Aesthetic Realism Online Library Poetry


The Oak and the Reed, By Jean de La Fontaine
                                                Translation by Eli Siegel 

The oak one day says to the reed:
—You have a good right to blame the nature of things:
A wren for you is a heavy thing to bear.
The slightest wind which is likely
To wrinkle the face of the water
Compels you to bow your head—
While my brow, like Mount Caucasus,
Not satisfied with catching the rays of the sun,
Resists the effort of the tempest.
All for you is north wind, all seems to me soft breeze.
Still, if you had been born in the protection of the foliage
The surrounding of which I cover,
I would defend you from the storm.
But you come to be most often
On the wet edges of the kingdoms of the wind.
Nature seems to me quite unjust to you.
—Your compassion, answered the shrub,
Arises from a kind nature; but leave off this care.
The winds are less fearful to me than to you.
I bend and do not break. You have until now
Against their frightening blows
Stood up without bending your back;
But look out for what can be. —As the reed said these words,
From the edge of the horizon furiously comes to them
The most terrible of the progeny
Which the North has till then contained within it.
The tree holds up well; the reed bends.
The wind doubles its trying;
And does so well that it uproots
That, the head of which was neighbor to the sky,
And the feet of which touched the empire of the dead.


The Oak and the Reed, By Jean de La Fontaine. 1966. Cajolery and force have been two constant ways men have had of getting their point, or making their point successfully. We yield to win and we fight to win. There are strategy and bopping as means to victory. Force and persuasiveness are related to the makeup of the world as matter and something else. The oak in the La Fontaine fable does not know everything about power; and it is possible the reed doesn't either. How resistance and yielding can both be forms of power has not been described yet. This—resistance and yielding as both power—arises from the fact that pride and humility are both strength. Resistance and yielding, pride and humility (or their likes) can work for evil or good. There is a slight implication in the fable that the reed is good and the oak evil—but it doesn't have to be this way. If we look at the word acquiescent, we don't know what to feel. There may be a large-hearted, kind person concerned; or there may be a supple knave, or a resilient sharpy. The word affable also has two faces. The answer to all this lies in the structure of the La Fontaine fable, when it is doing well. The fable, being poetry, has the firmness of the oak and the bendingness of the reed. And now it is about time, while praising this fable, to write another.

From Hail, American Development (Definition Press)
© 1968 by Eli Siegel

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