The Elephant as Disgruntled Literary Critic

April 16, 1997: A Posting Sent to C18-l

In a free imitation of La Fontaine's L'Elephant et le singe de Jupiter (Bk 12, No 21), "Mercury and the Elephant. A Prefatory Fable" (see Annotated Chronology No. 176), Anne Finch sets before us an indignant elephant whom Mercury stumbles over in his haste to get somewhere or other -- it matters not where. It is apparent this elephant has not only been reading: he has been disputing. Although he "gain'd the Prise/From a wild Boar of monstrous Size," he has since the battle been deprived of the respect due him. "Fame" has misrepresented what happened, and said

I foul Play had us'd,
And with my Weight th'Opposer bruis'd;
Had laid my Trunk about his Brawn,
Before his Tushes cou'd be drawn;
Had stunn'd him with a hideous Roar,
And twenty -thousand Scandals more...

But he will "defy the Talk of Men" -- if Mercury can tell him things are seen right up in Heaven: "Amongs you Gods, pray, What is thought?" This will console him. Alas, Mercury replies that such a request is besides the point. Winning prizes and respect from others should not and cannot be nwhy people write, and, as the narrator tells us at the close, is not why this particular woman poet has "writ:"

'Tis for our Selves, not them, Write
Betray'd by Solitude to try
Amusements, which the Prosp'rous fly,

(Most?) people certainly don't read with the author in mind:

'Tis for themselves, not us, they Read

The intellectual elephant is part of the fable tradition, which was so popular in the later 17th and early 18th century.

Ellen Moody

An Elephant Fretting to No Purpose

May 5, 1997

In response to Bill Everdell I'd like to say that my comment on the elephant in fable lore came from my study of Anne Finch's fables against their sources. These are mostly free translations, recombinations and/or imitations, the overwhelming number coming directly from La Fontaine, a few from Roger L'Estrange, one possibly from a passage in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi where one character tells a menacing fable to another. Sometimes Finch combines memories of various English authors' fables or poetry with these (for example Spenser). She has a couple of highly original ones too (or at least I couldn't find a single source for them). Of course Anne Finch was not the only fable-writer in the first decade of the 18th century: the form was very very popular then, and all sorts of original and piquant versions of fables were printed, and you can follow some of them well beyond Gay's collection.

One thing that struck me was how a certain animal would accrue to it various connotations or meanings which the reader was expected to know so that he or she could appreciate the individual author's new--or, if not new. playful or moral or political take on this element of the tradition. The identification of the elephant with wisdom is just one: birds and fowlers lent themselves to a sexual paradigm; the spider becomes Arachne who then can be shaped into a tale which brings forth some comment on women; and so on. Stories also are associated again and again with a certain meaning, so if you retell the fable of Jupiter and the Farmer (as Finch does) you can rely on someone getting any departures or twists you make. If you get the background of each fable, they are more interesting than they appear, and you can get a perspective on the world that is the particular writer's. Aphra Behn's which are so sardonic and short have more to them than meets the eye if you know the particular group of mythic interpretations to which the fable belongs.

The elephant tradition is important for Finch because she chose to open her 1713 Miscellany with it. As she does in many of her fables, she turns LaFontaine's original into a personal kind of statement whose irony is directed at herself as well as the world she thought about as she confronted it as a writer printing her work for the first time. Finch's Mercury and the Elephant is a free imitation of La Fontaine's L'Elephant et le singe de Jupiter Bk 12, No 21; La Fontaine's fable is in the Garnier edition of George Couton, pp 349-50, which book (by Couton) continues the tradition of including paragraphs of explication for each of LaFontaine's pieces. In brief, Pliny the Elder is the primary source for a tradition that finds a parallel between men and the elephant's supposed long memory, high intelligence, concern over fame, and tendency to get irritated over little things. In Pliny the elephant combats a dragon and rhinoceros whom Pliny says is the elephant's "natural enemy." In LaFontaine Jupiter's ambassador is a monkey who carries a caduceus and just happens upon a battle between the elephant and the rhinoceros which the elephant believes to be of earth-shaking importance; the elephant grows indignant when the monkey appears not even to know a battle is to happen, is indifferent to it, and has only come to eat some grass with a few ants. The point is to mock the pride which makes someone thinks what he--or she--is doing is of earth-shaking importance.

Finch makes several changes. She begins her story after the battle has taken place. In her fable the elephant is upset because he's been told that after having beat the rhinoceros fair and square, it's got about he used "foul play:"

And with my Weight th'Opposer bruis'd;
Had laid my Trunk about his Brawn,
Before his Tushes cou'd be drawn;
Had stunn'd him with a hideous Roar,
And twenty-thousand Scandals more...
(Reynolds, p 3)

She identifies Jupiter's ambassador as Mercury, who is is simply hurrying by (on "errands" "more Fleet than Good"). Again Mercury couldn't care less about this battle. However, instead of leaving the fable as a sardonic comment on the insignificance of what any individual thinks means so much, Finch identifies her fear of what "the World will say" of her and her book with the elephant's worry about "what the Gods" are thinking She then adds 24 lines in which she tells herself the poet "betrays" her "Vanity" in worrying about her reputation and writing a long preface to offset what everyone will say, for no-one will much care about her or her book ("'Tis for themselves, not us, they Read"). She wrote for herself: "Tis for our Selves, not them, we Write." She has "repaired" to the "Press" repairs to "fix" her "Scatter'd Papers." Her purpose is to preserve her work permanently, not gain fame. Perhaps then the only one who should be concerned is the printer who while preserving her "Labours" will himself "be starv'd" (Reynolds p 4).

Finch has exposed an inner battle to the public through the medium of the fable.

There were many books of fables if you count in not only the 17th and 18th century texts, but the classical, medieval, non-Western ones as well as many casual though often central enough uses of the fable tradition. Often the author provides explication because the explication is the point, not the literal fable. Finch does not explicate her fables at length; she is too hidden. She obscures her sources too. But other books are treasure-troves of explication: L'Estrange's is such a book. In general I found the books of fables themselves and the accompanying explications much more enlightening than the modern critics I read. Most of these did not even mention Finch, as for example H. J. Blackham, The Fable as Literature -- though there is recently a book out, Jayne Elizabeth Lewis The English Fable: Aesop and Literary Culture, 1651-1740 which includes a chapter on Finch's fables. Lewish though goes over the political contexts, and self-referential and pictorial nature of fables, not the particular moralizings or point of view in a particula fable.

It is fascinating to turn to these older books to read these sometimes startling turns on animals in fables, of which Sir Francis Barlowe's 1687 and L'Estrange's compilation are probably the largest. Ogilby was printed by the Augustant Reprint Society. There are numbers of French books too, but these were often anonymous collections and one just has to go the library and start hunting in the rare books collections.

One interesting thing I found with respect to Finch--and other women who translated or imitated or invented fables was to compare their poems. There was often a difference in interpretation; the women spoke as women. The most recent kind of thing in this vein by a woman I read was Marianne Moore's "translations" from La Fontaine. They make an interesting comparison with Finch's because Finch is much freer, more personal, more playful; she humanizes the fables so much more. She is political (refers to her life at court as well as with her husband) and one catches her a genuine original tone or voice in the comparison.

Ellen Moody

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