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Jean de La Fontaine (July 8, 1621 – April 13, 1695) was the most famous French fabulist and probably the most widely read French poet of the 17th century. According to Flaubert, he was the only French poet to understand and master the texture of the French language before Hugo. La Fontaine's Fables are choice in every sense: utterly correct, balanced, exquisite in rhyme, natural and easy, droll, witty, knowing, sage, utterly French. They were an immediate success. Many generations of French students have learnt them by heart at school, and can quote the most famous lines which have become part of the common language. A set of postage stamps celebrating La Fontaine and the Fables was issued by France in 1995.
La Fontaine was born at Château-Thierry in Champagne. His father was Charles de La Fontaine, maitre des eaux et forts - a kind of deputy-ranger - of the duchy of Chateau-Thierry; his mother was Francoise Pidoux. On both sides his family was of the highest provincial middle class, but was not noble; his father was also fairly wealthy.
Jean, the eldest child, was educated at the college (grammar school) of Reims, and at the end of his school days he entered the Oratory in May 1641, and the seminary of Saint-Magloire in October of the same year; but a very short sojourn proved to him that he had mistaken his vocation. He then apparently studied law, and is said to have been admitted as avocat, though there does not seem to be actual proof of this.
He was, however, settled in life, or at least might have been so, somewhat early. In 1647 his father resigned his rangership in his favor, and arranged a marriage for him with Marie Héricart, a girl of sixteen, who brought him twenty thousand livres, and expectations. She seems to have been both beautiful and intelligent, but the two did not get on well together. There appears to be absolutely no ground for the vague scandal as to her conduct, which was, for the most part long afterwards, raised by gossips or personal enemies of La Fontaine. All that is positively said against her is that she was a negligent housewife and an inveterate novel reader; La Fontaine himself was constantly away from home, was certainly not strict in point of conjugal fidelity, and was so bad a man of business that his affairs became involved in hopeless difficulty, and a separation de biens had to take place in 1658. This was a perfectly amicable transaction for the benefit of the family; by degrees, however, the pair, still without any actual quarrel, ceased to live together, and for the greater part of the last forty years of La Fontaine's life he lived in Paris while his wife dwelt at Chateau Thierry, which, however, he frequently visited. One son was born to them in 1653, and was educated and taken care of wholly by his mother.
Literary career in Paris
Even in the earlier years of his marriage La Fontaine seems to have been much at Paris, but it was not till about 1656 that he became a regular visitor to the capital. The duties of his office, which were only occasional, were compatible with this non-residence. It was not till he was past thirty that his literary career began. The reading of Malherbe, it is said, first awoke poetical fancies in him, but for some time he attempted nothing but trifles in the fashion of the time - epigrams, ballades, rondeaux, etc.
His first serious work was a translation or adaptation of the Eunuchus of Terence (1654). At this time the Maecenas of French letters was the Superintendent Fouquet, to whom La Fontaine was introduced by Jacques Jannart, a connection of his wife's. Few people who paid their court to Fouquet went away empty-handed, and La Fontaine soon received a pension of 1000 livres (1659), on the easy terms of a copy of verses for each quarters receipt. He began too a medley of prose and poetry, entitled Le Songe de Vaux, on Fouquet's famous country house.
It was about this time that his wife's property had to be separately secured to her, and he seems by degrees to have had to sell everything of his own; but, as he never lacked powerful and generous patrons, this was of small importance to him. In the same year he wrote a ballad, Les Rieurs du Beau-Richard, and this was followed by many small pieces of occasional poetry addressed to various personages from the king downwards.
Fouquet soon incurred the royal displeasure, but La Fontaine, like most of his literary proteges, was not unfaithful to him, the well-known elegy Pleurez, Nymphes de Vaux, being by no means the only proof of his devotion. Indeed it is thought not improbable that a journey to Limoges in 1663 in company with Jannart, and of which we have an account written to his wife, was not wholly spontaneous, as it certainly was not on Jannart's part.
Just at this time his affairs did not look promising. His father and himself had assumed the title of esquire, to which they were not strictly entitled, and, some old edicts on the subject having been put in force, an informer procured a sentence against the poet fining him 2000 livres. He found, however, a new protector in the duke and still more in the duchess of Bouillon, his feudal superiors at Chateau Thierry, and nothing more is heard of the fine.
Some of La Fontaine's liveliest verses are addressed to the duchess, Marie Anne Mancini, the youngest of Mazarin's nieces, and it is even probable that the taste of the duke and duchess for Ariosto had something to do with the writing of his first work of real importance, the first book of the Contes, which appeared in 1664. He was then forty-three years old, and his previous printed productions had been comparatively trivial, though much of his work was handed about in manuscript long before it was regularly published.
The years of fame
It was about this time that the quartette of the Rue du Vieux Colombier, so famous in French literary history, was formed. It consisted of La Fontaine, Racine, Boileau and Moliere, the last of whom was almost of the same age as La Fontaine, the other two considerably younger. Chapelain was also a kind of outsider in the coterie. There are many anecdotes, some pretty obviously apocryphal, about these meetings. The most characteristic is perhaps that which asserts that a copy of Chapelain's unlucky Pucelle always lay on the table, a certain number of lines of which was the appointed punishment for offences against the company. The coterie furnished under feigned names the personages of La Fontaine's version of the Cupid and Psyche story, which, however, with Adonis, was not printed till 1669.
Meanwhile the poet continued to find friends. In 1664 he was regularly commissioned and sworn in as gentleman to the duchess dowager of Orleans, and was installed in the Luxembourg. He still retained his rangership, and in 1666 we have something like a reprimand from Colbert suggesting that he should look into some malpractices at Chateau Thierry. In the same year appeared the second book of the Contes, and in 1668 the first six books of the Fables, with more of both kinds in 1671. In this latter year a curious instance of the docility with which the poet lent himself to any influence was afforded by his officiating, at the instance of the Port-Royalists, as editor of a volume of sacred poetry dedicated to the prince de Conti.
A year afterwards his situation, which had for some time been decidedly flourishing, showed signs of changing very much for the worse. The duchess of Orleans died, and he apparently had to give up his rangership, probably selling it to pay debts. But there was always a providence for La Fontaine. Madame de la Sablière, a woman of great beauty, of considerable intellectual power and of high character, invited him to make his home in her house, where he lived for some twenty years. He seems to have had no trouble whatever about his affairs thenceforward; and could devote himself to his two different lines of poetry, as well as to that of theatrical composition.
Admission to the Academy and attendant struggles
In 1682 he was, at more than sixty years of age, recognized as one of the first men of letters of France. Madame de Sévigné, one of the soundest literary critics of the time, and by no means given to praise mere novelties, had spoken of his second collection of Fables published in the winter of 1678 as divine; and it is pretty certain that this was the general opinion. It was not unreasonable, therefore, that he should present himself to the Académie française, and, though the subjects of his Contes were scarcely calculated to propitiate that decorous assembly, while his attachment to Fouquet and to more than one representative of the old Frondeur party made him suspect to Colbert and the king, most of the members were his personal friends.
Portrait of Jean de La Fontaine
He was first proposed in 1682, but was rejected for Marquis de Dangeau. The next year Colbert died and La Fontaine was again nominated. Boileau was also a candidate, but the first ballot gave the fabulist sixteen votes against seven only for the critic. The king, whose assent was necessary, not merely for election but for a second ballot in case of the failure of an absolute majority, was ill-pleased, and the election was left pending. Another vacancy occurred, however, some months later, and to this Boileau was elected. The king hastened to approve the choice effusively, adding, Vous pouvez incessamment recevoir La Fontaine, il a promis d'etre sage.
His admission was indirectly the cause of the only serious literary quarrel of his life. A dispute took place between the Academy and one of its members, Antoine Furetire, on the subject of the latter's French dictionary, which was decided to be a breach of the Academy's corporate privileges. Furetire, a man of no small ability, bitterly assailed those whom he considered to be his enemies, and among them La Fontaine, whose unlucky Contes made him peculiarly vulnerable, his second collection of these tales having been the subject of a police condemnation. The death of the author of the Roman Bourgeois, however, put an end to this quarrel.
Shortly afterwards La Fontaine had a share in a still more famous affair, the celebrated Ancient-and-Modern squabble in which Boileau and Charles Perrault were the chiefs, and in which La Fontaine (though he had been specially singled out by Perrault for favorable comparison with Aesop and Phaedrus) took the Ancient side. About the same time (1685-1687) he made the acquaintance of the last of his many hosts and protectors, Monsieur and Madame d'Hervart, and fell in love with a certain Madame Ulrich, a lady of some position but of doubtful character. This acquaintance was accompanied by a great familiarity with Vendome, Chaulieu and the rest of the libertine coterie of the Temple; but, though Madame de la Sablière had long given herself up almost entirely to good works and religious exercises, La Fontaine continued an inmate of her house until her death in 1693.
What followed is told in one of the best known of the many stories bearing on his childlike nature. Hervart on hearing of the death, had set out at once to find La Fontaine. He met him in the street in great srrow, and begged him to make his home at his house. J'y allais was La Fontaines answer. He had already undergone the process of conversion during a severe illness the year before. An energetic young priest, M. Poucet, had brought him, not indeed to understand, but to acknowledge the impropriety of the Contes, and it is said that the destruction of a new play of some merit was demanded and submitted to as a proof of repentance.
A pleasant story is told of the young duke of Burgundy, Fenelon's pupil, who was then only eleven years old, sending 50 louis to La Fontaine as a present of his own motion. But, though La Fontaine recovered for the time, he was broken by age and infirmity, and his new hosts had to nurse rather than to entertain him, which they did very carefully and kindly. He did a little more work, completing his Fables among other things; but he did not survive Madame de la Sablière much more than two years, dying on 13 April, 1695, at the age of seventy-three. When the Père Lachaise Cemetery opened in Paris, Lafontaine's remains were moved there. His wife survived him nearly fifteen years.
The curious personal character of La Fontaine, like that of some other men of letters, has been enshrined in a kind of legend by literary tradition. At an early age his absence of mind and indifference to business gave a subject to Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux. His later contemporaries helped to swell the tale, and the 18th century finally accepted it, including the anecdotes of his meeting his son, being told who he was, and remarking, Ah, yes, I thought I had seen him somewhere!, of his insisting on fighting a duel with a supposed admirer of his wife, and then imploring him to visit at his house just as before; of his going into company with his stockings wrong side out, &c., with, for a contrast, those of his awkwardness and silence, if not positive rudeness in company.
It ought to be remembered, as a comment on the unfavourable description by Jean de La Bruyère, that La Fontaine was a special friend and ally of Benserade, La Bruyere's chief literary enemy. But after all deductions much will remain, especially when it is remembered that one of the chief authorities for these anecdotes is Louis Racine, a man who possessed intelligence and moral worth, and who received them from his father, La Fontaine's attached friend for more than thirty years. Perhaps the best worth recording of all these stories is one of the Vieux Colombier quartette, which tells how Moliere, while Racine and Boileau were exercising their wits upon le bonhomme or le bon (by both which titles La Fontaine was familiarly known), remarked to a bystander, Nos beaux esprits ont beau faire, ils n'effaceront pas le bonhomme. They have not.
La Fontaine's works
The works of La Fontaine, the total bulk of which is considerable, fall no less naturally than traditionally into three divisions, the Fables, the Contes and the miscellaneous works. Of these the first may be said to be known universally, the second to be known to all lovers of French literature, the third to be with a few exceptions practically forgotten.
18th-century illustration to La Fontaine's fable The Sculptor and the Statue of Jupiter
The Fables exhibit the versatility and fecundity of the author's talent perhaps more fully than any of his other work. La Fontaine had many predecessors in the fable, especially in the beast fable. The poet took inspiration from Aesop, Horace, and ancient Indian literature, such as the Panchatantra:
- "This is the second book of fables that I present to the public... I must acknowledge that the greatest part is inspired by Pilpay, the Indian sage." ("Je dirai par reconnaissance que j’en dois la plus grande partie à Pilpay sage indien.") — Jean de La Fontaine, Avertissement to the Second Compilation of Fables (1678).
The first collection of 124 Fables Choisies had appeared March 31, 1668, wisely dedicated to "Monseigneur" Louis, the Grand Dauphin, the six-year-old son of Louis XIV of France and his Queen consort Maria Theresa of Spain. In this first issue, comprising what are now called the first six books, La Fontaine adhered to the path of his predecessors with some closeness; but in the later collections he allowed himself far more liberty, and it is in these parts that his genius is most fully manifested.
The boldness of the politics is as much to be considered as the ingenuity of the moralizing, as the intimate knowledge of human nature displayed in the substance of the narratives, or as the artistic mastery shown in their form. It has sometimes been objected that the view of human character which La Fontaine expresses is unduly dark, and resembles too much that of La Rochefoucauld, for whom the poet certainly had a profound admiration. It may only be said that satire (and La Fontaine is eminently a satirist) necessarily concerns itself with the darker rather than with the lighter shades.
Perhaps the best criticism ever passed upon La Fontaine's Fables is that of Silvestre de Sacy, to the effect that they supply three several delights to three several ages: the child rejoices in the freshness and vividness of the story, the eager student of literature in the consummate art with which it is told, the experienced man of the world in the subtle reflections on character and life which it conveys. Nor has any one, with the exception of a few paradoxers like Rousseau and a few sentimentalists like Lamartine, denied that the moral tone of the whole is as fresh and healthy as its literary interest is vivid. The book has therefore naturally become a standard French reader both at home and abroad. It is no small testimony to its merit that not even this use (or misuse) has interfered with its popularity.
La Fontaine's Fables provided a model for subsequent fabulists, including Poland's Ignacy Krasicki and Russia's Ivan Krylov.
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- Poet and the King: Jean De La Fontaine and His Century by Marc Fumaroli, Jean Marie Todd (Transl.) Pub. U. of Notre Dame; ISBN 0-268-03877-5; (May 2002)
- Fifty Fables of La Fontaine by Jean De La Fontaine, Pub. U. of Ill.; ISBN 0-252-06649-9; (September 1997)
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