Jean de la Fontaine 1621 – 1695
In UCD in the old Earlsfort Terrace days in the mid and late sixties students of Commerce and Law were required to take two arts subjects in first year. Some took French and it became clear as the year went on that some chaps were contemptuous of this requirement and manifested their impatience in no uncertain terms.
The fables of La Fontaine were on the first year course. A nice Frenchman called M.Voisin gave these lectures. Each week he distributed printed notes on the fables in question. I vividly remember male Commerce students in the upper rows of the lecture theatre making paper airplanes of these notes and sending them floating downwards to the hapless M.Voisin who bore it all with equanimity. I recall being shocked that people could be so rude. Female students never indulged in this carry-on of course. I thought that people privileged enough to be in the university would have sophisticated manners. Such innocence. At year’s end these guys moved on to their full-time economics and accounting and we were left in peace to continue our littérature française for the remaining years.
One of the fables on the course that first year was Le Savetier et le Financier, the Cobbler and the Banker. The cobbler is a happy carefree man who sings all day and never worries about money. The banker marvels at his insouciance and offers to lend him 100 écus to invest which he says will make him secure. The cobbler takes the money and hides it but never knows another day’s peace. He worries constantly about thieves and other possible disasters which might befall his money. He returns to the banker to demand the restoration of his peace of mind.
Perusing the papers during the furore following the economic downturn it struck me that some individuals at the centre of the banking scandals were the same vintage as myself and a few had been commerce students in UCD at the very time when M.Voisin was enlightening us on La Fontaine. Could it be, I wondered, that the engineers of paper planes had gone on to even more destructive activities in their later careers? C’est bien possible. Qui sait? You should have paid attention boys. It would have been more profitable in the long run. We might all be singing all day just like the poor old cobbler before he ever had the misfortune to listen to the banker.
Here is the fable and translation. Thank you M.Voisin. You were a gent.
Jean de la Fontaine (1621 – 1695) LE SAVETIER ET LE FINANCIER
Un Savetier chantait du matin jusqu’au soir :
C’était merveilles de le voir,
Merveilles de l’ouïr; il faisait des passages ,
Plus content qu’aucun des Sept Sages .
Son voisin au contraire, étant tout cousu d’or,
Chantait peu, dormait moins encore.
C’était un homme de finance.
Si sur le point du jour, parfois il sommeillait,
Le Savetier alors en chantant l’éveillait,
Et le Financier se plaignait
Que les soins de la Providence
N’eussent pas au marché fait vendre le dormir,
Comme le manger et le boire.
En son hôtel il fait venir
Le Chanteur, et lui dit : Or çà, sire Grégoire,
Que gagnez-vous par an ? Par an ? Ma foi, monsieur,
Dit avec un ton de rieur
Le gaillard Savetier, ce n’est point ma manière
De compter de la sorte ; et je n’entasse guère
Un jour sur l’autre : il suffit qu’à la fin
J’attrape le bout de l’année :
Chaque jour amène son pain.
Et bien, que gagnez-vous, dites-moi, par journée ?
Tantôt plus, tantôt moins, le mal est que toujours
(Et sans cela nos gains seraient assez honnêtes),
Le mal est que dans l’an s’entremêlent des jours
Qu’il faut chommer ; on nous ruine en fêtes .
L’une fait tort à l’autre ; et monsieur le Curé
De quelque nouveau saint charge toujours son prône .
Le Financier, riant de sa naïveté,
Lui dit : Je vous veux mettre aujourd’hui sur le trône.
Prenez ces cent écus : gardez-les avec soin,
Pour vous en servir au besoin.
Le Savetier crut voir tout l’argent que la terre
Avait, depuis plus de cent ans
Produit pour l’usage des gens.
Il retourne chez lui ; dans sa cave il enserre
L’argent et sa joie à la fois.
Plus de chant ; il perdit la voix
Du moment qu’il gagna ce qui cause nos peines.
Le sommeil quitta son logis,
Il eut pour hôte les soucis,
Les soupçons, les alarmes vaines.
Tout le jour il avait l’oeil au guet; et la nuit,
Si quelque chat faisait du bruit,
Le chat prenait l’argent : à la fin le pauvre homme
S’en courut chez celui qu’il ne réveillait plus.
Rendez-moi, lui dit-il, mes chansons et mon somme,
Et reprenez vos cent écus.
There was once a cobbler who was so light hearted that he sang from morning to night. It was wonderful to watch him at his work, and more wonderful still to hear his runs and trills. He was in fact happier than the Seven Sages.
This merry soul had a neighbour who was exactly the reverse. He sang little and slept less; for he was a financier, and made of money, as they say. Whenever it happened that after a sleepless night he would doze off in the early morning, the cobbler, who was always up betimes, would wake him up again with his joyful songs. “Ha!” thought the man of wealth, “what a misfortune it is that one cannot buy sleep in the open market as one buys food and drink!” Then an ideacame to him. He invited the cobbler to his house, where he asked him some questions.
“Tell me, Master Gregory, what do you suppose your earnings amount to in a year?”
“In a year,” laughed the cobbler, “that’s more than I know. I never keep accounts that way, nor even keep one day from another. So long as I can make both ends meet, that’s good enough for me!”
“Really!” replied the financier. “But what can you earn in one day?”
“Oh, sometimes more and sometimes less. The mischief of it is that there are so many fête days and high-days and fast-days crowded into the year, on which, as the priest tells us, it is wicked to work at all; and worse still he keeps on finding some new saint or other to give weight to his sermons. If it were not for that, cobbling would be a fine paying game.”
At this the wealthy man laughed. “Look here, my friend, to-day I’ll lift you to the seats of the mighty! Here is a hundred pounds. Guard them and use them with care.”
When the cobbler held the bag of money in his hand he imagined that it must be as much as would be coined in a hundred years.
Returning home he buried the cash in his cellar. Alas! he buried his joy with it, for there were no more songs. From the moment he came into possession of this wealth, the love of which is the root of all evil, his voice left him, and not only his voice, but his sleep also. And in place of these came anxiety, suspicion, and alarms; guests which abode with him constantly. All day he kept his eye on the cellar door. Did a cat make a noise in the night, then for a certainty that cat was after his money.
At last, in despair, the wretched cobbler ran to the financier whom he now no longer kept awake. “Oh, give me back my joy in life, my songs, my sleep; and take your hundred pounds again.”