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The Eagle and the BeetleJean de La Fontaine, translated by Gordon Pirie
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Vol. 30 No. 3 · 7 February 2008
Poem

The Eagle and the Beetle

Jean de La Fontaine, translated by Gordon Pirie

598 words

An eagle once swooped down to catch
A rabbit, who made off with due dispatch
Towards his lair. It wasn’t near,
And he despaired of getting there
In time, when going past a beetle’s hole,
He thought: ‘Why not?’
And in he shot.
Don’t ask me how a beetle’s hole
Could possibly accommodate a rabbit.
It couldn’t; and the eagle, landing there, could grab it
And extract it by the tail.
The rabbit gave a squeal,
And looked up at the bird in mute appeal.
The beetle, who had watched this scene,
Was moved to intervene. He had a strong
Regard for Master Rabbit – they had long
Been friendly neighbours in the grass –
And when he saw him in this desperate pass,
The insect spoke up fearlessly and said:
‘Queen of the Birds, I can’t, of course,
Prevent you taking off my friend by force;
But as one flying creature to another,
I beg you, spare this wingless quadruped,
Who is my friend and brother.’
The eagle didn’t say a word –
Just knocked the beetle over with her wing,
And took off with the rabbit. Stirred
By indignation now, and wondering
How to avenge his friend, the beetle took off too.
Up to the eagle’s nest he flew.
She wasn’t here; her eggs were, though,
And striking at the very spring
Of aquilinity, he broke them every one.
The eagle, when she found what had been done,
Uttered such piercing cries of woe
As set the hills and valleys echoing
For miles around. And not to know
The culprit only made it worse:
No one to curse,
No one to be revenged upon.
The wind dispersed her useless cries.
With all maternal prospects gone,
A barren year stretched mournfully ahead
And it was long before she dried her eyes
Or would be comforted.
Next year she nested higher still.
The beetle’s memory was long: he searched until
He found it, and revenged the rabbit’s death
A second time. You should have heard
The strident lamentations of the injured bird!
For months no local echo could draw breath.
At last she sought Jove’s help, thinking
She had some right to it, considering
The hours he’d kept her
Perched on his sceptre
Or standing at his feet with outspread wing,
Or times she’d carried that young son of Troas,
Ganymede, upon her back –
Or so at least the painters like to show us.
She thought that if she laid them on Jove’s knee,
Her eggs would be secure from all attack.
And wouldn’t you agree?
What enemy would dare
To come and break them there?
None did. Instead, the beetle dropped a turd
Upon the unhatched offspring of the bird,
And Jove, in shaking off the mess,
Shook off the eggs as well.
Who could express
The mother’s feelings now? She dared to tell
Her master that she’d leave his court,
And go and live in desert places,
And more extravagances of the sort
That females rise to in these cases.
Jove was abashed, and cast about in vain
For what might ease her pain.
He called a meeting, and the beetle came
And put his point of view. They tried to make
The eagle see that she had been to blame.
She wouldn’t hear of it; so, for the sake
Of peace and quiet, Jove decreed
That eagles, from now on, should breed
Much earlier in the year, when beetles, like moles,
Are underground, and fast asleep inside their holes.

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