Fables and Parables (Bajki i przypowieści, 1779), by Ignacy Krasicki (1735–1801), is a work in a long international tradition of fable-writing that reaches back to antiquity. They have been described as being, "[l]ike LaFontaine's [fables],... amongst the best ever written, while in colour they are distinctly original, because Polish." They are, according to Czesław Miłosz, "the most durable among Krasicki's poems."
Emulating the fables of the ancient Greek Aesop, the Macedonian-Roman Phaedrus, the Polish Biernat of Lublin, and the Frenchman Jean de La Fontaine, and anticipating Russia's Ivan Krylov, the Pole Krasicki populates his fables with anthropomorphized animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature, in epigrammatic expressions of a skeptical, ironic view of the world.
That view is informed by Krasicki's observations of human nature and of national and international politics in his day—including the predicament of the expiring Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Just seven years earlier (1772), the Commonwealth had experienced the first of three partitions that would, by 1795, totally expunge the Commonwealth from the political map of Europe.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would fall victim to the aggression of three powerful neighbors much as, in Krasicki's fable of "The Lamb and the Wolves," the lamb falls prey to the two wolves. The First Partition had rendered Krasicki—an intimate of Poland's last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski—involuntarily a subject of that Partition's instigator, Prussia's King Frederick II ("the Great"). Krasicki would, unlike Frederick, survive to witness the final dismemberment of the Commonwealth.
Krasicki's parables (e.g., "Abuzei and Tair," "The Blind Man and the Lame," "Son and Father," "The Farmer," "Child and Father," "The Master and His Dog," "The King and the Scribes," and "The Drunkard") do not, by definition, employ the anthropomorphization that characterizes the fables. Instead, his parables point elegant moral lessons drawn from more quotidian human life.
Krasicki's, writes Czesław Miłosz, "is a world where the strong win and the weak lose in a sort of immutable order... Reason is exalted as the human equivalent of animal strength: the [clever] survive, the stupid perish."
Poetry for [Krasicki] was a more concise and elegant prose, and originality of subject had no importance. Thus [he] borrowed the subjects of his fables from the enormous body of fabular literature starting with Aesop and finishing with his own French contemporaries. He also borrowed from [the earlier French fabulist] LaFontaine, especially in... his New Fables... published [posthumously in 1802], but whatever he took was always completely transformed. His extreme conciseness is best seen if one counts the number of words in the original author's version and compares it to that of Krasicki's on the same subject. The pleasure... for the poet [as well as] for the reader... is probably due to the [compression] of a whole story, sometimes even a novella, into a few lines, and among Krasicki's best... fables [are those] which [comprise] only one quatrain where the author's pen moves in one rush toward the final pointe.
The Fables and Parables are written as 13-syllable lines, in couplets that rhyme aa bb... They range in length from 2 to 18 lines. The introductory invocation "To the Children," however, while employing the same rhyme scheme, uses lines of 11 syllables.
Curiously, the fables include two with the identical title, "The Stream and the River"; two with the identical title, "The Lion and the Beasts"; and two with the identical title, "The Wolf and the Sheep."
Critics generally prefer Krasicki's more concise Fables and Parables (1779), sampled here, over his later New Fables, published posthumously in 1802. This is consistent with Krasicki's own dictum in On Versification and Versifiers that "A fable should be brief, clear and, so far as possible, preserve the truth."
In the same treatise, Krasicki explains that a fable "is a story commonly ascribed to animals, that people who read it might take instruction from [the animals'] example or speech...; it originated in eastern lands where supreme governance reposed in the hands of autocrats. Thus, when it was feared to proclaim the truth openly, simulacra were employed in fables so that—if only in this way—the truth might be agreeable alike to the ruled and to the rulers."
Below are 16 samples from Krasicki's Fables and Parables (1779), in English translation by Christopher Kasparek. An additional 46 items may be found at Wikisource; the total of 62 items presented there constitute 52% of the 119 in Krasicki's original Fables and Parables.
"Congratulate me, father," said Tair, "I prosper.
Tomorrow I am to become the Sultan's brother-
In-law and hunt with him." Quoth father: "All does alter,
Your lord's good graces, women's favor, autumn weather."
He had guessed aright, the son's plans did not turn out well:
The Sultan withheld his sister, all day the rain fell.
A blind man was carrying a lame man on his back,
And everything was going well, everything's on track,
When the blind man decides to take it into his head
That he needn't listen to all that the lame man said.
"This stick I have will guide the two of us safe," said he,
And though warned by the lame man, he plowed into a tree.
On they proceeded; the lame man now warned of a brook;
The two survived, but their possessions a soaking took.
At last the blind man ignored the warning of a drop,
And that was to turn out their final and fatal stop.
Why, 'twas both the heedless blind man and the trusting lame.
Eagle, not wishing to incommode himself with chase,
Decided to send hawk after sparrows in his place.
Hawk brought him the sparrows, eagle ate them with pleasure;
At last, not quite sated with the dainties to measure,
Feeling his appetite growing keener and keener —
Eagle ate fowl for breakfast, the fowler for dinner.
Every age has its bitter, every age has its grief:
Son toiled o'er his book, father was vexed beyond belief.
The one had no rest; the other no freedom, forsooth:
Father lamented his age, son lamented his youth.
"Why do you weep?" inquired the young siskin of the old,
"You're more comfortable in this cage than out in the cold."
"You were born caged," said the elder, "this was your morrow;
"I was free, now I'm caged—hence the cause of my sorrow."
Espying a worm in the water, the little fish
Did greatly regret the worm could not become his dish.
Up came a pike and made his preparations to dine;
He swallowed both worm and hook, which he failed to divine.
As the angler pulled ashore his magnificent prize,
Quoth the little fish: "Sometimes good to be undersize."
A farmer, bent on doubling the profits from his land,
Proceeded to set his soil a two-harvest demand.
Too intent thus on profit, harm himself he must needs:
Instead of corn, he now reaps corn cockle and weeds.
"Why do I freeze out of doors while you sleep on a rug?"
Inquired the bobtail mongrel of the fat, sleek pug.
"I have run of the house, and you the run of a chain,"
The pug replied, "because you serve, while I entertain."
The dog barked all the night, keeping the burglar away;
It got a beating for waking the master, next day.
That night it slept soundly and did the burglar no harm;
He burgled; the dog got caned for not raising alarm.
'Tis bad at master's court to lie, bad the truth to tell.
Lion, intent on showing all that he was humble,
Called for open reproaches. Said the fox: "Your great vice
Is that you're too kind, too gracious, excessively nice."
The sheep, seeing lion pleased by fox's rebuke, said:
"You are a cruel, voracious tyrant." — and she was dead.
Aggression ever finds cause if sufficiently pressed.
Two wolves on the prowl had trapped a lamb in the forest
And were about to pounce. Quoth the lamb: "What right have you?"
"You're toothsome, weak, in the wood." — The wolves dined sans ado.
Man was traveling in wolfskin when wolf stopped his way.
"Know from my garb," said the man, "what I am, what I may."
The wolf first laughed out loud, then grimly said to the man:
"I know that you are weak, if you need another's skin."
The sheep was praising the wolf for all his compassion;
Hearing it, fox asked her: "How is that? In what fashion?"
"Very much so!" says the sheep, "I owe him what I am.
He's mild! He could've eaten me, but just ate my lamb."
Rye sprouted up on land that, until then, fallow lay.
But to what avail when, all about, bramble held sway.
The soil was good, though it had never been touched by plow;
It would have brought forth grain, did the bramble this allow.
Pleasant the beginnings, but lamentable the end.
In spring, the oxen to their plowing would not attend;
They would not carry the grain to the barn in the fall;
Came winter, bread ran out, the farmer ate them withal.
Having spent at the bottle many a night and day,
The ailing drunkard threw his mugs and glasses away;
He declared wine a tyrant, reviled beer, cursed out mead.
Then, his health restored... he'd no longer abstinence heed.