The Viper and The File

It is useless attacking the insensible. A viper (or snake), in vain, attempts to bite a steel file.

It is useless attacking the insensible.

[The Townsend version of this fable substitutes a lion for a viper which may be a mistranslation or error.]

Eliot-JacobsEliot/Jacobs Version

A Serpent in the course of its wanderings came into an armourer’s shop. As he glided over the floor he felt his skin pricked by a file lying there. In a rage he turned round upon it and tried to dart his fangs into it; but he could do no harm to heavy iron and had soon to give over his wrath.

Samuel CroxallSamuel Croxall

Croxall - Viper and the FileA VIPER entering a smith’s shop, looked up and down for something to eat; and, seeing a File, fell to gnawing it as greedily as could be. The File told him, very gruffly, That he had best be quiet and let him alone; for he would get very little by nibbling at one, who, upon occasion, could bite iron and steel.


Whittingham - Viper and File

C. Whittingham (1814)

By this fable we are cautioned to consider what any person is, before we make an attack upon him, after any manner whatsoever: particularly how we let our tongues slip in censuring the actions of those who are, in the opinion of the world, not only of an unquestioned reputation, so that nobody will believe what we insinuate against them; but of such an influence, upon account of their own veracity, that the least word from them would ruin our credit to all intents and purposes. If wit be the case, and we have a satirical vein, which, at certain periods must have a flow, let us be cautious at whom we level it; for, if the person’s understanding be of better proof than our own, all our ingenious sallies, like liquor squirted against the wind, will recoil back upon our own faces, and make us the ridicule of every spectator. This fable, besides, is not an improper emblem of envy; which, rather than not bite at all, will fall foul where it can hurt nothing but itself.


Townsend VersionTownsend version

A lion [Viper?], entering the workshop of a smith, sought from the tools the means of satisfying his hunger. He more particularly addressed himself to a File, and asked of him the favor of a meal. The File replied, “You must indeed be a simple-minded fellow if you expect to get anything from me, who am accustomed to take from everyone, and never to give anything in return.”

JBR CollectionJBR Collection

A Viper enter a smith’s shop, and looked up and down for something to eat. He settled at last upon a File, and began to gnaw it greedily. “Bite away,” said the File gruffly, “you’ll get little form me. It is my business to take from all and give to none.”

L'Estrange VersionL’Estrange version

There was a snake got into a smith’s shop, and fell to licking of a file. She saw the file bloudy, and still the bloudyer it was, the more eagerly she lick’d it; upon a foolish fancy, that it was the file that bled, and that she her self had the better on’t. In the conclusion, when she could lick no longer, she fell to biting; but finding at last that she could do no more good upon’t with her teeth, then with her tongue, she fairly led it.


‘Tis a madness to stand biting and snapping at any thing to no manner of purpose, more then the gratifying of an impotent rage, in the fancy of hurting another, when in truth, we only wound our selves.

Crane Poetry VisualCrane Poetry Visual


Viper and File

A Snake, in a fix, tried a File
For a dinner. “‘Tis not worth your while,”
Said the steel, “don’t mistake;
I’m accustomed to take;
To give’s not the way of a File.”

We may meet our match.

1001Lima et Serpens

Serpens quidam in vicini sui tabernam ingressus esse dicitur ut cibum peteret, neque quicquam quod roderet invenisse, nisi limam. “Te miserum,” inquit haec, “atque inscium! Quidnam tibi vis? Duriorem quam te rem adgrederis. Prius omnes tibi dentes, stultissime, ruperis quam mihi vel minimum abrades. Sola vetustas me exedet.”

Perry #093