1902 Encyclopedia > Jean de la Fontaine

Jean de la Fontaine
French fabulist and poet

JEAN DE LA FONTAINE (1621-1695), one of the most popular and original of French poets, was born at Château Thierry in Champagne, probably on the 8th of July 1621, and died at Paris on the 13th of April 1695. His father was Charles de La Fontaine, " maître des eaux et forêts"—a kind of deputy-ranger—of the duchy of Château Thierry ; his mother was Françoise Pidoux. On both sides his family was of the highest provincial middle class, but was not noble ; his father was also fairly wealthy. Jean, who was the eldest child of his parents, was educated at the college (grammar-school) of his native town, and at the end of his school days he had, singularly enough, an idea of taking orders, He entered the Oratory in May 1641, and the seminary of St 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 favour, and arranged a marriage for him with Marie Hericart, a young girl of sixteen, who brought him twenty thousand livres, and expectations. She seems to have been both handsome 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 on the other hand was con-stantly 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 Reparation de biens had to take place in 1658. This was for the beneSt of the family, and was a perfectly amicable transaction; 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 himself 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.

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, and he continued to hold it till 1672. It was not till he was past thirty that his literary career began, for he was by no means a precocious writer. 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, &c. 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 superintendant Fouquet, to whom La Fontaine was introduced by Jacques Jannart, a connexion of his wife's. Few people who had paid their court to Fouquet went away empty-handed, and La Fontaine soon received a pension of 1000 livres (1659), in repayment possibly of the poem of Adonis which in 1658 he had, in manuscript, dedicated to the financier. 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, as has been said, that his wife's property had to be separately secured to her, and he seems by degrees to have had to sell every-thing of his own ; but, as he never lacked powerful and generous patrons, this was of small importance to him, especially as he had no establishment to maintain. In the same year he wrote a ballet, Les Rieurs du Beau-Richard, and this was followed by many small pieces of occasional poetry addressed to various personages great and small, 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 which he took 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 by the king, an informer procured a sentence against the poet fining him 2000 livres, which from what is known of the state of his private affairs it was probably impossible for him to pay. 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, 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, let it be remembered, forty-three years old, and his previous printed productions had been comparatively trivial, though, as was the habit of the time, much of his work was handed about in manuscript long before it was regularly published. It was about this time that the quartette of the Kue du Yieux Colombier, so famous in French literary history, was formed. It consisted of La Fontaine, Racine, Boileau, and Molière, the last of whom was almost of the same age as La Fontaine, the other two considerably younger. Chapelle was also a kind of outsider in the coterie. There are many anecdotes, some of which are pretty obviously apocryphal, about these meetings. The most characteristic of these 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. Mean-while 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 ; he was free to amuse himself or to work as he liked, and as a matter of fact he worked steadily at his two different lines of poetry. Besides these he ventured on a third, in which he met and indeed deserved much less success,-—that of theatrical composition.

The next event of importance in La Fontaine's life, apart from the publication of his works, did not occur till after nearly ten years. In 1682 he was a man of more than sixty years old, 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 Academy, 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. He was first proposed in 1682, but was rejected for Dangeau. The next year Colbert died and La Fontaine was again nominated. Boileau was also a candi-date, 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 rece-voir La Fontaine, il a promis d'être sage." His admission was indirectly the cause of the only serious literary quarrel of his life. A disputej into the particulars of which there is no need to enter here, took place between the Academy and one of its members, Furetière, on the subject of the latter's French dictionary, which was decided to be a breach of the Academy's corporate privileges. Furetière, a man of no small ability, bitterly assailed those whom he considered to be his enemies, and among them La Fontaine, whose fault probably was not so much that he was a principal offender as that the unlucky Contes made him peculiarly vulnerable. His second collection of these tales had been actually the subject of a police condemnation, of which, as may be supposed, Furetière did not fail to make the most. 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-moclern squabble in which Boileau and Perrault were the chiefs, and in which La Fontaine (though he had been specially singled out by Perrault for favourable com-parison with iEsop and Phœdrus) took the ancient side. About the same time (1685-87) 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 Vendôme, 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 sorrow, and begged him to make his home at his house. " J' y allais " was La Fontaine's answer. He had already undergone the process of conversion during a severe illness which befell him 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, Fénelon'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 quite 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 the 13th of April 1695, at the age of seventy-three. He was buried in the cemetery of the Holy Innocents. His wife survived him nearly fifteen years, and his posterity lasted until the present century.
The curious personal character of La Fontaine, like that of some other men of letters, has been enshrined in a kind of myth or legend by literary tradition. At an early age his absence of mind and indifference to business gave a subject to Tallemant des Beaux, the most indefatigable and least scrupulous (at best the least critical) of gossips. His later contemporaries helped to swell the tale, and the 18th century finally accepted it. We have neither space nor desire to recount 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. It may be taken for granted that much of this is apocryphal, and the companion anecdotes of his awkwardness and silence, if not positive rudeness, in company are still more doubtful. It ought to be remembered, as a comment on the unfavourable description which La Bruyère gives or is supposed to give of his social abilities, that La Fontaine was a special friend and ally of Benserade, La Bruyère's chief literary enemy, who long prevented the author of the Caractères from entering the Academy. But after all deductions much will remain, especially when it is remem-bered that one of the chief authorities for such 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 Molière, while Racine and Boileau were exercising their wits upon "le bonhomme" or "le bon" (by both which titles La Fontaine was familarly known), remarked to a bystander " nos beaux esprits ont beau faire, ils n'effaceront pas le bonhomme." They have not effaced him and will not do so, and the half contemptuous term " nos beaux esprits" marks well enough the sound judgment of the greatest of the four as to the merits of his companions.
The works of La Fontaine, the total bulk of which is consider-able, 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. This distribution of the judgment of pos-terity is as usual just in the main, but not wholly. There are excellent things in the Œuvres Diverses, but their excellence is only occasional, and it is not at the best equal to that of the Fables or the Contes. It was thought by contemporary judges who were both competent and friendly that La Fontaine attempted too many styles, and there is something in the criticism. His dramatic efforts are especially weak, and indeed it is evident that his forte lay neither in the dramatic delineation of character nor in the arrangement of dramatic action. The best pieces usually published under his name—Sagotin, Le Florentin, La Coupe Enchantée, were not originally fathered by him but by Champmeslé, the husband of the famous actress who captivated Racine and Charles de Sévigné. His avowed work was chiefly in the form of opera, a form of no great value at its best. Psyche has all the advantages of its charm-ing story and of La Fontaine's style, but it is perhaps principally interesting nowadays because of the framework of personal conver-sation already alluded to. The mingled prose and verse of the Songe de Vaux is not uninteresting, but its best things, such as the description of night—

" Laissant tomber les fleurs et ne les semant pas,"

which has enchanted French critics, are little more than conceits, though as in this case sometimes very beautiful conceits. The elegies, the epistles, the epigrams, the ballades, contain many things which would be very creditable to a minor poet or a writer of vers de société, but even if they be taken according to the wise rule of modern criticism, each in its kind, and judged simply according to their rank in that kind, they fall far below the merits of the two great collections of verse narratives which have assured La Fontaine's immortality.

Between the actual literary merits of the two there is not much to choose, but the change of manners and the altered standard of literary decency has thrown the Contes into the shade. These tales are identical in general character with those which amused Europe from the days of the early fabliau writers through the period of the great Italian novellieri to that of the second great group of French tale-tellers ranging from Antoine de la Salle to Beroalde de Verville. Light love, the misfortunes of husbands, the cunning of wives, the breach of their vows by ecclesiastics, constitute the staple of their subject. In some respects La Fontaine is the best of such tale-tellers, while he is certainly the latest who deserves such excuse as may be claimed by a writer who does not choose indecent subjects from a deliberate knowledge that they are considered indecent and with a deliberate desire to pander to a vicious taste. No one who followed him in the style can claim this excuse ; he can, and the way in which contemporaries of stainless virtue such as Madame de Sevigne speak of his work shows that though the new public opinion was growing up it was not finally accepted. In the Contes La Fontaine for the most part attempts little originality of theme. He takes his stories (varying them it is true in detail not a little) from Boccaccio, from Marguerite, from the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, &c. He applies to them his marvellous power of easy sparkling narration, and his hardly less marvellous faculty of saying more or less outrageous things in the most polite and gentlemanly manner. These Contes have indeed certain drawbacks. They are not penetrated by the half pagan ardour for physical beauty and the delights of sense which animates and excuses the early Italian Renaissance. They have not the subtle mixture of passion and sensuality, of poetry and appetite, which distinguishes the work of Marguerite and of the Pleiade. They are emphatically contes pour rire, a genuine expression of the esprit gaulois of the fabliau writers and of Rabelais, destitute of the grossness of envelope which had formerly covered that spirit. A comparison of "La Fiancee du Roi de Garbe " with its original in Boccaccio (especially if the reader takes M. Emile Montegut's admirable essay as a commentary) will illustrate better than anything else what they have and what they have not. Some writers have pleaded hard for the admission of actual passion of the poetical sort in such pieces as " La Courtisane Amonreuse," but as a whole it must be admitted to be absent.

The Fables, with hardly less animation and narrative art than the Contes, are free from disadvantages (according to modern notions) of subject, and exhibit the versatility and fecundity of the author's talent perhaps even more fully. La Fontaine had of course many predecessors in the fable and especially in the beast fable. In his first issue, comprising what are now called the first six books, he adhered to the path of these 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 dis-played 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 had certainly a profound admiration. The discussion of this point would lead us too far here. It may only be said that satire (and La Fontaine is eminently a satirist) necessarily concerns itself with the dark rather more than with the lighter shades. Indeed the objection has become pretty nearly obsolete with the obsolescence of what may be called the sentimental-ethical school of criticism. Its last overt expression was made some thirty years ago, in a curious outburst of Lamartine's, excellently answered by Sainte-Beuve. Exception has also been taken to the Fables on more purely literary grounds by Lessing, but, as this exception depends on differences inevitable between those who would shape all literature on rules derived from the study of Greek models and those who with the highest respect for those models rank them only among and not above others, it is equally needless to enter into it. Perhaps the best criticism ever passed upon La Fon-taine's Fables is that of Silvestre de Sacy, to the effect that they supply three several delights to three several ages : the child re-joices in the freshness and vividness of the story, the eager student of literature in the consummate art with which it is told, the ex-perienced man of the world in the subtle reflexions on character and life which it conveys. Nor has any one, with the exception of a few paradoxers like Eousseau 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 the standard reading book of French both at home and abroad, a position which it shares in verse with the Telemaque of Fenelon in prose. It is no small testimony to its merit that not even this use or misuse has interfered with its popularity among French men of letters, who, with hardly an exception, speak as affectionately of it as if they had never been kept in on a summer's day to learn La Cigale et la Fourmi.

The general literary character of La Fontaine is, with allowance made for the difference of subject, visible equally in the Fables and in the Contes, and it is necessary to say a few words as to the nature of this character. Perhaps one of the hardest sayings in French literature for an English student is the dictum of Joubert to the effect that " Il y a dans La Fontaine une plénitude de poésie qu'on ne trouve nulle part dans les autres auteurs Français." Most English critics would probably admit at once La Fontaine's claim to a position in the first class of writers, but would demur to his admission to the first class of poets. The difference arises from the ambiguity of the terms. In Joubert's time, and perhaps a good deal later, inventiveness of fancy and diligent observation of the rules of art were held to complete the poetical differentia, and in both these La Fontaine deserves if not the first almost the first place among French poets. As to the first point there is hardly any dispute ; few-writers either in French or any other language have ever equalled him in this respect. In his hands the oldest story becomes novel, the most hackneyed moral piquant, the most commonplace details fresh and appropriate. As to the second point there has not been such unanimous agreement. It used to be considered that La Fon-taine's ceaseless diversity of metre, his archaisms, his licences in rhyme and orthography, were merely ingenious devices for the sake of easy writing, intended to evade the trammels of the stately coup-let and rimes difficiles enjoined by Boileau. Lamartine in the attack already mentioned affects contempt of the " vers boiteux, disloqués, inégaux, sans symmétrie ni dans l'oreille ni sur la page." This opinion may be said to have been finally exploded by the most accurate metrical critic and one of the most skilful metri-cal practitioners that France has ever had, M. Théodore de Banville; and it is only surprising that it should ever have been entertained by any professional maker of verse. There can be little doubt that La Fontaine saw the drawbacks of the "Alexandrine prison," as it has been called, but in freeing himself from it he by no means took refuge in merely pedestrian verse. His irregularities are strictly regulated, his cadences carefully arranged, and the whole effect may be said to be (though of course in a light and tripping measure in-stead of a stately one) similar to that of the stanzas of the English pindaric ode in the hands of Dryden or Collins. There is there-fore nothing against La Fontaine on the score of invention and nothing on the score of art. But something more, at least according to English standards, is wanted to make up a "plenitude of poesy," and this something more La Fontaine seldom or nevei exhibits. In words used by Joubert himself elsewhere, he nevei "transports." The faculty of transporting is of course possessed and used in very different manners by different poets. In some it takes the form of passion, in some of half mystical enthusiasm for nature, in some of commanding eloquence, in some of moral fervour. La Fontaine has none of these things : he is always amusing, always sensible, always clever, sometimes even affecting, but at the same time always more or less prosaic, were it not for his admirable ver-sification. The few passages which may be cited to the contrary are doubtfully admissible, and cannot in any ease suffice to leaven so great a mass of other work. It is needless to say that this is no dis-credit to him. A man can but be the very best in his own special line, and that very best La Fontaine assuredly is. He is not a great poet, and a deficiency very similar to that which deprives him of this name deprives him of the name of a great humorist ; but he is the most admirable teller of light tales in verse that has ever existed in any time or country ; and he has established in his verse-tale a model which is never likely to be surpassed, and which has enriched literature with much delightful work.

La Fontaine did not during his life issue any complete edition of his works, nor even of the two greatest and most important divisions of them. The most remarkable of his separate publications have already been noticed. Others were the Poëme de la Captivité de St Male (1673), one of the pieces inspired by the Port-Royalists, the Poëme du Quinquina (1602), a piece of task work also, though of a very different kind, and a number of pieces published either in small pamphlets or with the works of other men. Among the latter may be singled out the pieces published by the poet with the works of his friend Maucroix (1685). The year after his death some post-humous works appeared, and some years after his son's death the scattered poems, letters, &c., with the addition of some unpublished work bought from the family in manuscript, were carefully edited and published as Œuvres Diverses (1729). During the 18th cen-tury two of the most magnificent illustrated editions ever published of any poet reproduced the two chief works of La Fontaine. The Fables were illustrated by Oudry (1755-59),^ the Contes by Eisen (1762). This latter under the title of "Édition des Fermiers-Généraux " fetches a high price. During the first thirty years of the present century Walckenaer, a great student of French 17th century classics, published for the house of Didot three successive editions of La Fontaine, the last (1826-27) being perhaps entitled to the rank of the standard edition. More recently the editions of M. Marty-Laveaux in the Bibliothèque Elzévirenne, A. Pauly in the Collection des Classiques Françaises of M. Lemerre, and L. Moland in that of M. Gamier supply in different forms all that can lie wished. The second is the handsomest, the third, which is complete, perhaps the most generally useful. Editions, selections, translations, &c, of the Fables, especially for school use, are innumerable ; but an illustrated edition published by the Librairie des Bibliophiles (1874) deserves to be mentioned as not unworthy of its 18th century predecessors. (G. SA.)

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