HomeJean de La FontaineTHE ARBITRATOR, ALMONER, AND HERMIT

THE ARBITRATOR, ALMONER, AND HERMIT. Jean de La Fontaine

Three saints, by holy fervour fired,
To gain the heights of heaven aspired;
But, as the well-known proverb says,
Rome can be reached by various ways,
So these by different methods planned
To gain the shores of Canaan′s land.
One, touched by the expense and care
Which luckless suitors have to bear,
Offered cases to determine
Without a fee, or wig, or ermine.
Since human laws were first began,
Lawsuits have been the curse of man;
Absorbing half, three-fourths, or all
Of days which, at the best, are small.
To cure a state of things so vicious,
Our Umpire thought his plan judicious.
The second of our saints declares
The sick sole object of his cares;
And I praise him: in truth, to me
This seems the truest charity.
But sick men, troublous then, as now,
Our good man vexed enough, I vow.
Capricious, restless, petulant,
Each moment brings a separate want;
And, if no other fault they find,
They cry, "To such and such he′s kind:
Spends all his days and nights in caring
For them, and leaves us here despairing."
But these complaints were small to those
Which harassed, every day, the heart
Of him who, well-intentioned, chose
To act the Arbitrator′s part.
The plaintiff and defendant, both,
T′ adopt his sentences were loth;
And swore, with all their might and main,
His partiality was plain.
By such abuse as this disgusted,
The Umpire and the Almoner
Each unto each his woes entrusted;
And each agreed he could not bear
To be so shamefully mistrusted.
This being so, they sought a glade
Which neither suns nor winds invade,
And there, beneath a rugged mountain,
Beside a clear and babbling fountain,
They found their friend the Hermit saint;
So each one having made his plaint,
Asked his advice. "Your own pursue,"
Replied their friend; "for who but you
Can know your several wants? To know
One′s self makes gods of man below.
And let me ask you, have you found
This knowledge where vast crowds abound?
No; trust me, it can only be
The fruit of sweet tranquillity.
Shake but the water in your vase,
And you no longer see your face;
But let it once more still remain,
And straight your likeness comes again.
′Midst worldly scenes you′ll never learn
The love for which we all should yearn.
Believe me, friends, the desert′s best
For him who′d study his own breast."

To each the Hermit′s words seemed good,
And, henceforth, each one sought the wood.

Of course, there′s always work to do,
Whilst men still sicken, and still sue,
For lawyers and for doctors; and
They′ll never perish from the land,
Thank mighty Jove, as long as fees
And honours greet their services.
But in such common toils the mind
Can seldom its true likeness find.
Oh, you, who give your lives away,
And serve the public every day,—
You, princes, judges, magistrates,
Exposed to all the angry fates,

Who, when no other ill oppresses,
Are slain by Judas-like caresses,—
To you yourselves are all unknown;
And if some moment is your own,
For self-reflection, ere it flies
′Tis spoilt by hateful flattery′s lies.

This lesson shall conclude these pages;
May it be blessed to future ages!
To Kings I give it, to the wise commend:
How could my volume better end?


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