Jean de la Fontaine’s more than 240 fables were inspired by those of Aesop and were written between 1668 and 1694. Most of them stage anthropomorphic characters and contain a self-avowed moral aim, many of which have become French household proverbs. His fables are generally considered to occupy a deserved place among the masterpieces of French literature. One of the best-known of la Fontaine’s Fables and my own particular favourite is The Cicada and the Ant which praises those traditional, common-sense virtues of working hard and saving for a rainy day – and warns of the dire consequences of not doing so. Here is my English translation:
The Cicada having sung his song
All summer long
Found himself without a crumb
When the North Wind did come,
Not one small morsel could he find
Of fly or worm of any kind.
Starving, he went to see his ant neighbour
To tell him he was at death’s door
And begging him for a grain or two
So he might survive all winter through
Until the coming of the spring.
‘By August I’ll pay back everything,’
Said he, ‘interest and principal, both,
Upon my insect oath.’
Now the ant may have a fault or two
But lend is what he will not do.
‘What did you do last summer?’
Asked he of this would-be borrower.
‘Why, night and day, you surely won’t mind,
I sang to comers of all kind.’
‘You sang? I’m glad you had that chance:
Well now you can run off and dance!’