- La Fontaine in Modern Dress
Entertaining morality tales enacted by talking animals and timeless portraits of human psychology, Jean de la Fontaine’s twelve books of Fables (1668–1694) also played a role in the major French literary dispute of the seventeenth century, La Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. While la Fontaine followed the classical tradition by modeling his stories on those of Greek and Roman fabulists, among others, he sided with the modernes in the famous querelle, and his allegiance is clear in the preface to his best-known work, the Fables. La Fontaine defends there his innovative choice of verse over prose, which was traditional for Greek fables, and he [End Page xcv] insists on the need to renew familiar tales with “new ingredients” destined to “amuse” and “charm” his audience. As la Fontaine did with Aesop, so Craig Hill does with la Fontaine: in The Complete Fables Hill works hard to “make it new” with contemporary vocabulary and syntax as well as a light and mostly deft metrical touch.
Hill’s colloquial idiom, like la Fontaine’s, brings Aesop’s vivacious tales to life. For the purpose of a comparison Hill invokes in his own preface, here are Marianne Moore’s opening lines to “The Grasshopper and the Ant”:
Until fall, a grasshopper Chose to chirr; With starvation as foe When northeasters would blow, And not even a gnat’s residue Or caterpillar to chew, She chirred a recurrent chant Of want beside an ant.
I disagree with Hill’s judgment that Moore’s fables are “awkward and humorless,” and formal language does have its virtues, especially for translating venerable texts intended to convey eternal truths. The relative simplicity of Hill’s lines, however, does make la Fontaine’s tales more accessible than those of Moore and of other translators:
The Cicada, having sung All summer long, Was in want and starving thin Once the winter wind set in. With no slightest scrap put by, Bite of worm or bite of fly, She approached her neighbor, Ant.
Hill’s vernacular renders not only the plot, but also makes the milieu of Aesop’s fables familiar. Snakes appear in connection with good neighborhoods and snacks in “The Serpent and the File” (“A snake lived next to a man who made clocks— / For an horologist, not a good neighborhood. / The reptile entered his workshop looking for snacks”). “The Hen Who Laid Golden Eggs” concludes with a judgment many have passed on today’s economic crisis: “greedy types” risk “in one day losing every cent they had amassed— / Made poor by trying to get rich too fast.” There are also delightful comic images, as of the leonine lovers in “The Lion in Love” (the daughter dreamed of “Especially wild ones whose hair / Stuck out in a great flowing mane”); and of “Discord,” who chooses “the Inn of Marital Relations / As permanent headquarters for her operations.” And Hill’s language exploits homophony with skill, as in “The Hare and the Tortoise,” where we have “a hare a hair too late.”
As a devotee of la Fontaine, though, Hill would agree that nothing is perfect; and in the course of what he indicates has been a lifelong and voluminous undertaking, he—like the hare and tortoise in their race— inevitably reveals some imperfections. Certain aspects of well-known poems are lost in translation. The seasonal cyclical nature of “The Cicada and the Ant” drops out when “avant l’août” is not translated, and when “la saison nouvelle” becomes “these hard times”; some of la Fontaine’s self-conscious references to the art of language disappear, for example in “The Fox and the Crow”: “Maître Renard . . . / Lui tint à peu près ce langage” becomes “Mister Fox . . . / . . . then [End Page xcvi] proceeded to speak.” There are other minor flaws, like missing commas in “The Lion in Love,” which verse puts into relief. And, as we often see in the plots of the fables, the strengths of these poems can become weaknesses. Sometimes slang overpowers the verse: in “Death and the Luckless...