In 1793 John Stockton published his edition of John Gay’s “Fables” (a second edition, retaining the 1793 title-page, was produced c1811). The book was “embellished with Seventy Plates”. These were engraved by various artists after designs by William Kent and John Wootton from the first edition of Gay’s “Fables” from 1727, and after designs by Gravelot from a later edition with new fables (1738). Twelve of the plates in Stockton’s edition were engraved by Blake. Like the other engravers employed in the book, he used considerable artistic license in translating the earlier designs onto new copperplates. This impression is in the published volume of the “Fables”, the 1793 edition; the engraving is in the Prints & Drawings Department of the British Museum, and is an illustration to “Fable XXIV. The Butterfly and the Snail” in Gay’s “Fables”, Vol. 1 (London, 1793); a formal garden, with a gardener and a neo-classical building; in the right foreground a snail and a butterfly .
The full text of this fable is [2, p. 36]:
All upstarts, insolent in place,
Remind us of their vulgar race.
A butterfly, but born one morning,
Sat on a rose, the rosebud scorning.
His wings of azure, jet, and gold,
Were truly glorious to behold;
He spread his wings, he sipped the dew,
When an old neighbour hove in view—
The snail, who left a slimy trace
Upon the lawn, his native place.
“Adam,” he to the gard’ner cried,
“Behold this fellow by my side;
What is the use with daily toil
To war with weeds, to clear the soil,
And with keen intermittent labour
To graft and prune for fruit with flavour
The peach and plum, if such as he,
Voracious vermin, may make free?
Give them the roller or the rake,
And crush as you would crush a snake.”
The snail replied: “Your arrogance
Awakes my patience from its trance;
Recalls to mind your humble birth,
Born from the lowliest thing on earth.
Nine times has Phœbus, with the hours,
Awakened to new life, new flowers,
Since you were a vile crawling thing!
Though now endowed with painted wing,
You then were vilest of the vile—
I was a snail, but housed the while;
Was born a snail, and snail shall die;
And thou, though now a butterfly,
Will leave behind a baneful breed
Of caterpillar sons—thy seed.”
The snail is a dextral specimen, with two larger tentacles and one of the smaller to be seen. The colour pattern does not match a well-known species, but this may be due to the “considerable artistic license” of the printmaker.