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Jean de La Fontaine Poems
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The Sick Abbess by Jean de La Fontaine
EXAMPLE often proves of sov'reign use;
At other times it cherishes abuse;
'Tis not my purpose, howsoe'er, to tell
Which of the two I fancy to excel.
Some will conceive the Abbess acted right,
While others think her conduct very light
Be that as 'twill, her actions right or wrong,
I'll freely give a license to my tongue,
Or pen, at all events, and clearly show,
By what some nuns were led to undergo,
That flocks are equally of flesh and blood,
And, if one passes, hundreds stem the flood,
To follow up the course the first has run,
And imitate what t'other has begun.
When Agnes passed, another sister came,
And ev'ry nun desired to do the same;
At length the guardian of the flock appeared,
And likewise passed, though much at first she feared.
The tale is this, we purpose to relate;
And full particulars we now will state.

AN Abbess once a certain illness had,
Chlorosis named, which oft proves very bad,
Destroys the rose that decorates the cheek,
And renders females languid, pale, and weak.
Our lady's face was like a saint's in Lent:
Quite wan, though otherwise it marked content.
The faculty, consulted on her case,
And who the dire disorder's source would trace,
At length pronounced slow fever must succeed,
And death inevitably be decreed,
Unless;--but this unless is very strange
Unless indeed she some way could arrange;
To gratify her wish, which seemed to vex,
And converse be allowed with t'other sex:
Hippocrates, howe'er, more plainly speaks,
No circumlocutory phrase he seeks.

O JESUS! quite abashed the Abbess cried;
What is it?--fy!--a man would you provide?
Yes, they rejoined, 'tis clearly what you want,
And you will die without a brisk gallant;
One truly able will alone suffice;
And, if not such, take two we would advise.
This still was worse, though, if we rightly guess,
'Twas by her wished, durst she the truth confess.
But how the sisterhood would see her take
Such remedies and no objection make?
Shame often causes injury and pain;
And ills concealed bring others in their train.

SAID sister Agnes, Madam, take their word;
A remedy like this would be absurd,
If, like old death, it had a haggard look,
And you designed to get by hook or crook.
A hundred secrets you retain at ease;
Can one so greatly shock and you displease?--
You talk at random, Agnes, she replied;
Now, would you for the remedy decide,
Upon your word, if you were in my place?--
Yes, madam, said the nun, and think it grace;
Still more I'd do, if necessary thought;
Your health, by me, would ev'ry way be sought,
And, if required by you to suffer this,
Not one around would less appear remiss;
Sincere affection for you I have shown,
And my regard I'll ever proudly own.

A THOUSAND thanks the Abbess gave her friend;
The doctors said:--no use for them to send;
Throughout the convent sad distress appeared;
When Agnes, who to sage advice adhered,
And was not thought the weakest head around,
A kinder soul perhaps could not be found,
Said to the sisterhood,--What now retains
Our worthy Abbess, and her will enchains,
Is nothing but the shame of pow'rs divine,
Or else, to what's prescribed she would resign.
Through charity will no one take the lead,
And, by example, get her to proceed?

THE counsel was by ev'ry one approved,
And commendation through the circle moved.

IN this design not one, nor grave, nor old,
Nor young, nor prioress, at all seemed cold;
Notes flew around, and friends of worth and taste,
The black, the fair, the brown, appeared in haste;
The number was not small, our records say,
Not (what might be) appearance of delay,
But all most anxious seemed the road to show,
And what the Abbess feared, at once to know;
None more sincerely 'mong the nuns desired,
That shame should not prevent what was required.
Nor that the Abbess should, within her soul,
Retain what might injuriously control.

NO sooner one among the flock had made
The step, of which the Abbess was afraid,
But other sisters followed in the train:--
Not one behind consented to remain;
Each forward pressed, in dread to be the last;
At length, from prejudice the Abbess passed;
To such examples she at last gave way,
And, to a youth, no longer offered nay.

THE operation o'er, her lily face
Resumed the rose, and ev'ry other grace.
O remedy divine, prescription blessed!
Thy friendly aid to numbers stands confessed;
The friends of thousands, friend of nature too;
The friend of all, except where honour 's due.
This point of honour is another ill,
In which the faculty confess no skill.

WHAT ills in life! what mis'ries dire around,
While remedies so easy may be found!
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