La Cigale et la fourmi

by Jean de La Fontaine


La cigale ayant chanté
Tout l'été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue :
Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau.
Elle alla crier famine
Chez la fourmi sa voisine,
La priant de lui prêter
Quelque grain pour subsister
Jusqu’à la saison nouvelle.
« Je vous paierai, lui dit-elle,
Avant l’août, foi d’animal,
Intérêt et principal. »
La fourmi n’est pas prêteuse :
C’est là son moindre défaut.
« Que faisiez-vous au temps chaud ?
Dit-elle à cette emprunteuse.
— Nuit et jour à tout venant
Je chantais, ne vous déplaise.
— Vous chantiez ? J’en suis fort aise :
Eh bien ! Dansez maintenant. »

The Cricket and the Ant

translation by Don Webb


The cricket had sung her song
all summer long
but found her victuals too few
when the north wind blew.
Nowhere could she espy
a single morsel of worm or fly.

Her neighbor, the ant, might,
she thought, help her in her plight,
and she begged her for a little grain
till summer would come back again.

“By next August I’ll repay both
Interest and principal; animal’s oath.”

Now, the ant may have a fault or two
But lending is not something she will do.
She asked what the cricket did in summer.

“By night and day, to any comer
I sang whenever I had the chance.”

“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

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