The Grasse-hopper: Ode

A fable?

"The Ant and the Grasshopper", from Aesop's FablesThis is a curious poem. The first half is a fable – a moral story using animals and insects to make the point. The traditional fable is about the grasshopper and the ant, who has stored up for the winter, rather than wasting his time in the summer messing about like the grasshopper. Instead, here we have a picture of these two friends enjoying themselves during the winter in front of an open fire, reading Greek to each other and generally behaving like cultured and well-educated gentlemen. They will ‘create/ A Genuine Summer in each other's breast'.

The fable does not quite work, then, since we have no evidence that the two friends have been storing aside the necessities of life during the summer. Presumably, as gentlemen, their wealth is inherited, probably their country estates that other people have been working on. In another sense, however, they have been storing up – not in a material sense, but in a cultural one. The word ‘cultivate' is ambiguous, as it can refer to growing food, but also ‘growing' the mind to become ‘cultured'.

A classical education

This is what the two friends have done. They have become cultured through a good classical education, and now they are reaping the benefits of it. The classical education is the sub-text. The ‘Ode' is based  on the odes of the Latin poet, Horace, whose idea of the good life was a quiet country retirement with a few like-minded friends, like these two. References to Roman civilisation abound (Latin being the language the ancient Romans spoke): ‘sacred hearths ... Vestall Flames' (the Romans believed in gods of the hearth); ‘Aetna' (a volcano, here a hyperbole for their roaring fire); ‘Hesper',the goddess of the evening, and so on.

The final stanza is the fitting gentlemanly conclusion for this: ‘he/That wants himselfe, is poore indeed'. To ‘want' in this sense means ‘to lack'. If we cannot accept ourselves and enjoy our own company, then we are truly poor. The same sort of paradox is found in the To Althea, from Prison poem also analysed here: the inner state is what matters. This is where true riches lie.

Investigating The Grasse-hopper
  • Read through The Grasse-hopper
    • If you like C.S.Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, you might see some similarities in their society called The Inklings.
  • Can you pick out any other classical allusions?
  • Are the two friends not ‘messing around' as much as the unfortunate grasshopper?
  • Compare this poem about friendship with Katherine Phillips' To my Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship
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