Aesop's Fables: Lions and Asses

Here you have some more of Christopher Smart's rhyming translations of the ancient verse fables of the Roman poet Phaedrus. As poetry can sometimes be a bit harder to follow than prose, I have provided a brief note for each poem to help make the plot more clear.

[Notes by LKG]

These fables are part of the Aesop's Fables (English) unit. Story source: The Fables of Phaedrus, translated by Christopher Smart (1887).

Aesop's Fables: Lions and Asses

This is the famous fable of "the lion's share," and, as you will see, the lion's share is not the largest share . . . it is the whole thing. In other words: it is not sharing at all!

The Heifer, Goat, Sheep, and Lion

A partnership with men in power
We cannot build upon an hour.
This Fable proves the fact too true:

An Heifer, Goat, and harmless Ewe,
Were with the Lion as allies,
To raise in desert woods supplies.

There, when they jointly had the luck
To take a most enormous buck,
The Lion first the parts disposed,
And then his royal will disclosed.

"The first, as Lion hight, I crave;
The next you yield to me, as brave;
The third is my peculiar due,
As being stronger far than you;
The fourth you likewise will renounce,
For him that touches, I shall trounce."

Thus rank unrighteousness and force
Seized all the prey without remorse.

As you can see from the previous fable, the lion did not earn the loyalty and trust of the other animals, so he pays a price for that in his old age as all the animals get their revenge, even the most lowly among them.

The Old Lion

Whoever, to his honor's cost,
His pristine dignity has lost,
Is the fool's jest and coward's scorn,
When once deserted and forlorn.

With years enfeebled and decay'd,
A Lion gasping hard was laid.
Then came, with furious tusk, a boar,
To vindicate his wrongs of yore.

The bull was next in hostile spite,
With goring horn his foe to smite.

At length the ass himself, secure
That now impunity was sure,
His blow too insolently deals,
And kicks his forehead with his heel.

Then thus the Lion, as he died:
"'Twas hard to bear the brave," he cried,
"But to be trampled on by thee
Is Nature's last indignity;
And thou, O despicable thing,
Giv'st death at least a double sting."

Here is another fable about the donkey and the lion and, this time, they are partners . . . well, sort of!

The Ass and the Lion Hunting

A coward, full of pompous speech,
The ignorant may overreach
But is the laughing-stock of those
Who know how far his valor goes.

Once on a time it came to pass,
The Lion hunted with the Ass,
Whom hiding in the thickest shade
He there proposed should lend him aid,
By trumpeting so strange a bray,
That all the beasts he should dismay
And drive them o'er the desert heath
Into the lurking Lion's teeth.

Proud of the task, the long-ear'd loon
Struck up such an outrageous tune
That 'twas a miracle to hear.
The beasts forsake their haunts with fear,
And in the Lion's fangs expired,
Who, being now with slaughter tired,
Call'd out the Ass, whose noise he stops.

The Ass, parading from the copse,
Cried out with most conceited scoff,
"How did my music-piece go off?"

"So well, were not thy courage known,
Their terror had been all my own!"

In this fable, the donkey is not boastful or conceited at all; instead, he is quite wise (which is what "sapient" means, as in the name "homo sapiens").

The Sapient Ass

In all the changes of a state,
The poor are the most fortunate,
Who, save the name of him they call
Their king, can find no odds at all.
The truth of this you now may read:

A fearful old man in a mead,
While leading of his Ass about,
Was startled at the sudden shout
Of enemies approaching nigh.

He then advised the Ass to fly,
"Lest we be taken in the place."

But loth at all to mend his pace,
"Pray, will the conqueror," quoth Jack,
"With double panniers load my back?"

"No," says the man.

                         "If that's the thing,"
Cries he, "I care not who is king."

This fable is about a long-suffering donkey who is in the servants of the priests of Cybele, priests who were famous for their wild dances to the sound of drums and tambourines, musical instruments made out of . . . animal hide.

The Ass and Priests of Cybele

The luckless wretch that's born to woe
Must all his life affliction know,
And, harder still, his cruel fate
Will on his very ashes wait.

Cybele's priests, in quest of bread,
An Ass about the village led,
With things for sale from door to door
Till, work'd and beaten more and more,
At length, when the poor creature died,
They made them drums out of his hide.

Then question'd how it came to pass
They thus could serve their darling Ass,
The answer was, " He thought of peace
In death, and that his toils would cease,
But see his mis'ry knows no bounds:
Still with our blows his back resounds."

Next: Asses

(600 words)

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