Originally published in Bewildering Stories:
La Cigale et la fourmi
La cigale ayant chanté
The Cricket and the Ant
The cricket had sung her song
Her neighbor, the ant, might,
“By next August I’ll repay both
Now, the ant may have a fault or two
“By night and day, to any comer
“You sang, did you? That’s nice. Now dance.”
La Fontaine (1621-1695) put La Cigale et la fourmi first in the first book of his Fables precisely because it was his personal favorite. It and others in his twelve books of fables are a cultural treasure and have been memorized by generations of school children. And well they ought to be: two hundred years would pass till lyric poetry met the standard he set.
The cigale is, strictly speaking, a cicada. I use “cricket” by poetic license because the figure is more familiar to English-speaking readers.
La Fontaine’s fable is unique in that it does not end with the traditional moral, which would sum up the meaning of the poem lest an inattentive listener miss it. Rather, La Fontaine forces the readers to choose their own interpretation: is the cricket an artist or a profligate wastrel? Is the ant economical and prudent or a bourgeois philistine?
Walt Disney took his film sketch from Æsop’s dreary Fables, where the self-styled thrifty and provident have no shred of mercy for their neighbor, the singer. La Fontaine’s untraditional silence at the end of the poem speaks volumes: things are not always as simple as we’re told or as we might like to think.
La Cigale et la fourmi sets the style and tone for the rest of La Fontaine’s fables. Sweet little poems about animals? No, they are tales of terror about people living in the ancien régime — and today.
Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb