‘s audience know so well? How should Don Quxote act? Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are at once ignorant and self-aware. They behave irrationally, but they know what readers of courtly romance expect. They try to realize in their own lives what a knight or a squire never did historically but might have done poetically. What is ironic about the above conversation is that Don Quixote seems to know that the heroes in his favorite stories were idealized and mythologized, yet he attempts to imitate them anyway. Sancho Panza definitely knows what the public (i.e. Don Quixote) expects because he frequently lies about events to fool and please his master.

Poems

The Second Coming – W.B. Yeats

This poem seems particularly relevant today.

 THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Berry, Wendell, Poems

The Cold by Wendell Berry

Update: I have not blogged in almost 2 months. I switched graduate programs from entomology to French and have been really busy reading for school. I know that I was supposed to participate in read-alongs that I had organized, but I bit off way more than I could chew. I hope to get to the books at some point before the end of the year, but it may not be for a while. I apologize for dropping the ball. Until I have more time do read for pleasure, I will post more poems or reviews of plays than book reviews. I may even discuss some philosophical treatises I’ve read. But I will be moving at a slower pace than I have in the past.

Enough about me. Now on to the poem:

The Cold

How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,

my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go

separate and sure
among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you

perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping

-to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.

And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.