The Fox and the Raven

imageAesop/De La Fontaine:
Le Corbeau & Le Renard

The story of the fox and the crow originates from the ancient greek story teller, Aesop. This fable has been depicted in various pathways of art including tapestry, architecture and music through the ages. These fables have found their way into specifically the French literature and culture via the pen of Jean de La Fontaine (1621 – 1695). De La Fontaine used the fable as a vehicle to morally comment through satire on the state, church and bourgeoisie. The sly character of the fox is beautifully contrasted with narcissism of the crow. By using the sweetest of words the fox manages to trick the crow.

Maître corbeau, sur un arbre perché, 
Tenait en son bec un fromage.
Maître renard, par l’odeur alléché, 
Lui tint à peu près ce langage:
Hé! Bonjour, monsieur du corbeau.
Que vous êtes joli! Que vous me semblez beau!
Sans mentir, si votre ramage
Se rapporte à votre plumage,
Vous êtes le phénix des hôtes de ces bois.
A ces mots le corbeau ne se sent pas de joie;
Et, pour montrer sa belle voix, 
Il ouvre un large bec, laisse tombe sa proie.
Le renard s’en saisit, et dit:
Mon bon monsieur,
Apprenez que tout flatteur
Vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute:
Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute.
Lah! ah! ah! ah! 
Le corbeau, honteux et confus,
Jura, mais un peu tard, qu’on ne l’y prendrait plus.

Mister Raven, perched on a tree,
Held a cheese in his beak.
Mister Fox, enticed by the smell,
Addressed him in language like this:
Oh! Good morning, Mr. Raven.
How pretty you are! How beautiful you seem to me!
In truth, if your song 
is like your plumage,
You are the phoenix of the hosts of this wood.
At these words the raven becomes overjoyed;
And, to show off his beautiful voice,
He opens his beak wide and lets his prey fall.
The fox grabs it and says:
My dear man,
Learn that every flatterer
Lives at the expense of the one who listens to him.
No doubt, that lesson is easily worth a cheese.
Lah! Ah! Ah! Ah!
The raven, ashamed and confused,
Swore, though somewhat belatedly, that he would never be taken again.

Carryl: Famous Fables for Grownups

frontisGuy Wetmore Carryl was a writer at the turn of the Twentieth Century, mainly writing for magezines, later becoming managing editor of the Munsey’s Magezine. Carryl is best known for his fondness of telling an old tale through a new lense, bringing the characters up to date and so catching the attention similar to what De La Fontaine had done in his day. Collections of his poems included amongst others “Fables for the Frivolous“, published in 1898 (including fables like The Persevering Tortoise and the Pretentious Hare and The Arrogant Frog and the Superior Bull.  Another set is a series of fables originally written by the Grimm brothers. Carryl’s 1902 “Grimm Stories Made Gay” include poems entitled How Little Red-Riding Hood Came To Be Eaten and How A Cat Was Annoyed And A Poet Got Booted.  

One of the poems from “Fables for the Frivolous” is Carryl twist of “The Fox and the Crow”, entitled The Sycophantic Fox and the Gullible Crow. Various stabs and jokes are throughout the poem, but the most poignant is where the fox suggests that the crow sings “to beat the band and Adelina Patti”. 19th Century opera star Adelina Patti was the greatest diva of her time and Verdi has been said to have referred to her as a “stupendous artist”. Carryl’s poem reads:

The Sycophantic Fox And The Gullible Raven

A raven sat upon a tree,
And not a word he spoke, for
His beak contained a piece of Brie.
Or, maybe it was Roquefort.
We’ll make it any kind you please –
At all events it was a cheese.

Beneath the tree’s umbrageous limb
A hungry fox sat smiling;
He saw the raven watching him,
And spoke in words beguiling:
‘J’admire,’ said he, ‘ton beau plumage!’
(The which was simply persiflage.)

Frivolous_Fables_fox_and_ravenTwo things there are, no doubt you know,
To which a fox is used:
A rooster that is bound to crow,
A crow that’s bound to roost;
And whichsoever he espies
He tells the most unblushing lies1.

‘Sweet fowl,’ he said, ‘I understand
You’re more than merely natty;
I hear you sing to beat the band
And Adelina Patti.
Pray render with your liquid tongue
A bit from Gotterdammerung.’

This subtle speech was aimed to please
The crow, and it succeeded;
He thought no bird in all the trees
Could sing as well as he did.
In flattery completely doused,
He gave the ‘Jewel Song’ from Faust.

But gravitation’s law, of course,
As Isaac Newton showed it,
Exerted on the cheese its force,
And elsewhere soon bestowed it.
In fact, there is no need to tell
What happened when to earth it fell.

I blush to add that when the bird
Took in the situation
He said one brief, emphatic word,
Unfit for publication.
The fox was greatly startled, but
He only sighed and answered, ‘Tut.’

The Moral is: A fox is bound
To be a shameless sinner.
And also: When the cheese comes round
You know it’s after dinner.
But (what is only known to few)
The fox is after dinner, too.

Richard Hageman: The Fox and the Raven

Dutch-born American Composer Richard Hageman (1881-1966) set Carryl’s text in 1948. There are parts of the text that Hageman left out to fit his composition, which turns the setting into a quirky song. Adelina Patti is remembered through a line of staccato, the fox’s music is suggested by a waltz-like figure, which reminds of the salons of yore. The raven’s music is hopping just as the raven would move about from spot to spot. 

1. Text in italics above are omitted in Hageman’s setting and some alternative text has be included.
2. Hageman’s setting finishes with “Nuts!”

As part of The Melicus Duo‘s celebration of Hageman’s birthday today on 9 July, we made a short and informal clip chatting about Hageman’s setting of this funny text by Carryl.

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