Jackdaw Imitates Peacock, An (Awful) Aesopic Lesson

The Arrogant Jackdaw and the Peacock (Phaedrus, Fab. 1.3)

Aesop has preserved for us this tale
So that no one should pray to take on another’s goods
But instead pursue life by his own native skill.
A jackdaw puffed up with silly self-regard
Acquired the feathers which a peacock shed
And dressed them on himself. Then, despising his own kind
He hid himself in a beautiful flock of peacocks.
But they tore the feathers from the shameless fool
And attacked them with their beaks. The jackdaw so harshly beat,
Returned mourning to his own kind,
Driven off from there, he acquired a sad scar.
Then one of those he previously despised said:

“If you had been content with our place
And willing to accept what nature gave
Neither would you have suffered this disgrace
Nor would you know rejection and this shame.”


Ne gloriari libeat alienis bonis
Suoque potius habitu vitam degere,
Aesopus nobis hoc exemplum prodidit.
Tumens inani graculus superbia,
Pennas pavoni quae deciderant sustulit
Seque exornavit. Deinde contemnens suos
Se inmiscuit pavonum formoso gregi.
Illi inpudenti pennas eripiunt avi
Fugantque rostris. Male mulcatus graculus
Redire maerens coepit ad proprium genus;
A quo repulsus tristem sustinuit notam.
Tum quidam ex illis, quos prius despexerat:
Contentus nostris si fuisses sedibus
Et quod natura dederat voluisses pati,
Nec illam expertus esses contumeliam
Nec hanc repulsam tua sentiret calamitas.

I am not sure I can get on board with the ‘lesson’ from this one.  (Ok, I actually really dislike this one). For one, I don’t think I accept that we necessarily have any kind of suo…habitu given to us by nature (and if we do, what of it? Why can’t a jackdaw try to be a peacock?). Second, at least the Jackdaw got to feel pretty for one day–those jerk peacocks!

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.


Ah, don’t overreach! Robert Browning is good on this too. (Andrea Del Sarto, Called “The Faultless Painter”):

“I, painting from myself and to myself, 90
Know what I do, am unmoved by men’s blame
Or their praise either. Somebody remarks
Morello’s outline there is wrongly traced,
His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,
Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that? 95
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
All is silver-gray
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!

3 thoughts on “Jackdaw Imitates Peacock, An (Awful) Aesopic Lesson

  1. This reminds me of Thomas and Friends, with all of its insistence on knowing your place (and being useful by fulfilling your predetermined function in society).

  2. It seems to me that the point isn’t to not want to be other than you are, but rather that you oughtn’t try to be other people. (Key Word: “another’s goods” / “alienis bonis”.) The external beauty of the peacocks that the jackdaw aspired to wasn’t the jackdaw’s to own. He lacked the imagination to, if he wanted to be other than he was, dream of his own new thing to be. Maybe the scarred version is the newer, cooler version he has found.

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