The Animals Stricken with The Plague
A sickness that sows frightful seeds,
Sickness that heaven's anger framed
To be fit punishment for earth's immense misdeeds:
The plague (for evils must at last be named),
With power in one day to flood deep Acheron,
Now struck the animals full force.
And though not all would die, all will to live was gone—
When death is nigh, why struggle to delay its course?
The usual snarling over morsels ceased,
The foxes and the wolves no longer chased
The innocent and curly-fleeced,
The turtle doves flew off in mutual distaste:
If love is gone, joy is erased.
At last the Lion called a meeting. "My dear friends,"
He said, "I think these trials show that heaven intends
To tell us that our sins have made us all accursed.
So let us find the one of us whose crimes are worst
To draw the lightning on his head alone
And, hopefully, at one stroke atone
For all. For history teaches that in times of crisis
One often makes these sacrifices.
So search your consciences, look deep inside,
Reveal the ugly thing you always thought to hide.
Hold nothing back, wipe clean the slate:
A public confession is good for the state!
My awful appetite, for example, has made me prey
To gluttony. I've eaten flocks of sheep. Had they
Harmed me at all? No, not in any way.
So that was wrong, of course. But wait—
There is more. I must admit that sometimes it occurred
That, inadvertently, besides the sheep, I also ate
So I will be your victim—if that proves necessary.
But each must first confess as honestly as I,
For in the name of Justice, the guiltiest must die."
"Oh, Sire," said the Fox, "We have the best of kings,
Whose scruples show his noble soul. But, I ask, why
Is eating mutton a sin? Those low, retarded things
Were honored when you ate them. And, I observe,
Those shepherds got what such imperialists deserve,
The human race, exploiters all." To huge applause,
The Fox sat down. Nor did one soul dare criticize
The Tiger or the Bear or such high-ranking jaws
As having broken even the tiniest, little laws.
And the ferocious mastiffs were just friendly guys
Who'd never bitten a soul, without good cause.
It came the Ass's turn. "I recollect," he said,
"That once in spring I crossed a field
Of grass so sweet and tender I commenced to yield
To devilish desires that popped into my head
And took a bite broad as my tongue of that good hay.
I had no right. My conscience warned me to say nay!"
At that, the assembly shouted, "Shame upon the Ass!"
And then a Wolf, a preacher of the saintly class,
Declaimed that nothing less sufficed
Than that this curséd beast posthaste be sacrificed,
This scabby, scurvy object, source of these bad events.
His minor tort became a capital offense.
How gross a crime it was to eat another's grass!
No penalty short of death could pay
For such a sin—and that is just what came to pass
Without appreciable delay.
Depending on your social height,
The law will see your crime as black—or else as white.
Jean de La Fontaine, 1621-1695