Saturday, February 19, 2005


Country Mouse and City Mouse

In Plato's Phaedo (60c-61d), the imprisoned Socrates says that he has been setting the fables of Aesop to verse. He wasn't the first or last to versify animal fables. From Archilochus in the seventh century B.C. to La Fontaine in the seventeenth century A.D., talking animals have been a favorite theme of poets.

A well-known fable is that of the country mouse and the city mouse. Horace versified it in Latin, Babrius in Greek.

Horace, Satires 2.6.79-117 (tr. John Conington):
One day a country mouse in his poor home
Received an ancient friend, a mouse from Rome:
The host, though close and careful, to a guest
Could open still: so now he did his best.
He spares not oats or vetches: in his chaps
Raisins he brings and nibbled bacon-scraps,
Hoping by varied dainties to entice
His town-bred guest, so delicate and nice,
Who condescended graciously to touch
Thing after thing, but never would take much,
While he, the owner of the mansion, sate
On threshed-out straw, and spelt and darnels ate.
At length the townsman cries: "I wonder how
You can live here, friend, on this hill's rough brow:
Take my advice, and leave these ups and downs,
This hill and dale, for humankind and towns.
Come now, go home with me: remember, all
Who live on earth are mortal, great and small:
Then take, good sir, your pleasure while you may;
With life so short, 'twere wrong to lose a day."

This reasoning made the rustic's head turn round;
Forth from his hole he issues with a bound,
And they two make together for their mark,
In hopes to reach the city during dark.
The midnight sky was bending over all,
When they set foot within a stately hall,
Where couches of wrought ivory had been spread
With gorgeous coverlets of Tyrian red,
And viands piled up high in baskets lay,
The relics of a feast of yesterday.
The townsman does the honours, lays his guest
At ease upon a couch with crimson dressed,
Then nimbly moves in character of host,
And offers in succession boiled and roast;
Nay, like a well-trained slave, each wish prevents,
And tastes before the tit-bits he presents.
The guest, rejoicing in his altered fare,
Assumes in turn a genial diner's air,
When hark! a sudden banging of the door:
Each from his couch is tumbled on the floor:
Half dead, they scurry round the room, poor things,
While the whole house with barking mastiffs rings.

Then says the rustic: "It may do for you,
This life, but I don't like it; so adieu:
Give me my hole, secure from all alarms,
I'll prove that tares and vetches still have charms."
Babrius, Fables 108 (tr. Ben Edwin Perry):
Two mice decided to share their living with each other. One of them lived in the country, the other had his nest in a rich man's pantry.

The house-bred mouse first came to dine in the country, when the fields had just begun to blossom with verdure. After nibbling on some meagre and sodden roots of grain mixed together with clods of black soil, he said: "It's the life of a miserable ant you live here, eating scant bits of barley meal in the depths of the earth. As for me, I have an abundance of good things, even more than I need. Compared with you, I live in the Horn of Plenty. If you will come with me to my house, you will indulge your appetite as much as you like and leave this ground for the moles to dig up."

So he led the toiling country mouse away, having persuaded him to enter a man's house by creeping under the wall. He showed him where there was a lot of barley, where there was a pile of pulse, casks of figs, jars of honey, and baskets full of dates. The country mouse was delighted with it all and went for it eagerly. He was dragging a piece of cheese from a basket when someone suddenly opened the door; whereupon he leapt back in fright and fled into the recess of his narrow hole, squeaking unintelligibly and crowding against his host. He waited a while and then, popping out from within, was about to lay hold of a Camiraean fig; but just then another man entered to get something else, and both mice hid themselves again in their holes.

Then said the country mouse: "Farewell to you and such feasts as these; enjoy your wealth and revel by yourself in superfine banquets. This abundance of yours is full of danger. As for me, I'll not desert the homely clods, under which I munch my barley free from fear."

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