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57. Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755-1794), ‘The Two Persians’, 179290

Fable-writing, as inspired by La Fontaine, remained common throughout the eighteenth century, and was often used as a tool for the critique of social or religious mores. Florian was a past master of the genre. The translation we reproduce here is by ‘Sir Philip Perring, Bart’ in 1896 (The Fables of Florian Done into English Verse). We thought readers might enjoy seeing how Sir Philip managed the rhyme scheme: Hilaire Belloc would have done it better: if only he had!

That scanty reason, vaunted so by man,

Is nothing more than as a flambeau wan,

Which casts around us, in our onward way,

A fitful, feeble, melancholy ray:

All else is darkness. Mortals, who would dare

To pierce the gloom, travel they know not where;

But not to profit by the gift so high,

To quench one’s spirit, and to blind one’s eye,

That were again egregious foolery.

In Persia were in days gone by

Two brothers, who conformably

To ancient law adored the sun.

A waverer in his faith was one;

Nothing so valued in his eyes

As his own airy phantasies:

He claimed in thought sublime to soar,

To apprehend, and to explore,

The essence of the Deity;

For this, from morn till eve, did he

Gaze at, with ever steadfast eye,

The start of his idolatry.

So mightily did he desire

To explain the secret of its fire!

He lost, poor fellow! Both his eyes,

And from that hour he did deny

The sun existed in the sky.

A credulous bigot was the other;

Frighted at what befell his brother,

He saw in him – to common lot! –

The abuse of misdirected thought,

And every effort used at once

To make himself a downright dunce!

The longest lane – it has an end;

Our worthy had not far to wend:

Poor fellow! All in solitude,

He soon was in contented mood;

But, lest he should offend the star,

Which sheds its light on us from far,

And towards it, even though by chance,

With eye of indiscretion glance,

He made a cave, and doomed his eyes

Never to see the sunny skies.

Rejoice, ye miserable men, in God’s good gifts,

To comprehend whose nature Reason vainly drifts,

Who speaks unto our hearts, who everywhere is shown:

Without forecasting, what by man cannot be known,

Without rejecting gifts His hands with wisdom give,

Use we our powers more virtuous lives to live:

Virtue’s the worthiest homage unto the most High:

The just alone is wise in God Almighty’s eye.

Read the free original text online (facsimile), 1792 edition:

90 Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, ‘Les Deux Persans’, Fables, Paris: 1792, pp. 97-98.